There are some people (full disclosure: I am one) who regard Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1960) as the defining novel of the 20th century. So some celebration is called for because Grossman’s companion novel, Stalingrad, published in Russian in 1952, has finally been published in English with a superb translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. In their introduction the Chandlers claim that this is a superior work to Life and Fate.
For those of you about to take your holidays, I think I should warn even the Grossmaniacs that Stalingrad might not be ideal beach reading. This is heavy going — literally. The Vintage edition must weight over 2 kilos, but then it is 892 pages long. It is heavy in another sense — this is a densely-plotted novel with a character list that takes up five pages. And Stalingrad is heavy in the very deepest sense — it centres on the story of the epic battle for Stalingrad in 1942-3, a slaughterhouse which went on for seven months at the cost of 2 million casualties.
Grossman was there as a correspondent for the Red Army newspaper and he wrote to his wife, “The world has never seen such courage, such stamina. One needs to bow down to the people who sacrifice their lives with such simplicity in fierce battles that go on day and night. These are harsh and sublime days.”
During his months in the hell-hole of the battle Grossman read War and Peace — twice. And Grossman uses the same polyphonic technique as Tolstoy to simultaneously address the big issues of war and the lives and relationships of the “simple, ordinary people” who fought it.
A particularly delicious pleasure of Stalingrad is that it deepens our understanding of many of the characters that would reappear in Life and Fate, especially the Shaposhnikovs. Indeed it actually revisits some of the most heart-rending moments of the later book, like Shtum’s letter from his dead mother.
But as the title suggests, Stalingrad focuses on the battle, a moment when modern industrial weaponry descended back into the visceral blood-letting of medieval warfare. And in Grossman there was at last a writer with the narrative power to tell a story of such dark grandeur. The sections on the battle for the railway station must surely be the greatest war fiction ever written.
But the book does have shortcomings. Unlike Life and Fate (which Stalinist censors boasted would be banned “for 400 years”), Stalingrad was published in Russia just before Stalin died. The original Russian title was “For A Just Cause” and as that title suggests, there is a strong current of Russian nationalism suffusing the book. More than this there are several long passages inserted at the insistence of the state censors that bow down to the Stalinist system — the homages to the Great Patriotic Stakhanovite steelworkers and miners are as close as Grossman ever came to writing turgid prose.
But in the end the scale, the complexity, the honesty and the sheer bravura writing make this both a harsh and a sublime book. Writing entirely personally I find that after Grossman almost any other novel I read feels like children’s literature.