Whether dealing with Nazi or Soviet tyranny, Grossman's epic novels fearlessly exposed uncomfortable truthsby Vanora Bennett / July 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
Vasily Grossman won fame in the Soviet Union as a war reporter during the 1941-5 war, but has become known only relatively recently in the west as the author of Life and Fate, a massively ambitious novel about his wartime experiences. Told through the eyes of the Shaposhnikov family and their friends, that novel told awkward truths fearlessly. Some were truths about the Jewish experience of Soviet life (Grossman was Jewish); some about the everyday reality of living under a dictatorship. The book painted a harrowing picture both of Hitler’s totalitarianism and of Stalin’s, showing their similarities in a way that Soviet authorities could not tolerate. The manuscript of Life and Fate was confiscated and destroyed in 1961. Grossman died three years later, aged 58, without seeing his greatest achievement published.
Luckily, a copy of Life and Fate was smuggled out in the 1970s and published abroad by a Swiss publishing house in Russian and then in English, translated by Robert Chandler, in 1985. It has become a latter-day bestseller. In 2011, an adaptation was aired on Radio 4 with Kenneth Branagh as the hero Viktor Shtrum. Last year, St Petersburg’s Maly Theatre brought a Russian-language stage version to London for a brief run at Theatre Royal. The critic Francis Spufford has rightly praised the book as “a moral monument, a witness-report in fiction from the heart of 20th-century darkness, an astonishing act of truth-telling.”
Stalingrad is the prequel to Life and Fate—the first of a pair of interconnected stories. Another 900-page epic, also translated by Chandler, it contains many of the same characters at an earlier stage in life. The gripping narrative runs from peacetime life in Stalingrad through a lengthy Soviet retreat in the early part of the war to the onset of the battle for the city, which is where Life and Fate picks up. But unlike that later work, this novel was actually published in the Soviet Union during Grossman’s lifetime. It came out in 1952 under a different title, the more Soviet-sounding For a Just Cause. According to Alexandra Popoff, author of the recently published biography Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, this change was imposed on the author by his…