On Prose: A writer who stared down evil

For the Valley News
Published: 5/30/2019 10:00:28 PM
Modified: 5/30/2019 10:00:18 PM

The 20th century grows smaller in our rearview mirror every day, but before it disappears entirely we should pay tribute to one of its greatest and least-known novelists, a Russian who I would rank above Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, though I admire both of them greatly.

Google “great writers” and his name doesn’t come up; suggest him to a book group and all you will get are shrugs; bring his name up in a writing workshop and students stare blankly. And yet the writer I’m talking about, Vasily Grossman, should be remembered for taking on one of the hardest challenges literature ever faced — trying to make sense of the madness and horror that swept over the world in the years 1939-45 — and by some miracle of courage and compassion wresting from it art. Many writers have written about the Shoah, and many about the Gulag, but few have managed to write so powerfully about the twinned evils of both.

Grossman was born in 1905 in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, then home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. He started publishing novels early, and quickly learned the steps to the torturous dance all Soviet writers were faced with — dealing honestly with the world, while constantly sensing Stalin looking over their shoulders. The Soviet dictator read everything and liked nothing better than to sentence writers who ran afoul of him to death.

When the Germans invaded in 1941, Grossman’s mother was trapped in Berdichev and killed, along with the other 30,000 Jews in town. Partly to assuage his guilt in not helping her escape — and despite being nearsighted and in poor health — Grossman volunteered to become a war correspondent, and spent over 1,000 days at the front line.

He was one of the first correspondents — and certainly the first writer of genius — to enter the death camps as the Soviet army marched westward. His report, The Hell of Treblinka, was one of the first that probed into the why of an extermination camp’s existence and the how of its operation.

We walk across the bottomless, unsteady land of Treblinka, and then suddenly we stop. Some yellow hair, wavy, fine and light, growing like grass, is trampled into the earth, and then heavy black plaits on the light-colored sand, and then more and more. … Everything is true. The last, lunatic hope that everything was only a dream is ruined. And one feels as if one’s heart could stop right now, seized with such sorrow, such grief, that a human being cannot possibly stand it.

Grossman was an eyewitness to the battle of Stalingrad (Russian soldiers thought his reportage was the most honest of any correspondent’s when it came to capturing “the ruthless truth of war”), and once the fighting was over he turned his experience into his masterpiece, the novel Life and Fate.

It strayed too far from Soviet orthodoxy to ever be published in Russia; the manuscript — even the typewriter ribbons it was typed on — were confiscated by the KGB, and it was only by a friend smuggling a microfilm copy to the West that it was ever published at all.

(Grossman had sent Khrushchev a futile appeal to allow its publication. “I wrote it, I have not repudiated it, I am not repudiating it. ... I ask for freedom for my book.”)

Life and Fate, starting with the title’s echo, is often compared to War and Peace, since, like Tolstoy’s masterpiece, the book evokes the life of a country and historical

epoch by concentrating on a series of far-ranging subplots involving members of a single family — the most memorable of whom, a physicist named Viktor Shtrum, is in many ways Grossman himself, faced with agonizing moral choices that nearly kill him.

The literary link between novels is real — Grossman said that War and Peace was the only book he could read on the front lines while being shelled — but the differences are even more revealing.

Tolstoy wrote about events that happened a generation before he was born; he had never witnessed them in person, nor lost family in the fighting. Then too, the evil he was describing was the evil of war in general; compared to Hitler and Stalin, Napoleon was Mother Theresa. Grossman, on the other hand, had to write about evil that had wounded his very being.

“There may be no more powerful lament for East European Jewry,” critic Robert Chandler writes, “than the chapter of Life and Fate that includes the letters Anna Semyonovna, a fictional portrait of Grossman’s mother, writes in the last days of her life and manages to have smuggled out of the Jewish ghetto.”

I would argue with this, but only to say that an even more powerful lament — one that brings literature to the extreme limit of what it’s capable of describing — occurs later in the book, when, as they both arrive at an extermination camp in Poland, a middle-aged, childless doctor, Sofya Levinton, “adopts” a small boy named David, and holds his hand as they enter the oven.

This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, died before her.

“I’ve become a mother,” she thought.

That was her last thought.

Her heart, however, still had life in it; it contracted, ached, and felt pity for all of you, both living and death. Sofya felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David, now a doll, to herself. She became dead, a doll.

It takes courage to read Grossman — but the rewards are great, if for no other reason than his unflinching refusal to give in to despair. “Human history,” he wrote, “is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness” — and the kindness and empathy in Grossman is as real as the horror.

He angered Stalin after the war — he probably would have been arrested if Stalin hadn’t died first — and his greatest writings (which include his remarkable short story The Road) weren’t published in his lifetime; he died in 1964, not yet 60. His last, unfinished novel, Everything Flows, takes on even more evil: the “Terror Famine” in the Ukraine in the 1930s, and the horrors of the Gulag.

(The New York Review of Books “Classic Series” deserves great credit for republishing his books in well-edited paperback editions; it’s thanks to these that I discovered him.)

The quality I admire most in a novelist is courage — the personal courage to deal with the vicissitudes of a writing career; the moral courage to deal with tragic themes and painful, all-but-impossible-to-describe subject matter.

Measured by these … the “vicissitudes” in Grossman’s case threatened to kill him; his subject was the worst evil the world has ever seen … a case can be made that he was the bravest writer who ever lived.

W.D. Wetherell is a novelist, story writer and essayist who lives in Lyme.

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