Prospect Magazine - September 2006

Page 55

PORTRAIT/ CHANDLER

official, in the implementation of measures that exacerbate the famine. We cannot help but identify with Anna and so we too feel guilty; Grossman does not allow the reader the luxury of indignation. Everything Flows also includes an extraordinary mock trial: the reader is asked to pronounce judgement on four informers. The arguments Grossman gives to both prosecution and defence are lively and startling; as a reader, one is constantly changing one’s mind. Grossman is still not widely read in contemporary Russia. Nationalists cannot forgive him for a long meditation in Everything Flows on “the slave soul” of Russia. Many Russians have simply not yet had time to digest the vast amount of previously forbidden literature that was first published in the late 1980s. The Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov, for example, has told me that he read so much during those years that he can no longer remember who wrote what. And then, after the collapse of communism, Russians were thrown into a world so unfamiliar and frightening that they had little time or energy to think about their Soviet past. But many other groups of readers are now being drawn to Grossman: Ukrainian émigrés, who value him for his writing about the terror famine; Jews, who value him for what he has written about the Shoah; people with an interest in the history of the second world war and the relationship between communism and fascism; journalists, who see him as an exemplary war correspondent. It is interesting that a recent European conference celebrating the centenary of Grossman’s birth was held at a Catholic centre in Turin and that several of the writers, critics and journalists who most admire Grossman—Gillian Slovo, Martin Kettle and John Lloyd among others—are ex-Marxists. Both Catholics and Marxists tend to expect art not only to be a source of joy, but also to provide moral guidance and a greater understanding of reality.

V

was born on 12th December 1905 in Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. His parents were Jews and they originally named their son Iosif, but this obviously Jewish name was later russified to Vasily;
ASILY SEMYONOVICH GROSSMAN

the family was well off and assimilated. At some point in his early childhood, his parents separated. From 1910 to 1912, the young Grossman and his mother lived in Switzerland, probably in Geneva. His mother, Yekaterina Savelievna, was later to work as a French teacher. From 1914 to 1919 he went to secondary school in Kiev and from 1924 to 1929 he studied chemistry at Moscow State University. There he realised that his vocation was literature. He never, however, lost interest in science; Viktor Shtrum, the central figure of Life and Fate and in many respects a self-portrait, is a nuclear physicist. (Primo Levi, another great witness to the Shoah, worked as an industrial chemist. Like Grossman, he is a master of precise description.) After graduating, Grossman moved to the industrial region of the Donbass, in east Ukraine, working as an inspector in a mine and a chemistry teacher in a medical institute. In 1932 he returned to Moscow, and in 1934 he published both “In the Town of Berdichev”—a short story that won the admiration of writers as different as Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaak Babel—and a novel, Glyukauf, about Donbass miners. In 1937 Grossman was admitted to the Union of Soviet Writers. His novel Stepan Kol’chugin was later nominated for a Stalin prize. Critics often divide Grossman’s life into two parts. Tzvetan Todorov, for example, says that “Grossman is the only example… of an established Soviet writer changing his spots completely. The slave in him died, and a free man arose.” But it is wrong to draw so clear a distinction between the “conformist” writer of the 1930s and 1940s and the “dissident” who wrote Life and Fate and Everything Flows in the 1950s. Glyukauf may seem dull today, but it must once have had the power to shock: in 1932 Gorky criticised it for “naturalism”—a Soviet codeword for presenting too much unpalatable reality. At the end of his report Gorky suggested that the author should ask himself: “Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph?” Even then such a cynical attitude to truth would almost certainly have been anathema to Grossman. It is hard, however, not to be impressed by Gorky’s intuition about Grossman as a potential heretic. In 1961, after the manuscripts of Life and Fate had been confiscated,
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STEPHEN LEE