Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Road (but not that one)

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Vasily Grossman is one of the world's great unrecognized writers. A Soviet writer during the time of Stalin, he had to write within a world of propaganda and censorship. Even within that small box, however, he was able to put forth some great fiction and journalism, though his two late masterpieces, Life and Fate and Everything Flows, were held from publication by the Powers That Be. Indeed, the Stalinists tried to expunge every copy of Life and Fate from the world; luckily, they failed, and copies were smuggled to the West, where the book was eventually published. It's often called "the Soviet War and Peace," and its portrayal of the horrors of the siege of Stalingrad led it to become the book most feared by Communist leadership (along with Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.

The Road, however, is a collection of Grossman's stories and journalism, often written from inside that box, a box walled with propaganda, censorship, and fear. Within that cage, however, Grossman finds his way by seeing and recording the details - the telling details, the small and hidden things that cast a sudden and fierce light on the dark shadows of suffering. There are interesting tensions at work within his writing, with the clear-sighted realist wriggling against the restraints of the facade of Communist idealism.

Whether indicating the lot of a common soldier, from the viewpoint of a donkey hauling a piece of artillery in "The Road", or painting a brutal landscape of evil, in his reportage from The Hell of Treblinka, Grossman has an eye for human truth, for the felt experience of a diverse number of people, across a diverse range of situations. I think what I love most is his sense of empathy, his ability to put himself in the place of others. This comes, perhaps, from his own sufferings. His mother, a Jew living in the city of Berdichev, was marched out to an airfield by the Nazis, along with hundreds of other Jews from the city, and murdered. There is, in his writing, a need to be there, to be with his mother, perhaps, to see what she saw, and to be with all the others who suffered; to see and feel what they felt.

This is writing as an act of memory; as an act of imaginative remembrance; as an attempt to paint in the empty spaces that will be forgotten, or white-washed, by history, by those who see history as an act of political prognostication.


Matthew MacNish said...

This guy sounds a lot like Bulgakov, who we were talking about the other day, but somehow I've never heard of him.

Thanks, B.

Steve Abernathy said...

Prefer this The Road to the other The Road. I own Life and Fate but haven't cracked it open; waiting for a long winter illness.

Bryan Russell said...

@ Steve

Well, luckily winter's almost here. I hope you get a nice pneumonia with a long bedrest.

Bryan Russell said...

@ Matt

I'll read Bulgakov, and you can read Grossman.

Munk said...

Interesting post, thanks Bryan.
@SA "Waiting for a Long Winter Illness" --- good book title.

Matthew MacNish said...

Sounds good to me.

Marsha Sigman said...

I've never heard of this. I must widen the scope of my reading preferences.

Sometimes you make me so you're Gandolph to my Pippin.

D.G. Hudson said...

I read Solzhenitsyn's 'The Gulag Archipelago', but haven't heard of Vasily Grossman. The Road sounds interesting if he's exploring how it felt to live in those times. Always fearful.

Thanks for reviewing books we might not see otherwise, Bryan.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I have huge respect for writers laboring under regimes like this. Like Marsha, they make me feel shallow, but in a good way. Like my deepest problems can't touch some of the evil in the world, and I'm thankful for that. And that they document it for us, so we don't ever forget that.