Thursday, March 4, 2010

Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossman might be the most important unread writer in the 20th century; important because his two novels Life and Fate and Everything Flows, are intelligent, beautiful, compelling stories of fascism, freedom, love, fear, and humanity, that present fearless portraits of life in Soviet Russia under Stalin; unread because his works were censored for decades. They were first published in 1980 in Switzerland from smuggled photographed draft pages and still only reached the US in 2006.

Grossman worked as a war correspondent during WWII and translated much of his experience into Life and Fate. This massive novel follows a number of characters living in different circumstances with different relationships to the fascism of the Soviet Union and the war against Germany. These include Victor Shtrum, a theoretical physicist with a conscience; Captain Grekov, a commander of a small hold out in Stalingrad; Pavlovich Novikov, a dynamic tank commander; and Nikolay Krymov a member of the political branch of the military whose job is to ensure that the proper communist philosophy is being practiced by soldiers and officials. There are also historical characters like the German General Friedrich Paulus and the Soviet Lieutenant-General Yeremenko. The story moves from the streets of Stalingrad, to Moscow, to eastern Russian beyond the reach of the German invasion, all the way to concentration camps and gas chambers. Somehow, despite the deprivation that surrounded him and the story he told, Grossman still maintained a faith in the fundamental good of the human character and told everything with a profound empathy and compassion.

Everything Flows, is set after the death of Stalin. The main story follows Ivan Grigoryevich, a political prisoner released after thirty years in gulags. As Ivan tries to make sense of everything, not just the unfamiliar world he has been thrust into, but also the world that imprisoned him for thirty years, the nature of fear and fascism, the politics of slavery and freedom, and the emotions of informing and loyalty, are brilliantly and beautifully elucidated. Everything Flows is shorter and more philosophical than Life and Fate but it has no lack of the beautiful and heartbreaking images that make Grossman one of the century's best writers.

Grossman is also the author of Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945 and The Road, a collection of short stories, essays and other writings coming out this September.

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