Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Life is Freedom: The Art of Vasily Grossman

The continued obscurity of the Soviet author Vasily Grossman is not easy to understand after one has spent any time with his writing, but a few conjectures come to mind. His masterpiece, Life and Fate, was published in the United States in 1985, and in 1985, the year that Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet party, Russian literature in America was in a sense “spoken for” by the increasingly umbrageous and controversial Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Both Grossman and Solzhenitsyn had written vast, dense, synthesizing epics about life behind the iron curtain, but whereas Grossman was dead, Solzhenitsyn was very much alive, and in fact a celebrity, periodically sallying out from rural Vermont to fulminate against Western decadence or something else that caused excitement. Life and Fate, on the other hand, could do nothing unless it was read, and with 871 pages and over 160 characters, it was and remains a book that’s easier to tip one’s hat to than read.

And then there is the likelihood that the book was somewhat overshadowed by the extraordinary story of its survival, a story that exposed to the world the irreparable hairlines in the Soviet machinery. Grossman wrote much of Life and Fate after Stalin’s death, in a period that his former newspaper colleague Ilya Ehrenberg called the “Thaw.” Grossman was hopeful, therefore, that the censors would allow its publication. Instead, in February of 1961, four months after he had submitted the manuscript, Life and Fate was “arrested”: KGB officers confiscated all known copies held by the author and his friends. After Grossman appealed personally to Khrushchev, a toadying clerk named Mikhail Suslov told him that the book could not be published for 250 years. One of the sins of Life and Fate was its tacit parallelism between the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and Suslov’s declaration, with its assured disregard for mortality, bore much in common with Hitler’s slogan of a thousand year Reich.

Yet there were two copies of the book still hidden. In 1974, 10 years after Grossman died, his best friend Semyon Lipkin managed to get this tome microfilmed, enlisting the help of the satirical writer Vladimir Voinivich and a nuclear scientist named Andrei Sakharov. The process took months and remarkable temerity. Finally Voinivich smuggled it from the country—and even then it was not published anywhere until 1980.

The story tells a lot about the Soviet government and the inhuman pointlessness of totalitarianism, but the contents of Life and Fate tell much more and do so in the style of an artist who, after years of high-pressured gestation, had arrived at the fullest and most lucid expression of his material. For in spite of its length, Life and Fate is made up of thousands of compressed, angular paragraphs that, at their best, possess the transparency and adamantine luster of diamonds.

This quality of can hardly be overestimated, as it instills the novel with the startling directness of great poetry, and the power of every shaped and polished paragraph intensifies as succeeding passages build upon a theme. When, for instance, we first encounter Lyudmila, the matriarch of the novel’s central cast, the middle-class Shtrum family, she is going to see the grave of her teenage son, Tolya who has been killed in combat. Hours elapse as she sits in the cemetery, alone in her memories and grief:

The people in the hospital had been struck by her calm and the number of questions she had asked. They hadn’t appreciated her inability to understand something quite obvious—that Tolya was no longer among the living. Her love was so strong that Tolya’s death was unable to affect it: to her, he was still alive.

She was mad, but no one had noticed. Now at last, she had found Tolya. Her joy was that of a mother-cat when she finds her dead kitten and licks it all over.

A soul can live in torment for years and years, even decades, as it slowly, stone by stone, builds a mound over a grave; as it moves towards the apprehension of eternal loss and bows down before reality.

The soldiers finished their work and left; the sun had nearly gone down; the shadows of the plywood boards over the graves lengthened. Lyudmila was alone.

There are whole books contained in each of these paragraphs, and still, each informs the next, increasing the pressure of Lyudmila’s agitated delusion to climax at the breathtaking image of a tormented soul gradually accepting a death, and then relieving the moment by moving out of Lyudmila’s mind to observe the departing soldiers and lengthening shadows. ...
Essay by Sam Sacks

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