Vasily Grossman, the Man Who Loved War

The artillery officer from the west is a connoisseur of stolen food: “I’ve made it a rule to eat the national dishes of every country I fight in.” Death had seasoned his dishes in Poland, France, Greece and now Ukraine: “Here they have suckling pigs, geese and turkeys. And some tasty little dumplings they call va-re-ne-ki—a dough made from white flour, filled with cherries or curd cheese and drenched in sour cream.” Food and terror tourism on the plains of Ukraine with greedy letters from loving families: “I received your parcel with silk, eau de cologne and lady’s underwear. Thank you. In one of your next parcels, you should send a warm sweater for your grandfather, a few skeins of wool, some children’s boots, etc., etc.” The adults and children from whom the goods were looted could be discarded to die in the winter. New readers of Vasily Grossman’s 1942 novel The People Immortal may see comparisons with the present invasion of Ukraine from the east.

Russian-born, naturalised English journalist Alexander Werth was in Moscow when Grossman was writing his book and observed how the German invasion of the Soviet Union “produced an emotional reaction of national pride and national injury which was well reflected in the literature and music of 1941 and the early part of 1942”. Grossman, a Soviet Ukrainian Jew, was also a journalist sent to cover the front lines as the German invasion in Ukraine and Belorussia unfolded. He had witnessed and been caught up in the early defeats of the Red Army. The People Immortal, written in just two months, is based on a story he was told of scattered and demoralised Soviet soldiers who had been encircled by the Germans, restoring their pride, reforming their fighting ability and with new determination breaking out through the enemy lines.

When I noticed that a new translation, the first since the 1940s, was to be published in August I pre-ordered a copy. When the Kindle copy arrived on publication day I immediately began reading, and was disappointed. I found it hard going and difficult. This was entirely my fault and not that of Grossman or his passionate translators Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. While waiting I had read his later book Stalingrad—also translated by the Chandlers.

Grossman is magnificent—the creator of the finest nineteenth-century novels written in the twentieth century. Stalingrad, too short at 1088 pages, is deeply impressive and engrossing page-turning story-telling—I was simply still too much in its shadow of memories when reading The People Immortal. Just recently Michel Houellebecq gave a summer lecture in Sicily on “The Need for Fiction”. He explained that when a man suffers, “He needs other lives, different from his own, simply because his own is not enough for him.” Houellebecq recalled victims at the foot of the guillotine during the French Revolution, Catholics who were fearful not of death but of the terror of having their heads removed and who buried themselves in novels, leaving bookmarks where they finished reading: “It can only mean one thing, and that is that when he was reading, the reader was so immersed in his book that he had completely forgotten that he would be beheaded in a few minutes.” If, when they get around to cancelling “No” voters, anyone should find a copy of Stalingrad at the foot of the scaffold with a used Paris Metro ticket between the pages it may be mine. For Grossman’s readers in 1942 the need for fiction was great and he gave them The People Immortal.

Grossman writes in direct and clear prose. He has a fondness for list-making, which he turns into art. The novels are masculine, they deal with history and a grandeur of terrors—war, forced collectivisation, daily fears of living under Stalinism, the Holocaust. The lives of others, met on front lines and in invaded cities, became his fictions—he did not find his people or their suffering on Google.

Grossman is magnificent—have I said that? His masterpiece is Life and Fate—only 896 pages and possibly the best novel of the Second World War, and then there is still Everything Flows to read. Even apart from working out who is who in the great number of characters with complex Slavic names who appear in his pages, choosing what to read (and remembering what you have read) can be confusing because some of the books carry different titles in different English translations—Stalingrad is also For a Just Cause and For the Right Cause, while Everything Flows is Forever Flowing. Perhaps less confusingly, his magnificent reportage “The Hell of Treblinka” is also “The Treblinka Hell”—Grossman was the first journalist to visit the Treblinka death camp and to interview survivors. His long and shattering report was included in testimony at Nuremberg. Others of his wartime writings found in his many notebooks have been edited and translated by the historians Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova in a collection of texts called A Writer at War.

Grossman (1905–64) was not a dissident author. Robert Chandler wrote that “If not at the very summit of the Soviet literary establishment, Grossman was not very far below it.” He also calls the complete lack of any reference to Stalin in The People Immortal “truly astonishing”. For the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick: “Grossman, a quintessentially Soviet (meaning someone formed by operating within the Soviet context) literary figure, did not revolt, and he was not apparently all that despairing, either.” Yet for Western readers it is difficult not to be confused about what he really thought of the society in which he lived. When he describes the beastliness of fascism, surely he is also describing life in the Soviet Union?

How could he forget the violence of the Civil War era and the murder of thousands of Ukrainian Jews or the Stalin-made famine: “The wonderful world of Ukraine was now blood-soaked.” At times his German critical words stir memories of forced collectivisations and the persecution of the Kulaks: “as if the corn belonged to the Germans—not to the collective farm”.

He conjectures on a future day when Germany will be prosecuted and condemned for the crimes committed: “‘No, not death, but eternal hard labour!’ the Poles and Serbs deported as slaves to Germany will call out.” But what of the Poles and Serbs deported by Stalin? And the September 1941 deportation of the Volga Germans? There is also the completely absurd comment, “Never had Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia seen such things. Never had such things happened on Soviet soil.” In Khrushchev’s so-called Secret Speech denouncing Stalin in 1956 he said, “The Ukrainians avoided meeting this fate [deportation] only because there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them. Otherwise, he [Stalin] would have deported them also. (Laughter and animation in the hall.)”

What exactly did free mean when Grossman wrote of citizens and Red Army soldiers “fighting to be able to breathe freely”? Or “The Russian people fighting to win back its freedom”? What freedom?

In this book, in all his books, do the characters’ Slavic names over which I stumble possess colours I can’t see or poetry I can’t hear? Are they Dickensian, suggesting the nature of the characters who bear them? Villages, towns, cities mean nothing to me, yet when described as burnt, violated and bombed by the invaders they must have been powerful wounds for Soviet readers. In Stalingrad a character is on the outskirts of Kiev and finds himself in a ravine called Babi Yar. He asks a peasant woman directions for walking into the city. The street names she gives him are of those streets Jews will later trudge through from their homes to be massacred here—a footnote is necessary for me to realise this.

For his starving Soviet readers in 1942 he offers a vision of life before the country was invaded by its German ally which is traditional (even in a pre-Soviet sense) and warmly nostalgic. There are many, many references to food, and not just that which was stolen by the Germans whose letters home gave “excited accounts of cooking pork, goose and chicken and of how much honey and sour cream they had been eating”. In the first pages Ukrainian children cry out to the Soviet soldiers: “‘For you! Cucumbers, tomatoes, pears!’ And they tossed cucumbers and hard, unripe pears through a half-open window.” A cook at Russian headquarters complains of the continual dive-bombing—“Again and again! How can I shape my dumplings properly?” There are also many torturing references to tobacco in the novel at a time when there was major shortage and even, as Alexander Werth observed in Moscow, “a peculiar form of profiteering had developed … when the owner of a cigarette would charge any willing passers-by two roubles for a puff—and there were plenty of passers-by”.

Grossman in a few words can create a moment that stays in the memory:

An old Jewish woman who looked like a skinny little girl, but with a thick warm shawl around her head and shoulders, asked the soldiers, “Comrades, tell us should we leave or should we stay?”

“Where are you hoping to get to, Granny?” asked Zhaveliov, cheerfully as ever. “You must be about ninety, I can’t see you walking far.”

The soldier is not being cynical. Neither he nor the old woman is aware of the annihilating fascist fury that is overtaking them both. In this short sketch Grossman could have been writing about his own mother, who had stayed in Ukraine and not joined his family in Moscow when there was still time to evade the German advance. Only after Ukraine was liberated did he find out she had been murdered shortly after the Germans arrived.

In The People Immortal the fictional Soviet-front Commander in Chief may be speaking for Grossman himself: “To be honest with you, I love war. It’s not something I have to get used to. Once the war began, I started to feel righter—as my grandfather used to say.” The General had also thrown off his peacetime sicknesses (and possibly fears of being purged) just as the sickly and overweight journalist became healthier, dropped kilos and threw away the stick he used for walking. He was an unlikely frontline journalist and he excelled at the task, with a vast readership of soldiers and citizens.

The central story of fleeing soldiers, surprisingly not machine-gunned for deserting, asserting their self-respect and courageously striking the Germans, is uplifting for its time and the novel’s ending is the propaganda point triumph of two wounded men—a commissar and a soldier: “They were brothers.” After publication a reader’s letter praised the text as “a lasting work of art, a textbook for our commissars”.

After my mis-encounter with The People Immortal I reread “The Treblinka Hell”—a translation which I find online and prefer (and I feel disloyal to Robert Chandler) was made in Moscow and published by the Foreign Languages Press in 1946. Reading this time I am struck by an outbreak of anger: “Incidentally, the Holy Father, who so benignly kept silent while Himmler was committing his atrocities against mankind, would have been able to calculate the number of batches in which the Germans could have put the whole Vatican through Treblinka.”

And also a paragraph I don’t remember reading before which deals with Australian Jews murdered in Treblinka:

Once a train arrived in Treblinka with Canadian, American and Australian citizens who had been stranded in Europe and Poland when the war broke out. After lengthy negotiations involving the payment of huge bribes, they had succeeded in gaining permission to travel to neutral countries.

I wonder if Robert Chandler is correct when, in a footnote to his own translation, he says “there was no such train”. If it is not history it could be the source for a great novel.

2 thoughts on “Vasily Grossman, the Man Who Loved War

  • rosross says:

    Stalingrad is truly brilliant but it is always important to remember that novels which draw on history are not necessarily historically accurate. They are however, often more powerful than history as we know from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sholokov and Remarque.

  • nfw says:

    “Russian-born, naturalised English journalist…” Really? Naturalised English? That would be the same as saying naturalised New South Welshman. Surely British?

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