Archive for the 'Soviet literature' Category

Yuri Slezkine: The House of Government

May 30, 2020

    A1agjFDAp9L._AC_UY218_Russians often go in for doorstops, in terms of book length, and this is no exception: almost a thousand pages, and not easy going, but very thought-provoking. The House of Government was the name of a specially-constructed block of apartments for the Bolshevik elite after the October Revolution, and Slezkine uses the building, its construction and its inhabitants for an unusual and sometimes enlightening take on the Communist era. He begins well before the Revolution and takes us almost up to the present day.

There are real insights into pre-Revolutionary consciousness and how this developed, explored through extracts from the memoirs of many key persons, and we see genuine fervour, commitment and idealism in those men and women; we probably think now, with benefit of hindsight that they were young and naive, but the atmosphere of the end days of Tsarism shines through in an extraordinary way, and our very hindsight at the same time possibly prevents us fully comprehending those times… There was very real belief in the possibility of constructing a better society.

Where Slezkine is original – at least to this reader – is in the way he explores Marxism and Bolshevism as religious faiths: his third chapter at great length, and in a most enlightening manner, firstly analyses the origins and development of various religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, and then considers the revolutionaries’ beliefs and behaviours in the light of this template, finding many similarities. It’s a convincing parallel, and one that for me cast a different light on subsequent Russian (and world) history.

The enthusiasm, and the Revolution itself, were in many ways the easy part; the difficulty came, as always, with what to construct to replace the old, and how to do it well. From the outset the peasantry was the problem, and the Bolsheviks were happy to apply violence and repression from the start in pursuit of their goals… so in many ways it was downhill from there on. Anarchy and civil war did not help anyone; this is not an excuse for, but perhaps an explanation of the Red Terror which was institutionalised so quickly.

Slezkine also makes clear just how quickly there were made available serious privileges for an elite, the rulers and managers of the new world, justified by the immensity of the tasks they had committed themselves to undertaking. In a supposed world of equality, a large group emerged with a sense of their own specialness, importance and entitlements. I am reminded here of how a Polish friend clarified things for me once; he is a historian and grew up under the old, socialist regime. His point was that a different group of people (the Bolsheviks) worked out how to seize the power, control and privileges that the previous group (capitalists, landowners, aristocrats) had enjoyed, and arrogated all of those to themselves. And the revolutionary talk of a new society had been the method by with they had done this… an understandable if cynical view, maybe, but one that I found enlightening at the time and since. Was that avoidable?

There was much experimentation in the early years, trying out new ways of being, doing things, including relationships, marriage and child-rearing, but against the background of privileges for the elite.

One of the things I also found myself re-evaluating as I read was the comparisons and parallels that are often proposed, between Stalinism and Nazism, often as gross and deliberate oversimplifications of an issue that nevertheless merits serious consideration. To me, the Nazi approach has always seemed to be a more trenchant and clearcut one: certain clearly identifiable races, nationalities or groups were subhuman and to be discounted and eventually eliminated. Bolsheviks (or Stalinists, or whatever you choose to call the rulers of the Soviet Union) seem to have stumbled into similar behaviour in a rather more careless and disorganised way. Nevertheless, although this is impression I was forming, I admit that I am not enough of a historian to weigh evidence and make judgements.

Internal party squabbles, especially after the death of Lenin, and then the consolidation of Stalin’s power, were the next major developments; evolving and consolidating the ‘party line’ seems to have dissipated much otherwise useful energy; again, I felt that the Nazis, as totalitarians also, were much more united and single-minded in their approach. In the Soviet Union, those who ‘lost’ the arguments were then forced into increasingly impossible intellectual gymnastics that gradually came to imply the necessity of their physical elimination…

The purges and the show trials of the 1930s were the height of the collective insanity, leading to the executions of hundreds of thousands on utterly spurious grounds, which was to leave the country seriously underprepared to face the eventual confrontation with Germany, in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-5. The trials were pointless attempts at pseudo-legality, implying that there was a ‘rule of law’; again, the Nazis were more brazen and merely eliminated anyone who got in the way, without any fuss. Reading accounts of the trials, and the chilling coldness of the mass executions reminded me of accounts of similar atrocities in Nazi concentration camps, as well as of how all this was brought to life so effectively in Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon, which dealt especially with the show trial and execution of Bukharin.

If you are interested in the parallels between what the Russians and Germans did, and indeed how they collaborated in evil at various points, then I recommend to you the writings of American historian Timothy Snyder.

It’s a long book, and there’s more. You get a clear picture of the original dreams, as well as how things went wrong. Here was an entire social class that had never held power, suddenly seizing it and having the chance to carry out all sorts of experiments, with all kinds of lofty and often laudable aims, but because they had no experience, how were they suddenly to manage and to perfect their newly-acquired world? Again, the Nazis used those who had been running things before and who were mostly willing to collaborate with their plans; the Soviets eliminated or would not trust such people.

After the purges, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the next generation remained loyal to the regime and idealistic, making enormous sacrifices in their drive to defeat Nazism; the state apparatus switched from inward-looking paranoia and purges to defence of the revolution and the Soviet state…

It’s a very powerful and difficult book, and you need a good deal of background knowledge in order to make sense of it. The perspective is interesting, the broad sweep of Soviet history invaluable, and the questions it raises are worthy of serious reflection by any who would seek in some way to build a better world: how to learn from others’ past mistakes. I’m glad I read it, but it was too long and perhaps ought to have been edited; I can’t see ever having the time to come back to it. Reading the history through the memoirs of the history-makers was fascinating, though…

Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.

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There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…

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I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.

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Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…

Literature and Auschwitz

January 23, 2020

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_ML3_  71l2--J+pSL._AC_UY218_ML3_  91Zrixmwg7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   An article by Dan Jacobson in The Guardian about Auschwitz appearing in the titles of many works of fiction, as well as my distaste upon reading that someone had decided it would be a good thing to colourise the film made at the time of the liberation of the extermination camp by the Soviet Army, crystallised the idea of this post. The 75th anniversary of the liberation comes up shortly, of course, hence the media attention.

I visited Auschwitz half a century ago, at the age of fifteen. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, never can and never should. Heaven only knows what my sisters, even younger than me, made of it, but I firmly believe my father was right to take us. At the time it was used as a piece of Soviet propaganda, with a stark memorial claiming that four and a half million people had been killed there (nowadays the figure is more accurately put at more than a million) and the focus was not on remembering extermination of Jews but extermination of human beings.

That last is an interesting point. It is well-known that the Nazis attempted to eliminate European Jewry; less-known that in Eastern Europe everyone’s life was cheap, if not of no value, and there is documentation pointing to the fact that after the Jews, and after an eventual German victory in the war, the Poles and Russians were next on the list for elimination. Read Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, set in a world where Jews are only a historical memory. Six million Jews were murdered; six million Polish citizens were killed in the war.

I have always felt that the use of the word ‘Holocaust’ (which only came into wide use after the film Schindler’s List) somehow both shifts the focus away from the viewing of groups of people as subhuman and also in a way sanitises what the Nazis did: most of the killings took place not in extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka but in nameless fields, forests and ditches in the vast depths of eastern Poland (as it then was), the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The previous term used was ‘Final Solution’ which was what the Nazis called their approach to dealing with the Jewish population of Europe; that also hides enormity behind a euphemism. Above all we need to remember that the Second World War, started by the Nazis, led directly and indirectly to the death of over fifty million people…

Somehow an awful place like Auschwitz has now become another stop on a tourist trail, and there is plenty of documentation of appalling behaviour there by unthinking visitors. And yet, people must continue to go there, and the horrors which that place symbolises must not be forgotten. Which brings me back to Jacobson’s article, and writings about Auschwitz.

There has been much written in terms of history and personal memoirs, very little (until recently) in the way of fiction. And that has seemed appropriate, to me at least: to try and use one’s creative imagination focused on such matters appear perverse, in a way. And somehow, the idea of marketing a book because it has the ‘A’ word in the title is just wrong. I used The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne once as a class reader while teaching; it may have been a brave attempt at bringing the subject within the scope of school age children, but it was too toe-curling for me. Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich was a much more powerful introduction to the topic.

I found Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kenneally, a very powerful read, but have never wanted to bring myself to watch the film; I was very moved by André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of The Just, which traces a Jewish line down through generations until it is eliminated at Auschwitz. Vassily Grossman treads lightly in his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and the result is very effective: the hero Lev Shtrum is haunted throughout by the death of his mother who was unable to flee the German advance whilst he was; he learns that she ended up dead in a mass grave, and he cannot forget this. Grossman is unremittingly truthful in his factual, journalist’s account of the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp site by the Soviet Army.

Finally, I must mention Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) again. The opening chapters are truly horrific; a Nazi witnesses the blood and guts and the utter chaos on the Eastern Front as the extermination of the Jews in the East begins. It is mayhem, the stuff of nightmares, and the dedicated Nazi is determined that there must be a better, more efficient way to carry out the Final Solution.

Where I get to in my reflections on this appalling chapter of European history is that it must be taught so that it may never happen again, also that the events and the reasons (?) behind them are far more complex than most people can know, or admit or understand, and that there are people who will attempt to turn a profit or make political propaganda out of it. If it were possible, my view of our species is further diminished.

On time…

December 2, 2019

I’ve written about this topic before: it’s one I return to a lot in my thinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that I’m growing older and so have less of it left.

I’ve always been fascinated when staring up at the night sky and the stars, especially in winter. The sense of the vastness of space, the enormous distances to the stars, our lack of knowledge about what and who might be out there, and the unlikelihood of our ever making contact with anyone, all come together to amplify the sense of timelessness or eternity for me: everything is just so big and unfathomable. Science fiction writers have characters and machines travelling across the vastnesses of space so easily; only in Ursula Le Guin’s visions of the worlds of the Ekumen has any writer fully explored the sadness (or the horror) of someone having travelled faster than light, then returning to the world whence they came, where decades or centuries have elapsed, and everyone they knew, parents, loved ones and friends, are long dead… the loneliness of such an existence seems unbearable, and it’s only fiction…

Ancient places on our own planet have a similar effect on me: the vanished world of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire where I live, where monks prayed, chanted and sang for centuries; the Roman remains in Provence where it’s possible to imagine quite vividly how people lived two thousand years ago. Many years ago, when I lived in East London, I watched as the old railway station at Broad Street was demolished and redeveloped; my eye was caught by a plaque on the wall which said that the vanishing station had been built on the site of the old Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam in common parlance) which had been on that spot from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and I wondered what, from our modern world, would have a chance of remaining in the same spot for seven centuries.

It’s things like this that put the pettiness of our existence into focus for me: we are marvellous, complex and sometimes intelligent beings experiencing the joys and sadnesses of our lives which are but an instant in the time of the universe.

The classic book about time is probably the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that featured on so many people’s bookshelves and may well have been the most unread book of all time, so difficult it was to comprehend. I can say that I did, once, read it from cover to cover: what I did not do is understand it. Science, especially physics, actually makes my brain hurt; I tried, and failed.

Somehow the canvas of time came across really effectively for me in Ivan Yefremov’s A For Andromeda, a classic of Soviet science fiction, set over a thousand years in the future, in a world where communism did triumph, succeeding in transforming everyone’s lives. Utopian, certainly, but people need to dream. And in his future world, religion, of course, has vanished into the dustbin of history, is regarded as a quaint piece of the past. And yet, his characters are still capable of being moved by the enormousness of space and the cosmos, experiencing what I can only label powerful spiritual feelings as they look out from our world.

There are writers who can capture the sense of loss over time, bringing to life vanished worlds in their fiction. I experience this particularly in novels set in Eastern Europe, where worlds have literally vanished as a consequence of the upheavals and horrors of the twentieth century. Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life is a very powerful example: a German ship’s captain, wearied after the horrors of the Great War, retreats from the world into the dense forests of one-time East Prussia to live a simple life in a hut on an island in a lake, with only a single companion, and finds peace of a sort; others of Wiechert’s novels are set in this place which vanished forever in 1945. A number of Günter Grass’ novels are set in the Free City of Danzig, another world which disappeared at the same time. Perhaps the saddest moment in The Tin Drum is the suicide of the Jewish toyshop owner as the Nazis tighten their grip on that city: there is no hope, and his is another world gone forever. Lastly I’ll mention Walter Kempowski, whose works are now appearing in English translation; he again pictures the disappearance of that small area of Eastern Europe.

Our existences are transient; we cannot understand the cosmic scale of time and place – we are too little for that. Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, makes an astonishing effort to take human history several billion years into the future. It’s a noble attempt which cannot succeed, hard to read, painful in its reminders of our pettiness. Maybe that’s why most writers stay away from such themes…

Anticipation: prequels and sequels…

July 24, 2019

I don’t often find myself eagerly awaiting the publication of a new novel, but this year is different. My last post, about Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is about one of three novels I’ve been eagerly awaiting this year; the other two – still to come – are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments coming in September, and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is due to be published in October. When I realised that all three of these books were either prequels or sequels, that got me thinking more deeply.

81R94tAIV2L._AC_UY218_QL90_      91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_QL90_    Sometimes writers set out with the deliberate intention of writing a series of novels; more often, they don’t, and are perhaps moved by commercial pressure to write a follow-on to a best-seller. Philip Pullman set out with the aim of writing a trilogy with His Dark Materials, but then along came the idea for the second trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume of this, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel of sorts as it deals with the adventures of Lyra when she is a baby; the next volume (The Secret Commonwealth) which I’m eagerly awaiting, takes us ten years beyond the ending of the first trilogy, so Pullman is going forward in time, too. I have not yet heard anything about the third volume, and I’m also aware that Pullman has done nothing with the characters from our world, in his second trilogy. With the science fiction element of the parallel universe, clearly Pullman gave himself a lot of scope for developing his ideas in different directions, if he wanted to.

918hxxj0DOL._AC_UY218_QL90_    71y9LsU0HVL._AC_UY218_QL90_   Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale also has science fiction elements, but it had seemed a one-off, completed story until recently. Offred’s personal story came to an ending which was open in a way, but the novel was then concluded with a chapter entitled Historical Notes, which looked two centuries into the future, after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead. The recent television series, based on the book and with the author’s approval, seem to have changed the game somewhat. I can’t comment on the TV series as I haven’t watched it and don’t intend to, but I am very interested to see how Atwood will pick up the strands of the original story which she laid down some thirty years ago, and where she will go with it in the new novel.

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_QL90_    81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Vasily Grossman’s novels are a rather different kettle of fish, for a number of reasons. Life and Fate, a complete novel in itself – or so we thought – was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West some thirty years ago. It took a long time and a BBC Radio adaptation for people to wake up and realise that they were reading a true classic and worthy successor to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. What was almost unknown was that Grossman had written what is actually a precursor to the story in Life and Fate, and had various censored and bowdlerised versions published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, as a novel called For the Good of the Cause, and it’s this novel which has been carefully reconstructed from nearly a dozen different versions by Robert Chandler, and published recently under the title Stalingrad. So in a sense we actually have a single story which develops through two lengthy volumes, using the same events and characters: the ‘prequel’ always existed as a part of the whole, and it was the byzantine censorship policies of Soviet times which concealed this from us western readers, it seems.

When you’ve known a particular novel for a long time, read and re-read it and appreciated it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s a challenge when something comes along which adds to or develops it; it may not fit in with the version of the novel which, over time, we have made ours. So, I enjoyed Stalingrad but don’t feel that it made anywhere near as powerful an impression on me as Life and Fate did, and this is perhaps not surprising. Equally, although I avidly awaited and eagerly devoured La Belle Sauvage and it was very good, I found it nowhere near as powerful as Pullman’s original trilogy.

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad

July 23, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Reading the prequel to Life and Fate felt strange: I knew the characters from that novel, and was now meeting them in an earlier incarnation; also, of course, the actual historical events were familiar. The genesis of the novel is very complex, and Robert Chandler has not only done a really good job of translating Stalingrad, he has also provided a very detailed and helpful introduction and notes.

Grossman paints an optimistic and committed panorama of Soviet society, with touching portraits of peasants making their farewells to family, home and village as they set off to war from which they do not expect to return. He takes time to build up his canvas, with a convincing aura of pride and optimism shining though his characters who are committed to the revolution, genuine and sincere in their desires to build a better world for everyone (whatever Stalin may be up to), and clear that Hitler is out to destroy all they have achieved. Here is a patriotism we in the West find difficult to comprehend or accept. And yes, at times some of Grossman’s characters do talk like rather wooden socialist realists: we must remember the times and conditions under which he wrote (he was told by the KGB that it would be two centuries before publication of Life and Fate would be possible!). The propagandist line is there, quite subtle, with positive references to Stalin as a father-figure of the nation.

An atmosphere of foreboding builds up, with the Soviet armies still in retreat from the German advance, and the crucial effort to prevent them reaching and crossing the Volga. There is determination, there is sacrifice, there is a full picture of a country at war for its very survival, aware that their people are considered and treated as sub-human by the Nazis. The colossal Soviet war effort, moving entire sectors of the economy hundreds of miles to safety beyond the Urals is something very difficult to imagine – yet they did it.

Thumbnail portraits of individuals are lovingly done, clearly showing their dedication to their tasks, their modesty, their pride in work well done, and their love of their country: you do feel that many millions of people did really have their lives improved under communism. Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, Grossman portrays his German characters insightfully, without hatred or racism, allowing the evils of Nazism to speak for themselves, as well as trying to show the political and psychological reasons for the success of that ideology among the Germans.

There is a very powerful sense of immediacy when the actual German attack on Stalingrad begins; the sudden disappearances and deaths of characters we have grown to know and like are very shocking but obviously realistic: war doesn’t spare favourites. Equally touching are the cameos of moments of reunion and happiness in the midst of warfare. What I found most powerful of all, extraordinary even, were his portrayals of men and women fighting to the death in the ruins of their city, conscious of the fact that they were certainly going to die quite soon. We see how they are transformed by their experiences, and if we find this all rather hard to believe at times, the notes remind us that many of Grossman’s accounts are factually-based.

Stalingrad struck me as a less mature novel than Life and Fate, more propagandist and more diffuse, even naive at times. Nevertheless, it is a stunning achievement when one takes all the different factors I’ve tried to mention into account. It means I’ll have to go back to Life and Fate again soon. I’ve mentioned the excellent critical apparatus in Chandler’s work; I’ll moan about the poor maps which lack the necessary detail to be helpful to the reader in following the action, and the shoddy production values of the UK edition of the book, which is basically a glued-block paperback with a cheap flat-spine cardboard cover…

But, read this book!

On long novels

July 7, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_.jpg  I’ve finally made the plunge and picked up this doorstop of a Russian novel, the prequel to Life and Fate, which I’ve often raved about, and I’ve found myself thinking about long novels.

Russian literature immediately springs to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Kerenina. And most of Dostoyevsky’s novels, too. In the twentieth century there is Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy, each book of which is a weighty tome, the already mentioned Vassily Grossman, and some of Solzhenitsyn’s works are pretty hefty too. What is it about Russians and their novels: is it something as simple as the long, cold and dark winters meaning there was plenty of time for reading, or is it the inward-looking Russian soul? The vastness of the country being reflected in the length of its fiction? All of these seem incredibly trite and simplistic notions.

Dickens wrote by the yard in nineteenth century England, but I can’t be doing with him, so will refrain from any comment. But there are lengthy novels which I have read and enjoyed, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The latter is a hearty picaresque romp, not exactly structured or realistic, but Eliot’s novel does succeed in portraying a vast cross-section of English society in the 1820s and 1830s in a fairly realistic and representative manner, combining fascinating characters with a breadth of social detail and comment; it wouldn’t have worked as a shorter book.

Anthony Powell attempts a sweeping canvas of a certain slice of British society in the early and mid-twentieth century in his twelve-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and I have promised myself I will return to this, although I suspect it may be a rerun of the TV adaptation instead…

And then there is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I would like to go back to again. It’s hard work, and worthwhile, taking so much space to cover only a single day in the life of his characters, and presenting a kaleidoscope of different settings in a wide variety of different literary styles and forms.

When I turn my gaze to Europe, I’m aware of fewer long novels. There was Ernst Wiechert’s The Jeromin Children, a family epic covering several decades of life in former East Prussia. I have a copy of Manzoni’s The Betrothed awaiting eyeball time. And Jonathan Littell’s astonishing The Kindly Ones (English title of Les Bienveillantes, a novel that the American writer originally wrote in French, which is a remarkable achievement in itself, also awaits a re-visit.

In American literature, I suppose there’s obviously Moby Dick, which I had to read at university but which I’ve never been able to convince myself to open again, and more recently many of the novels of Thomas Pynchon, which again I have resisted re-reading, although I have enjoyed some of them immensely.

Long novels have the intention of portraying a wide panorama of a society, often over a lengthy period of time, in an attempt to capture the deeper essence of a country or an era; a writer needs all those pages to do justice to her/his subject matter, to draw in the reader and immerse them in a different world. Almost invariably the effort is rewarding, but at the same time it is quite daunting: you need to feel that you have the time to commit to get to the end, otherwise what will be the point? You have to wrestle with a huge number of characters: editors of Russian novels are often helpful in providing the reader with an index of the characters and their relationships with each other, along with all the possible variants on their names. Plot can fade into the background a little, and if story is what grabs you, well you may be disappointed. But I’ll mention here a revelation: The Cairo Trilogy, by Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz: yes, technically it’s three (500 page) novels rather than a single one, but after I’d got to the end, having been blown away by the world he depicted, I came away with a much clearer picture of Arab and Muslim society, how the people lived and what they believed, their hopes and fears, than I had ever imagined I would gain. That doorstop was worth every page, and I do hope to have time for another re-read…

Vassily Grossman: A Writer at War

June 12, 2019

51A67VDPEHL._AC_UL436_  While I was waiting for Grossman’s novel Stalingrad to be published (it’s the prequel to the stunning Life and Fate, and I now have my copy, though as it’s a 1000-page doorstop, don’t expect a review too soon!) I decided to revisit this collection of his journalism from the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their Second World War, which lasted from 1941-45. It’s not pure Grossman, as it’s edited, selected, commented on and analysed, but this has been done well.

Grossman was medically unfit to serve, so became a war correspondent for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvedza, and followed the war through all the fronts, from the retreat and loss of Bielorussia and Ukraine almost to Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad, the biggest tank battle ever at the Kursk salient, and the push back which took the Red Army to Berlin.

One is immediately struck by the immediacy and the impressionism of his reportage. He chronicles the horrendous start to the war, with the Soviet Union paralysed by Stalin’s unwillingness to believe his erstwhile Nazi ally had dared to attack. This denial of reality seems to have gone on for a long while, worsening the military collapse. Then there was the tragedy of the Ukraine, devastated by Stalin’s starvation tactics and famine ten years previously, which meant that its inhabitants often welcomed the Germans with open arms, not realising what was about to happen to them.

The hectic nature of life under fire and the uncertainty of war come across vividly, as does the astonishing heroism of so many in defence of their motherland. And Grossman was at the front, among it all. I cannot recall any parallel to the extraordinary callousness and brutality of warfare: Grossman paints a picture of Russians fighting for their very existence, rather than just not to be invaded and conquered: here is a very different sense of conflict.

Grossman’s accounts of the battle for Stalingrad are very vivid; he interviewed commanders and men and wrote up his accounts for the newspaper: the men recognised themselves and the deeds he described, and his reputation grew; he was only censored ‘lightly’ because of the patriotic feelings his accounts inspired. Only when he mentioned specifically what was happening to the Jews – he was Jewish – was the blue pencil heavier; the Soviet authorities did not approve of the Jews being viewed as any different from other Soviet citizens, and such anti-semitism was to worsen after the end of the war.

The accounts of the winning back of Soviet territory from the Nazis, and the discovery of the full horror of what the Germans had done in the territories they had occupied, make very unpleasant reading: it is clear that the Nazi approach to Slavs was that they were subhuman and they were treated as such. This did not happen in Western Europe: there are just too many stories we cannot comprehend, just as in Svetlana Alexievich’s accounts of the same war. You need a particularly strong stomach to read his descriptions of the Treblinka extermination camp, culled from interviews with those who lived in the area.

There are those who say that such events are now so long ago in the past that it’s time to forget them. I’m not one of those. Very many Germans – not all, though – have striven to come to terms with this appalling period of their history and what members of their families did, more or less willingly. We do not have the right to forget what bestialities humans inflicted on each other, nor should we blithely imagine that such things are only part of the past.

August favourites #27: memoir

August 27, 2018

51MLFDfWnnL._AC_US218_41yGjAW6xRL._AC_US218_I read very little biography, and even less autobiography, and I’m not sure whether this is actually one, or more of a memoir, although, since it covers so much of the writer’s adult life, it feels like an autobiography to me. There are many books detailing many writers’ experiences in the Gulag – the network of forced labour camps that covered various areas of the old Soviet Union and existed for the punishment of a wide range of crimes. From the 1930s onwards, sentences of five to ten years were common, and, depending on where the camp was, survival was often unlikely: conditions in the Arctic Circle, building the White Sea Canal, or out in the mines of the Far East were truly horrendous. Yevgenia Ginsburg’s story (Into The Whirlwind, and Within the Whirlwind) is similar to that of many. She tells it clearly, straightforwardly and in detail; it’s a very moving story, particularly in the humanity she depicts amid all the horrors. It’s long and it’s gruelling; I’ve read it twice, and it’s a tribute to human survival and decency for me. I’m not sure it’s possible for us in the West really to understand why and how such things came to happen…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #12: Russian novels

August 12, 2018

41GnrrcFxKL._AC_US218_Russia is a huge country and it has gone in for more than its fair share of huge – as in door-stopper size – novels, a number of which are rightly classics. I could nominate War and Peace, although lately I’ve found myself preferring Anna Kerenina if I’m thinking about Tolstoy. I’ve a soft spot for Crime and Punishment, which was the first Russian ‘classic’ I read, and have frequently returned to. In the twentieth century, it’s the horrors of Stalinism which have preoccupied many writers, and in my younger days I really liked Solzhenitsyn’s work. Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy is not very well known, but is very powerful and convincing, but for me the epic choice has to be Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which I’ve often mentioned in these posts: he wrestles with Stalin and Stalinism, as well as the horrors of the Second World War and the Battle of Stalingrad. It truly is an astonishing novel.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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