“A treasure . . . using both a close personal focus and a broader historical scope, Grossman has written a war epic that rightly deserves to be a classic.”
Vasily Grossman was a Soviet reporter during WWII and is known for such classics as The Hell of Treblinka, and Life and Fate, a sequel to Stalingrad. Grossman writes in the tradition of Tolstoy's War and Peace, telling an epic, complicated story though interlacing narratives of Russians and Germans, tracing the effect of war on both military and civilian lives.
The novel opens with Hitler and Mussolini meeting in Salzburg in April 1942 to discuss the coming offensive on Russia. There is a sense of inevitability. Of course Russia will be conquered, like France, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, countries easily occupied by the invincible Nazis.
It's a testimony to Grossman's skill as a writer—and to the dramas of the battle itself—that the reader feels sure that Russia will lose, given the events on the ground, even though history tells us otherwise. Instead of Germany crushing Russia, Stalingrad was a turning point in the war, leading to the Soviet occupation of Berlin.
Stalingrad has been published before, but this translation includes never-before-published language found in Grossman's archives, sections cut out by Soviet editors who often acted as censors. That is reason alone to read this edition.
Another is the thoughtful introduction that provides a wealth of information about Grossman and his role as a writer. In 1944 Robert Chandler states, “At one point, Grossman imagines himself in the commander's shoes, bearing such a weight of responsibilities. 'Just then, as if reading my mind, the commander—who seemed to have forgotten I was there—suddenly turned to me and smiled. Still smiling, he said with a certain schadenfreude, 'Well, I may be sweating now, but after the war it will be the writers' turn to sweat as they try to describe all this.'”
Grossman definitely works hard to describe war from the most trivial detail to the grandest scale. The one thing he carefully skirts is mentioning atrocities against the Jews. His collection of eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust on Soviet and Polish territory, The Black Book, had been censored, the Soviets unwilling to acknowledge Jewish suffering since anti-Semitism was official Stalinist doctrine.
A Jew himself, Grossman tells of his mother being shot at Berdichev, and her story is the one he alludes to in a letter that weaves its way through the story. Early in the book, we meet Anna Semyonovna, the writer of the letter. We see the letter being written, handed off from person to person until hundreds of pages later, her son, Viktor, gets the letter. The contents aren't revealed, only that: “Viktor reread the letter again and again. Each time he felt the same shock as at the dacha, as if he were reading it for the first time. Perhaps his memory was instinctively resisting, unwilling and unable fully to take in something whose constant presence would make life unbearable.” The letter reads like a reference to Grossman's own mother's death, a blow he felt deeply and gives to Viktor, one of his main characters.
As the Germans launch a surprise attack, Soviet pilots are sent to respond. Describing this through the eyes of one soldier, Novikov, Grossman writes, “Soon after this came a moment that lodged itself in Novikov's memory with a particular sharpness and precision. As he hurried after the pilots dashing towards the airstrip, he stopped in the middle of the garden where only a few hours earlier he had gone for a stroll. There was a silence, during which it seemed that everything was unchanged: the earth, the grass, the benches, the wicker table under the trees, a card chessboard, dominoes still scattered about. In that silence, with a wall of foliage shielding him from the flames and smoke, Novikov felt a lacerating sense of historical change that was almost more than he could bear.”
The details of one man's perceptions, one garden, down to the dominoes on the wicker table, are vividly described. We read of a range of experiences, from an old farmer's to Lena Gnatyuk, a woman soldier, who in one marvelous scene is given a care package from “the women in America to our girls fighting on the Volga.” The parcel holds stockings, an elegant blouse, lacy underwear, and a white dress. “Lena looked at the two commanders [who had given her the package]. There was a moment of silence around the station, as if to prevent anything from disturbing the grace and delicacy of her expression. Her look said a great deal: not only that she knew she would never now become a mother but also that she took a certain pride in her harsh fate . . . 'What use is all this?' she said. 'I don't want it.'”
There is equally rich writing from a broader point of view: “But the millstones of history were already at work. Everything of Hitler's would be ground to dust: his ideas, his armies, his Reich, his party, his science and his pitiful arts, his field marshals and gauleiters, he himself and the future of Germany. None of Hitler's failures proved more catastrophic than his success. None brought more suffering to mankind.”
The book ends abruptly, trusting the reader to know history, to know that the Germans were turned back and defeated. The victory is promised: “An awesome and joyful hour for mankind was approaching.” But rather than giving us the triumph of a Soviet march into Berlin, Grossman keeps the focus squarely on Stalingrad, the ground that became the symbol of unyielding Russian strength.
Using both a close personal focus and a broader historical scope, Grossman has written a war epic that rightly deserves to be a classic. This new translation will be treasured by anyone with a historical or literary interest in war and how it's portrayed.