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Tonight’s book-with-wine discussion is about Vasily Grossman‘s novel, Everything Flows (New York Review Book, USA, 2009). It was his final work, and left unfinished at the time of his death, in 1964.
It’s not a difficult read, only 250 pages, but it isn’t easy. Readers unfamiliar with Soviet history, particularly the Stalin era, will not understand much of it. And it’s hardly a cheerful work. Not that everything Russian is a slit-your-wrist work, but it’s certainly Dostoevsky-like in its darkness.
Grossman was a Soviet war correspondent during WWII and travelled with the Red Army through Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk then into Eastern Europe, and finally Germany, where he covered the Battle for Berlin. He was the top war correspondent of the USSR and his articles were collected and translated in a 2006 book, A Writer at War. His pieces offer a very personal look at a side of the war we usually know more from military and official sources.
His mother was murdered by the Nazis in 1941, as they blitzed across the Ukraine. As a Jew, Grossman suffered Soviet racism and prejudices, increasing in the late 1940s as Stalin grew more paranoid and anti-Semitic. His artistic views were also molded by his war experiences and his ability to see the people in the carnage. He was among the first to see Treblinka and was one of the earliest to chronicle the Holocaust.
He was a good reporter and became a good novelist. He wrote honestly about what few of his contemporaries have dared write: life in Soviet Russia; the life of individuals slogging through an unrelenting system they didn’t fully understand, about their core of human will to survive. Honest, moving stuff. And for that he would become persona non grata, one among many artists whose work displeased the State.
After the war, he wrote two novels, both about the war: For a Just Cause (1952) and Life and Fate. The former was a fairly standard work for its day and was published. The latter has been compared to a modern War and Peace – it is huge, sweeping and complex. But because it was also critical of the Soviet government, and exposed some of the army’s atrocities as it advanced into enemy territory, it was too explosive for the then-Soviet censors (and the party’s chief ideologue, Mikhail Suslov). The government had it banned. Life and Fate would not be published until 1980, after his death.
Everything Flows could never have been published in Russian under the Soviets. It was simply too critical of Stalin and the party, even in the more open period under Khrushchev – the “Thaw.” It did get translated into English, though, in 1972, as Forever Flowing. This new (2009) translation by Robert Chandler is also by the man who first brought Life and Fate into English.
The story is a somewhat disjointed tale of Ivan, a former prisoner in the Gulag who is returned to society after Stalin’s death, in 1953. He relives his imprisonment and remembers the camps, through his conversations and thoughts.
His appearance in Moscow after more than 20 years imprisonment – for a minor infraction of which he was innocent, not even a crime – also causes his family and former friends distress. They recall how they survived and avoided the purges – often by denouncing others – to live in comparative luxury while friends and coworkers were carted off. Consciences were blackened by guilt and Ivan’s return only serves up unpleasant reminders of their moral bankruptcy. Neither side can absolve the other.
Hardly a happy family reunion. But Grossman was still filling in the blanks and had finished more of the internal dialogue and set-piece criticism than the linking narrative by the time of his death.
What he left is less of a novel than a series of commentaries and reminiscences about the horrors and brutality of the camps and the famine caused by collectivization, and a meditation on Russian history. Potentially larger in scope than the massive Life and Fate, the uncompleted Everything Flows now seems more of an artifact of the era than a grand novel of life under Stalin.
Translator Robert Chandler wrote:
Everything Flows and the last of Grossman’s short stories not only extol freedom – they also embody freedom. The subject matter is mostly dark, but the liveliness of Grossman’s intelligence – and I hope that his intelligence now lives in the English as it does in the Russian – makes these works surprisingly heartening.
If you’ve read Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat, you have similarly read about Soviet life. Rybakov’s novel is set in the ’30s at the time of some of the events Grossman recounts. The mounting confrontation between fear and passionate ideology are well described. It was written later, in the middle of the “Thaw” when the USSR was, in comparison, much more open and modern, although his work, too, would be repressed and not published until the late 1980s.
Grossman’s story opens just after the death of Stalin, when no one was quite sure how the state would develop, and the surviving leaders were still squabbling over power, territory and authority. An unexpected amnesty had released thousands from the camps, although the Gulag system would continue for decades more. But the returnees washed into Soviet life like a tsunami, telling stories few wanted to hear. The story seesaws between the present and the past as Ivan and others remember and recount their lives.
A massive, new purge – of doctors and Jews – had begun, but its full assault only barely avoided by Stalin’s unexpected demise. People were still trying to come to grips with the news that it had been called off. They were shaken, even frightened to learn that the ‘evidence’ was manufactured and the accused were innocent. It shook the very foundations of Soviet society to even contemplate the fallibility of The Leader. Blame was thrown on other party officials. The very nature of reality was unsure.
Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” of 1956, denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality” and condemning his fellow politicians who helped Stalin’s repression would never be made public officially (it wasn’t even published in the USSR until 1989). While Stalinists like Mikhail Suslov continued in power (Suslov died in ’82), there would be an ongoing battle against openness and artistic licence. Little wonder Grossman could find no willing publisher.
If you’ve read either Solzehnitsyn or Applebaum’s works on the Gulag, then Grossman’s words help by humanizing the story, putting a personal spin on the camps; an individual tragedy. Or rather, several tragedies, because it’s not only Ivan who suffered. Even those who escaped being purged have their heavy burdens or remorse and guilt.
Ivan was a very small cog in a massive machine of wheels, gears and grinders that chewed through human life like a wood chipper swallows a tree. Ivan is a rare one spit out whole, if not entirely intact. He returns as one of the walking wounded, to be greeted by people who are trying desperately to pretend nothing happened. It’s Kafkaesque: everyone around him acting out a role, wearing masks that Grossman peers behind.
It’s also depressing. It’s hard for us in the West today to imagine life under such a regimented, repressive system (although if Donald Trump wins the US election, we may get to live it first-hand for ourselves…). In part, that’s why this is an important novel: to give us a window into both the times, and the impact on human lives of such repression and control. It is a historical lesson and those who don’t learn the lessons of history are bound to relive them.
Had Grossman lived longer, he could have fleshed it out better, as he does in Life and Fate, but don’t let that stop you from reading it. Grossman is as important a writer as Joyce or Tolstoy and should be read.
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