Category: Vasily Grossman

World Literature Weekend – Yekaterina Grossman

Having been lucky enough to get to the London Review Bookshop World Literature Weekend at the British Museum yesterday I wanted to provide my thoughts and views from the two sessions that I attended.

The first session provided a chance to hear from a living relative to one of Russia’s greatest 20th century authors, Vasily Grossman. I will post thoughts on the second session tomorrow.

His daughter from his first marriage, Yekaterina Korotkova-Grossman, was in London for the first time to talk not just about her father and his work, but also her own memoirs of growing up in a Soviet world during and after the traumatic Second World War.

She was joined by the translator of her father’s work, most recently Everything Flows, Robert Chandler who is also an authority on the work he has spent a great deal of time and energy translating.

Grossman is well known for the masterpiece Life & Fate (my review from a while ago is here) covering the horrors of the Second World War and the events in Stalingrad. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.

Yekaterina recalled the devastation that her father felt when he tried and failed to get Life & Fate published and how years later when she tried to get support from writers and the authorities for publication how most of them did not have the guts or the gumption to support her.

It was eventually published in Russia in 1988 and became a ‘must read’ book with some of the same publishers that had turned it down using the poor excuse of thinking this was a different book from the one they originally read as a way of saying they had not quite understood what they potentially were working with.

There were then questions around his other work with Everything Flows and For a Just Cause both being mentioned as books that have moments that rival Life & Fate.

Chandler said that a great deal of Grossman’s sophistication, particularly with historical writing, had been overlooked and deserved to be recognised.

But the session really belonged to Yekaterina. Speaking occasionally in English but with great fluidity and humour when she returned to her native Russian she painted a picture to the audience, via her translator, of a childhood in a poor world that was also a fickle one.

Waves of antisemitism washed over her father and she told of her experience as a teacher who was attacked by colleagues who accused her father of being a coward for not repenting and admitting he was wrong. She rightly argued it was a cowards way out to tow the party line.

She said that her father might be associated with writing about some of the most horrific events in Russian history but he was essentially an optimist and thought human beings could improve themselves. His optimism she said was higher than those people currently living in Russia.

She has written one volume of her memoirs and is working on another at the moment to cover the years she lived in Tashkent. She has that ability to describe so well a lost world. A world that was full of fear and poverty but one that was incredibly interesting.

As she said of her experience of reading her father’s work for the first time it described , “a poor world but you wanted to live there”.

book of books – Life and Fate


This book by Vasiliy Grossman was in terms of pages one of the longest that I have chosen to read so far this year and that has an impact on the way you approach it with the expectation that it is going to be an epic. The fact it is an epic that encompasses the most vital stuff of life but not quite in the way you might have expected.

You come to this book with an idea, based on the dust jacket imagery and words, that this is going to be a hard-hitting book based on people in and around the battleground that became the bloody fight for control of Stalingrad during the Second World War. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.

Plot summary
The tentacles stretch out from nuclear physicists Viktor and his wife with their various family members and their loves being used as a way of illustrating what was happening at different levels of the social spectrum as well as various locations during the fight for the survival of the motherland. Grossman is able to also jump into the heads of the German’s that have a similar battle with wrestling with the party and their own ability to speak the truth.
The main plot ends up focusing on Viktor who ends up almost losing everything after making a breakthrough in his field of science but is saved by a telephone call from Stalin. Meanwhile others are either busy being denounced or facing the consequences of speaking out. There are also others quite happy to avoid that sort of conflict and step aside and duck out and compromise themselves.
Along with Viktor the old communist Krymov is dragged back through the KGB prisons and the heroic tank commander Novikov, who are both vying for the love of the same woman, is also denounced and called back to Moscow.
On the German side the blind faith in Hitler is exposed as the sixth army is surrounded and then finally forced to surrender and those that are Nazi party members are ridiculed in the same way that right-minded people criticise the Communist party/
But the main theme of the book along with the title struggle to overcome fate – which the system seems to be in charge of – and enjoy life is the moral questions that Grossman raises. In a passage that includes a meeting between a dye-in-the-wool communist and the commander of a Nazi prisoner of war camp the suggestion is made that both the communist and the Nazi systems are not that far apart but are in fact mirrored with their one party state, aggression and disregard of individual liberty. The battle here is for the ability to speak your mind and most of the time reality has to be distorted as the system turns saints into sinners and soldiers into cowards.

It is well written?
Despite its length Grossman has an ability to put together a book that operates on various different levels including the political and the emotional. The characters work on their own, the battle scenes and fear of death at the hands of the enemy are powerful and the political muscle of the state has a genuine frustration and incredulity to it. In the world of journalism the answer to the question a writer often asks about how long the story should be is: “write it to what it deserves”. You sense it would have been difficult to write a book that on one hand described the world in 1942 across Russia along with making an incredibly powerful statement about the political systems of both Germany and Russia without using all 855 pages. Add to that the chapter where Viktor’s Jewish mother writes to him about life in the ghetto and her inevitable death – one of the most moving pieces that you are every likely to come across about the holocaust – and there is a very powerful statement being made throughout the book about the evil of anti-Semitism.

Should it be read?
If you ever want to know what it might have felt like not only to be trapped in a city under siege, facing charges that have been completely fabricated and living in fear of conversations that you made with friends years before then this is the book that provides the insights. This is a piece of work that was “arrested” by the KGB and aged the author by years because he believed that his own country was ready to read something that was not only critical but true. They weren’t but luckily it was smuggled out and has become the well-known piece of literature. It deserves to be read because of its message and story but also because of the costs the author paid personally to deliver this novel.

Summary
The bullets and bombs might be flying around Stalingrad but the most dangerous move to make on both sides – that share the disregard of individual rights – is to speak your mind

Version read – Vintage Classics

book of books – Life and Fate


This book by Vasiliy Grossman was in terms of pages one of the longest that I have chosen to read so far this year and that has an impact on the way you approach it with the expectation that it is going to be an epic. The fact it is an epic that encompasses the most vital stuff of life but not quite in the way you might have expected.

You come to this book with an idea, based on the dust jacket imagery and words, that this is going to be a hard-hitting book based on people in and around the battleground that became the bloody fight for control of Stalingrad during the Second World War. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.

Plot summary
The tentacles stretch out from nuclear physicists Viktor and his wife with their various family members and their loves being used as a way of illustrating what was happening at different levels of the social spectrum as well as various locations during the fight for the survival of the motherland. Grossman is able to also jump into the heads of the German’s that have a similar battle with wrestling with the party and their own ability to speak the truth.
The main plot ends up focusing on Viktor who ends up almost losing everything after making a breakthrough in his field of science but is saved by a telephone call from Stalin. Meanwhile others are either busy being denounced or facing the consequences of speaking out. There are also others quite happy to avoid that sort of conflict and step aside and duck out and compromise themselves.
Along with Viktor the old communist Krymov is dragged back through the KGB prisons and the heroic tank commander Novikov, who are both vying for the love of the same woman, is also denounced and called back to Moscow.
On the German side the blind faith in Hitler is exposed as the sixth army is surrounded and then finally forced to surrender and those that are Nazi party members are ridiculed in the same way that right-minded people criticise the Communist party/
But the main theme of the book along with the title struggle to overcome fate – which the system seems to be in charge of – and enjoy life is the moral questions that Grossman raises. In a passage that includes a meeting between a dye-in-the-wool communist and the commander of a Nazi prisoner of war camp the suggestion is made that both the communist and the Nazi systems are not that far apart but are in fact mirrored with their one party state, aggression and disregard of individual liberty. The battle here is for the ability to speak your mind and most of the time reality has to be distorted as the system turns saints into sinners and soldiers into cowards.

It is well written?
Despite its length Grossman has an ability to put together a book that operates on various different levels including the political and the emotional. The characters work on their own, the battle scenes and fear of death at the hands of the enemy are powerful and the political muscle of the state has a genuine frustration and incredulity to it. In the world of journalism the answer to the question a writer often asks about how long the story should be is: “write it to what it deserves”. You sense it would have been difficult to write a book that on one hand described the world in 1942 across Russia along with making an incredibly powerful statement about the political systems of both Germany and Russia without using all 855 pages. Add to that the chapter where Viktor’s Jewish mother writes to him about life in the ghetto and her inevitable death – one of the most moving pieces that you are every likely to come across about the holocaust – and there is a very powerful statement being made throughout the book about the evil of anti-Semitism.

Should it be read?
If you ever want to know what it might have felt like not only to be trapped in a city under siege, facing charges that have been completely fabricated and living in fear of conversations that you made with friends years before then this is the book that provides the insights. This is a piece of work that was “arrested” by the KGB and aged the author by years because he believed that his own country was ready to read something that was not only critical but true. They weren’t but luckily it was smuggled out and has become the well-known piece of literature. It deserves to be read because of its message and story but also because of the costs the author paid personally to deliver this novel.

Summary
The bullets and bombs might be flying around Stalingrad but the most dangerous move to make on both sides – that share the disregard of individual rights – is to speak your mind

Version read – Vintage Classics

book of books – Life and Fate


This book by Vasiliy Grossman was in terms of pages one of the longest that I have chosen to read so far this year and that has an impact on the way you approach it with the expectation that it is going to be an epic. The fact it is an epic that encompasses the most vital stuff of life but not quite in the way you might have expected.

You come to this book with an idea, based on the dust jacket imagery and words, that this is going to be a hard-hitting book based on people in and around the battleground that became the bloody fight for control of Stalingrad during the Second World War. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.

Plot summary
The tentacles stretch out from nuclear physicists Viktor and his wife with their various family members and their loves being used as a way of illustrating what was happening at different levels of the social spectrum as well as various locations during the fight for the survival of the motherland. Grossman is able to also jump into the heads of the German’s that have a similar battle with wrestling with the party and their own ability to speak the truth.
The main plot ends up focusing on Viktor who ends up almost losing everything after making a breakthrough in his field of science but is saved by a telephone call from Stalin. Meanwhile others are either busy being denounced or facing the consequences of speaking out. There are also others quite happy to avoid that sort of conflict and step aside and duck out and compromise themselves.
Along with Viktor the old communist Krymov is dragged back through the KGB prisons and the heroic tank commander Novikov, who are both vying for the love of the same woman, is also denounced and called back to Moscow.
On the German side the blind faith in Hitler is exposed as the sixth army is surrounded and then finally forced to surrender and those that are Nazi party members are ridiculed in the same way that right-minded people criticise the Communist party/
But the main theme of the book along with the title struggle to overcome fate – which the system seems to be in charge of – and enjoy life is the moral questions that Grossman raises. In a passage that includes a meeting between a dye-in-the-wool communist and the commander of a Nazi prisoner of war camp the suggestion is made that both the communist and the Nazi systems are not that far apart but are in fact mirrored with their one party state, aggression and disregard of individual liberty. The battle here is for the ability to speak your mind and most of the time reality has to be distorted as the system turns saints into sinners and soldiers into cowards.

It is well written?
Despite its length Grossman has an ability to put together a book that operates on various different levels including the political and the emotional. The characters work on their own, the battle scenes and fear of death at the hands of the enemy are powerful and the political muscle of the state has a genuine frustration and incredulity to it. In the world of journalism the answer to the question a writer often asks about how long the story should be is: “write it to what it deserves”. You sense it would have been difficult to write a book that on one hand described the world in 1942 across Russia along with making an incredibly powerful statement about the political systems of both Germany and Russia without using all 855 pages. Add to that the chapter where Viktor’s Jewish mother writes to him about life in the ghetto and her inevitable death – one of the most moving pieces that you are every likely to come across about the holocaust – and there is a very powerful statement being made throughout the book about the evil of anti-Semitism.

Should it be read?
If you ever want to know what it might have felt like not only to be trapped in a city under siege, facing charges that have been completely fabricated and living in fear of conversations that you made with friends years before then this is the book that provides the insights. This is a piece of work that was “arrested” by the KGB and aged the author by years because he believed that his own country was ready to read something that was not only critical but true. They weren’t but luckily it was smuggled out and has become the well-known piece of literature. It deserves to be read because of its message and story but also because of the costs the author paid personally to deliver this novel.

Summary
The bullets and bombs might be flying around Stalingrad but the most dangerous move to make on both sides – that share the disregard of individual rights – is to speak your mind

Version read – Vintage Classics

Life and Fate – post XIII

This mammoth book comes to an end and the reader is left mentally tying up the lose ends with the point having been well and truly made that the characters lives are in the hands of fate. In a book that is more about the personal battle an individual has with the state rather than the battle with the Germans this is not the book that you might initially expect.

A full review will follow by the weekend but it’s fair to say that the ambition here is as strong as Tolstoy’s to get down on paper the thoughts, hopes and fears of a generation at one particular time in Soviet history. The fact he manages to pull it off is not just down to style but because there is an anger and a determination to tell the truth that is on every single page.

Bullet points between 806 – 855

* Kyrmov receives his parcel from his ex-wife and it becomes clear that he has not been forgotten of denounced, unlike Novikov who disappears into the system to be chewed up and interrogated

* Viktor has his comfortable world turned upside down after being asked by colleagues to sign a letter damming those who go against the system and now it is his friends who are going to be against him not his enemies

* Back in the ruined City life starts to return to normal with the workers quickly put back in their places by the bosses and the last family scenes played out by Viktor’s mother and sister-in-law remind you of the strength of the state to rule people’s lives much more than the bombs and tanks

* The book ends with a couple that are not described whispering and sharing their hopes and misery together as spring arrives and life moves on

Exhausting but well worth the read…

Life and Fate – post XIII

This mammoth book comes to an end and the reader is left mentally tying up the lose ends with the point having been well and truly made that the characters lives are in the hands of fate. In a book that is more about the personal battle an individual has with the state rather than the battle with the Germans this is not the book that you might initially expect.

A full review will follow by the weekend but it’s fair to say that the ambition here is as strong as Tolstoy’s to get down on paper the thoughts, hopes and fears of a generation at one particular time in Soviet history. The fact he manages to pull it off is not just down to style but because there is an anger and a determination to tell the truth that is on every single page.

Bullet points between 806 – 855

* Kyrmov receives his parcel from his ex-wife and it becomes clear that he has not been forgotten of denounced, unlike Novikov who disappears into the system to be chewed up and interrogated

* Viktor has his comfortable world turned upside down after being asked by colleagues to sign a letter damming those who go against the system and now it is his friends who are going to be against him not his enemies

* Back in the ruined City life starts to return to normal with the workers quickly put back in their places by the bosses and the last family scenes played out by Viktor’s mother and sister-in-law remind you of the strength of the state to rule people’s lives much more than the bombs and tanks

* The book ends with a couple that are not described whispering and sharing their hopes and misery together as spring arrives and life moves on

Exhausting but well worth the read…

Life and Fate – post XII

There was a slight hope of finishing the book today but it’s often the case that as you get closer to the end the pages get slower to consumer. Its almost as if you don’t want it to end so you read more slowly almost without being conscious of it. Still it will get completed tomorrow because there are simply not that many pages left.

There are so many contrasting stories going on here with some to do with fate and others to do with love and even when things seem to be going well there is a fear that one false move and it could all come crumbling down.

Bullet points between pages 754 – 806

* Krymov is put through the interrogation mill being kept up all night and confronted with so many facts about his past that he becomes dizzy at the knowledge of the state but he remains determined not to confess to being a German spy

* After a while he cracks and shouts at the interrogator asking him where he was when the bullets were flying in Stalingrad and his reward is the be beaten by guards that seem to know exactly where to hit to start some serious internal bleeding

* Krymov comes to the conclusion that his ex-wife has denounced him and faced with that bitter betrayal, which is of course not the case, he becomes resigned to his fate and starts to enter possibly the final stage of the process ending in a confession

* Viktor is finding that following Stalin’s phone call he is the most popular and intelligent scientist around and although he enjoys it he knows that they were only too ready to kill him off before his luck changed

* Novikov finds life getting harder with Getmanov threatening to countermand his orders unless his exhausted tank corps continues into the Ukraine and in the end after being dropped by Krymov’s ex-wife who he thought would be his he is recalled back to Moscow

There is no lunchtime read for the simple reason I spent my lunch break talking with someone about the state of the computer security market in a hotel next to Liverpool Street station. There will be some more House on the Embankment along with the final chunk of Life and Fate tomorrow…