by Vasily Grossman

Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler; edited by Robert Chandler and Yury Bit-Yunan

Harvill Secker, £25.00

Review by Alasdair McKillop

Early in August 1942, as German forces were preparing to attack Stalingrad, that iconic Russian city on the banks of the Volga, Walt Disney’s Bambi premiered in London. The story about the young deer and his forest friends seems far removed from the cataclysmic cityscape into which Stalingrad would be transformed. But think again. Think about the murder of Bambi’s mother, killed in the snow by a long-range rifle shot; think about the hellish fire unleashed by man and the escape of the animals across water to safety. More direct representations are available.

Stalingrad, published for the first time in English, is the prequel to Vasily Grossman’s highly regarded Life and Fate, completed in 1960 but not published in English until 1985, and features some of the same characters. The book swirls outwards from the Shaposhnikov family, headed by Alexandra Vladimirovna, to encompass a huge cast, German as well as Russian. Alexandra has three daughters – Ludmila, Marusya and Zhenya – and they have children, husbands, ex-husbands and potential husbands, almost all of whom can be considered major figures. Stalingrad is a challenging novel and it’s easy for the characters to become submerged by the force of so many pages be turned. A useful list is provided at the end for those needing a reminder but a determined attack will minimise any flicking back and forth because that’s no way to read a book.

As uncertainty about the future rises like “clouds of dust raised over Soviet soil by the boots of millions of invading fascists soldiers”, the story sweeps across factories and mines, cramped military headquarters and the open steppe, hospitals, children’s homes and universities. The characters are civilians and soldiers, technicians and engineers and scientists – the type of people created by the Soviet Union so that they could, in turn, set about creating it. With the exception of the Russian soldiers, the characters are also scarecrow-stiff. This is at least partly attributable to the size of the cast Grossman chose to work with. In his introduction, Robert Chandler describes Grossman as “master of character portrayal”. I disagree. Chandler also disagrees with himself in the afterword, at least to a certain extent, when he highlights the socialist realism’s demand for “consistency” of personality. He explains the translation draws on the version of the book in which the characters are most convincing, which begs a question about how they appeared in the others.

About 500 pages are allowed to pass before the battle for the city starts. It is only when accounts of combat drive the narrative, when there is “no room in people’s bodies for anything except the echo of this blind iron howl”, that the book ascends towards the icons. The final 100 pages, which focus on an isolated battalion defending Stalingrad's railway station, rank among the best portrayals of warfare in any medium. Grossman, writes movingly about the pleasure experienced by soldiers able to strip off their uniforms to wash in a river, knowingly about the different types of smoke that fragrance warzones and beautifully about telephone cables played by the wind as if they were violin strings. He is at his best when he allows the fiction to shadow his own experience as a war correspondent.

Writing after the fact, there is a sense that he set out to catalogue a whole society at a moment of utmost pearl in the knowledge that it would be changed utterly by the means of survival. Stalingrad’s authenticity of setting is unimpeachable, an elevated form of reportage is where Grossman’s true mastery lies. Using semi-colons placed by machine gun, he is equally able to compose long lists covering the winter conditions during the Leningrad siege and the natural life on the steppe as summer shades into autumn.

But this is a compromised book in at least two senses. First, it draws on three editions, published in Russia between 1952 and 1956, and 11 typescripts in the archives. Even before publication, Stalingrad, we are told, was revised at least four times to meet the changing demands of the editors who also acted as censors. Grossman, who came from a Jewish family and was born in Ukraine, got so desperate that he thought it wise to write to Stalin. Writing this time as the book’s editor, Chandler explains in the afterword how material from published and unpublished versions was incorporated. Second, the book would almost certainly be markedly different had not been written in the Soviet Union after the war. By that I don’t mean to say that it would be different if it had been written later or by an author from another country, although that would of course be true. What I mean to say is that Grossman himself, who died in Moscow in 1964, would’ve written a different book had he enjoyed the peculiar luxury of exile known to Thomas Mann or Vladimir Nabokov or Czesław Miłosz.

Regrettably, there are parts of Stalingrad that read like quota-filling communist hymns intended to satisfy heavy-lidded party officials wielding stubby pencils. After a while, I felt myself to be performing the opposite role to that of a Soviet censor: I was looking not for content that would displease a higher authority but that which was intended to satisfy. Whole conversations started to look dubious, notably those between Viktor and Chepyzhin on the rise of German fascism, and Krymov and Pryakhin on the achievements of the Russian people under communism. There is a preacherly fussiness about the many references to the shared sacrifices of the Soviet people and their essential unity regardless of occupation or wealth. One character is given cause to recall “a thought that had first occurred to him many years ago, about how the apparently striking differences between Soviet people – their looks, their professions and interests – were often only superficial. The unity these things obscured was far deeper.” Perhaps Grossman considered all this to be not such a great leap from his own views based on his experience as a war correspondent. Perhaps he felt it to be no exaggeration at all, even if it reads as such. Regardless, he deserves a generous measure of sympathy, as do the other writers, artists and musicians whose work was flattened by the terrible weight of the last century’s totalitarian regimes. Questions of art weigh lightly when survival is placed on the other side of the scale by hands well capable of murder. Indeed, there is evidence that Grossman did what he could to resist and he was often able to devise creative solutions to political problems that had nothing to do with literature.

In Stalingrad, the war is everything, an inescapable constant, a reference point for all else. There is the earth below and the sky above and, in the middle, there is the divine “black shadow” of the war – hell risen to the surface. But this is a book about something more than war. It’s a book about a nation at war, a society a war, and, finally, about a people at war. What will linger is the vast ambition of Grossman’s humanism and the epic scale of his imagination, albeit working within constraints.

Rare is the book that weighs the same as an artillery shell, rarer still one that weighs on the conscience as if a moral obligation. Stalingrad does that. For all that it might be a daunting prospect, the book demands multiple readings because it is shaped, for good and ill, by forces and experiences at the centre of the most turbulent and transformative century we’ve ever known. This is a book to be absorbed over the course of a life, read and re-read from new perspectives. A tree records the passing of time, the completion of every cycle of seasons, by rings that form at ever-increasing distances from the centre. Each reading of Stalingrad would represent a movement closer to its elusive core, to its heart that keeps on beating through time.