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The Best Vasily Grossman Books

recommended by Maxim D Shrayer

The Soviet writer bore witness to the horrors of Russia's World War Two and the Shoah — and deserves a place in literary history, says scholar Maxim D Shrayer. He recommends the best books by and about Vasily Grossman.

Interview by Alec Ash

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To begin with, why does the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman deserve our attention?

Over the past decade, Vasily Grossman has become a household name in translation, both in Anglophone countries and in continental Europe. Life and Fate has been especially successful. I would venture to say he’s now one of the five or six best known writers to have emerged from Russia and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. Nabokov probably still tops the list, because he is bilingual and a major American author, Isaac Babel is on this list, and Pasternak, Akhmatova and Mandelstam are the well-known poets. But Grossman is up there too, and deservedly so.

Above all, in my view, Grossman’s reputation rests on the time when he developed his original voice, the time of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and of the Shoah [Holocaust]—both the Shoah by bullet in the occupied Soviet territories and the industrialised murder of Jews in the camps in Poland. This was the time when Grossman gained not only his voice but also his sense of the multiple mission. And out of his experience of the war and the Shoah came a transformation of his political and philosophical beliefs, from someone who had overall believed in and been engaged with the Soviet system – although not without some reservations – to, already in the 1950s, someone who critiqued this system with tremendous depth and profundity.

What do you mean by his “multiple mission”?

His mission as a Soviet, his mission as a journalist-writer, his mission as a Jew during World War Two and the Shoah, and finally his mission as someone bent on telling the truth in his reportage. He was at the war front for a thousand days. He covered the initial terrible period of the war and invasion, he covered Stalingrad, the liberation of the occupied territories and the concentration camps – and throughout those experiences as a journalist he always made it his mission to represent the experience of the soldier, the common person, at the expense of glorifying the leaders. That, of course, didn’t earn him much love from the Stalinist establishment – and, subsequently, from Khrushchev’s regime, either.

What insights do we glean about his life and fate from your first book selection?

This is the first and to date only such monumental biography of Grossman. John and Carol Garrard remain the best informed and most dedicated students of his life and work. It’s to them that both the academic field and the general readership owe much of what we know about Grossman in the West. The book was recently reissued, and the original title was The Bones of Berdichev. Berdichev was Grossman’s hometown in Ukraine, and the place where his mother was murdered along with about 20,000 other Jews in September 1941. If one were to suggest a single biography that you can read sweepingly in one sitting – it’s un-put-downable in many ways – this would be it.

Can you briefly talk us through how Grossman got from Berdichev to becoming an established writer?

Absolutely. Known as the “Jerusalem of Volhynia,” Berdichev was a major centre of Jewish learning and publishing, and Grossman grew up there in a family of Jewish-Russian intelligentsia. His father was a chemical engineer, his mother a teacher of French. At home he was not exposed either to Yiddish or to Judaic traditions in a systematic way. By the standards of that time and place, he came from the crème de la crème of the acculturated Jewish-Russian intelligentsia.

Grossman was born in 1905, so he came of age at the time of the Russian revolutions and the Civil War. A revolutionary-minded youth, Grossman eventually ended up studying at Moscow University, graduating in chemistry. This is a fairly standard path, which, incidentally, happened to all four of my grandparents – young Jewish people coming out of the former Pale of Settlement, flocking to large cities after the revolution and especially going into engineering or the sciences. He first began as a writer of fiction, debuting in the 1930s with short stories and then with novels which are quite formulaic – one about miners, one about a working class lad’s path to Bolshevism. What is, perhaps, unique about his early work is you already see the imperative to represent the Jewish condition, and to show Jewish life.

Then soon after the Nazi invasion in 1941 Grossman volunteered and become a military reporter for the main newspaper of the Red Army, Red Star or Krasnaya Zvezda. He was dispatched to cover the disastrous early months of the war, contributed journalistic pieces and also wrote his first novel, The People Are Immortal, which still reads breathlessly – although very Soviet in many ways, it describes the break of a Red Army unit out of enemy encirclement. Grossman’s first moment of great fame and national acclaim is Stalingrad. He covers Stalingrad from the autumn of 1942 up to the final stages of the battle, when he is reassigned, and publishes 13 essays, “The Direction of Main Strike” among them, which become nationally famous, printed and reprinted.

It’s during the war that The Black Book chronicling the mass murders of Jews that were going on but not fully known about, was composed.

By 1943 Grossman was already one of the best known writer-journalists in the Soviet Union, alongside Ilya Ehrenburg, the principal architect of popular resistance to the Nazis. In the summer of 1943, the Soviet troops began a liberation of previously occupied Soviet territories along a broad swathe of land, particularly in Ukraine. It’s also the area where much of the Shoah by bullet had been conducted, and it was soaked in blood. This was when Grossman began to feel that his imperative was not just to cover the war, but also to cover the Shoah.

He wrote a short story called “The Old Teacher,” a fictional account of the murder of the entire Jewish population of a small town in Ukraine or Southern Russia. It was published in 1943. What is amazing is that he wrote it before personally witnessing the aftermath of the Shoah. In 1944 he joined Ilya Ehrenburg as the second editor of The Black Book, a project which was put together under the aegis of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The full title is The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout Temporary Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland During the War of 1941-1945. When Ehrenburg resigned in April 1944, Grossman remained as the editor and he also contributed original materials, but by 1947 the book had been derailed and it was never published in the Soviet Union.

Your third book is a collection of his stories, journalism and essays, The Road.

The Road is a very useful retrospective of Grossman’s shorter work, both fiction and non-fiction, which Robert Chandler – now the principal English-language interpreter of Grossman, and a gifted translator – put together with his colleagues. It attempts to create an arc going back to the beginnings of Grossman’s career as a writer, when he was still trying to gain his literary voice, all the way to his late short stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s very interesting if one wants to get a sense of his gradual transformation from a gifted yet formulaic Soviet writer of the 1930s to an original author, witness and political philosopher.

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The collection is organised both chronologically and thematically, and the central part includes the 1943 story I mentioned, “The Old Teacher.” It also contains “The Hell of Treblinka,” his literary treatment of the legacy of the Treblinka death camp, originally published in 1944 – which was arguably the first published prose literary treatment of a concentration camp based on eyewitness accounts and whatever information Grossman could have gathered by himself. That essay is in some ways the cornerstone of his work, and one I have the highest regard for.

“The Hell of Treblinka” was even used as evidence against Nazi war crimes.

Yes. It was produced as a brochure and distributed at the 1946 Nuremberg tribunal as part of the evidence presented by the Soviet side. I find this poignant because it was both a  documentary work and a highly sophisticated literary work, which attests to the early significance of literary witnessing in disseminating the knowledge about the Shoah.

Tell us why we must read Life and Fate.

Life and Fate is a novel that simultaneously attempts a panoramic presentation of the war and the Shoah. Its two main currents are Stalingrad and the Shoah, and against that double backdrop Grossman situates the dilemmas and anxieties of a talented Jewish physicist working on the Soviet nuclear programme. It is “panoramic” both in the best sense, and in the kind of sense that I think some readers get tired of. Think of boys and girls who read War and Peace, some girls skipping the war, some boys skipping the peace scenes – or of Henry James’s comment about [19th century novels as] “loose and baggy monsters.” But it’s the first novel to come out of the 1940s and ‘50s that attempts a comparative indictment of Hitlerism and Stalinism, the two varieties of totalitarianism that Grossman knew too well.

How does it hold up on its literary merits?

I think some of Grossman’s more passionate advocates might do him disservice by miscontextualising his significance as an artist. When he’s called “the Tolstoy of the USSR” – Martin Amis’s expression – I think it confuses both obvious matters of Russian cultural history, and obvious matters of the history of the novel. I think Grossman should be appreciated on his own terms and with some of his longer works’ structural shortcomings. And there are parts of Life and Fate that lack what great novels like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary naturally gain their momentum from – a tension of desire. But Life and Fate and subsequently Forever Flowing are the whales on which Grossman’s literary reputation rests.

Let’s talk about Forever Flowing, written in 1961.

Forever Flowing, one of his late works and one of my favourites, is a short novel of which we have two English translations, Whitney’s and Chandler’s – both very different in their flavour and in what they emphasize. It’s the story of a Gulag victim’s return into the mainstream, and his realisation of being utterly out of place. He has moved so far along in his intellectual and ethical development that trying to adjust to Soviet life during the [post-Stalin] Thaw is of no interest to him.

One of the narratives in Forever Flowing – the section dealing with the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s, during the collectivisation of agriculture – is just incredible in how Grossman was able to get inside the head of the characters. That story is just bloodstopping in its power. I wish I could think of a non-Jewish writer who would write of the Jews with such power and great empathy as Grossman, a Jew, wrote about the non-Jews, Ukrainians in this case.

Before we close, what can we say of Grossman’s own experience of falling out with Soviet Russia after the war?

It’s a story that is really without any parallel. Grossman, having concluded Life and Fate, was hoping to have it published in the Soviet Union, rather than attempting to send it abroad clandestinely, as dissident writers would do in the decades to come. But the KGB seized most of the manuscripts, and Grossman was told by Mikhail Suslov – the party’s Central Committee’s secretary for ideology – that his novel would never be published, that it was more anti-Soviet than Doctor Zhivago. Of course, Suslov was correct in a morbidly ironic way. How Grossman ever thought this book would be published in the Soviet Union is to me a paradox which attests either to his naivety or to his saintliness – or both.

Grossman’s latter years were disastrous. He had a hard time making a living. He told a writer friend that “they” had “strangled him in the back-alley.” “They” refers to the Soviet establishment but also the Soviet literary brethren who betrayed him – to the whole system. He died of cancer in 1964, surrounded by a tiny circle of dedicated family and friends. So it’s a very sad story, which has a happy afterlife. Grossman has survived very well in translation – as opposed to such Jewish bicultural literary geniuses as Isaac Babel, who are generally very hard to translate into English, just as Bernard Malamud would be hard to translate into Russian.

What is the enduring legacy of Grossman today?

I think his enduring legacy is of a once passionate advocate of the Soviet system who began with the belief that all people are beholden to the revolution, and who was then transformed by the war and the Shoah into a writer of Promethean vision with a mission to bear witness to what he was seeing – and a political philosopher to rival the other political philosophers of his time. I think that’s a powerful legacy.

Maxim D. Shrayer’s answers copyright 2013 © by Maxim D Shrayer

Interview by Alec Ash

September 11, 2013

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Maxim D Shrayer

Maxim D Shrayer

The bilingual author and scholar Maxim D Shrayer was born in Moscow in 1967, to a Jewish-Russian family, and immigrated to the United States in 1987. Shrayer is Professor of Russian, English and Jewish Studies at Boston College, where he co-founded the Jewish Studies Program. He has authored and edited over ten books of criticism, biography, non-fiction, fiction, poetry and translation. Shrayer has edited and co-translated three volumes of fiction by his father, David Shrayer-Petrov. In 2007 he received the National Jewish Book Award for An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature and the Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on Jewish poets and the Shoah.

Maxim D Shrayer

Maxim D Shrayer

The bilingual author and scholar Maxim D Shrayer was born in Moscow in 1967, to a Jewish-Russian family, and immigrated to the United States in 1987. Shrayer is Professor of Russian, English and Jewish Studies at Boston College, where he co-founded the Jewish Studies Program. He has authored and edited over ten books of criticism, biography, non-fiction, fiction, poetry and translation. Shrayer has edited and co-translated three volumes of fiction by his father, David Shrayer-Petrov. In 2007 he received the National Jewish Book Award for An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature and the Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on Jewish poets and the Shoah.