Monday, January 04, 2010
Vasily Grossman - A Writer At War, with the Red Army 1941 - 1945
(Edited and Translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova).
Since reading Life and Fate, I've been waxing lyrical about it to anyone who will listen. So it was a great pleasure to be given this book which gives a much deeper back ground and understanding to the experiences that led Grossman to write Life and Fate.
The invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans in 1941 was a great shock to many. Vasily Grossman immediately tried to join the Red Army, but was deemed unfit for service. Given the life expectancy on the Eastern Front, this was lucky for us, as Grossman instead became a special correspondent for one of the leading Soviet newspapers. His experiences with the Red Army were documented in short notes, and these extensive notes form the basis for this book. Time and again I read little notes that reminded me of bits in Life and Fate (and, the editors tell us, often make it into other Grossman novels).
Grossman found himself at some of the crucial moments of military history. He retreated in the face of the seemingly unstoppable German armies as they threatened Moscow. He was in Stalingrad even before many realised how significant the battle was likely to be, and he followed the Russian armies towards Berlin, via the appalling horrors of Treblinka. At the end of the war, after documenting atrocities against the Jews, he found himself in Hitler's bunker, and helped himself to a few pieces of paper from the dictator's desk.
Having read Life and Fate first you see just how much of Grossman's experiences and interviews make it's way into the novel. In fact, for me, it underlined just what an important book the novel actually is. It's more than simply a work of fiction, it is a historical document in it's own right.
Some of what Grossman noted didn't make it into print. In fact lots of it wasn't intended to be in print. Grossman's desire to record accurately what went on, wouldn't have fitted with Soviet propaganda all the time. Records of desertions, collaborations or retreat didn't sit well with the official portrayal of the Red Army. But even these short quotes show why he became loved by many ordinary soldiers - he could describe the realities of war far better than any one else. His notes are full of soldiers honesty and humour.
"A soldier who had been a prisoner of war during the last war looks at a diving plane: 'Must be my lad bombing,' he says.
But the grim reality of war shines through.
"Pilots say: 'Our life is like a child's shirt - it's short and covered with shit all over.'"
For Grossman, the war meant personal tragedy. His mother never escaped from the German's and as a Jew, was massacred. This means that his documentation of Treblinka must have been even more heart rending for him. Though is account of that concentration camp is accurate and detailed enough to have made it important evidence at trials after the war's end.
Grossman comes across as a brilliant writer, but he was naive till the end. Despite his popularity, his writing couldn't become public. His honesty about ordinary people was too dangerous for the soviet machine. He died, never knowing that his greatest work would ever become public. That is a tragedy, but Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova have done his memory a great service by bringing Vasily Grossman's notes to light.
Grossman - Life and Fate