Vasily Grossman Trio

“History’s only true heroes, the only true leaders of mankind are those who help to establish freedom, who see freedom as the greatest strength of an individual, a nation or state, who fight for the equality, in all respects, of every individual, people and nation.” – Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad

Everything Flows. Stalingrad. Life and Fate.

These three, read in this particular order reminds me of realist painting lessons: One starts by sketching the foundation and the outline, followed by painting the background and setting the mood for the main subject, and then finally filling in the details and emphasizing the contrast of light and shadow by articulating the source of light.

Because of its fullness, it is hard to believe that Everything Flows is an unfinished work, but after having read the three in succession, I now see it as a concise foundation on the scope of Grossman’s knowledge and profundity. Stalingrad exists to set a monumental stage, Life and Fate consummates the masterpiece.

Everything Flows is a forceful literary piece in which the main character occasionally disappears to give way to in-depth analyses of Russia, Lenin, Stalin, other political figures of that era, and sometimes, its literature.

For someone considered the Tolstoy of the 20th century, it is important to note that the difference between Grossman and Tolstoy is that Tolstoy wrote about a war that took place before he was born, while Grossman wrote about wars in which he was a war correspondent. The things immortalized through his fiction, he experienced and witnessed firsthand. 

He wrote at a time when there was hardly any published information regarding the Gulag, Collectivisation, the siege of Stalingrad, the Holocaust, Treblinka, 20th century’s lesser-known acts of genocide — the Armenian, the Circassian, and Ukraine’s Holodomor or Terror Famine — and he wrote of these things. Most of all, he did not merely write, he did so with unbelievable insight and clarity.

And because of current world events, I think there is no better time to read him.

He was born in Ukraine.

Stalingrad, an expression of how the siege impacted the lives of Russians and one particular extended family is, to me, epic in every sense of the word. But what will stay with me is the hopeful tone that Grossman maintained amidst all the human suffering!

“No wartime blackout has darkened the stars.”

Despite the horrors of which he wrote, he never fails to stop to admire beauty: “At times like this we cease to have distinct perceptions of light, space, silence, rustlings, warmth, sweet smells, the swaying of long grass or leaves — all the millions of ingredients that make up the world’s beauty. What we perceive then is true beauty, and it tells us only one thing: that life is a blessing.”

I believe this is also where he leaves clues about the kind of art he sought to achieve. In a brief chapter hides this beautiful passage that book reviews of Stalingrad (at least, the ones I’ve read) fail to mention:

Art of this kind does not separate people from the world. Art like this connects people to life, to other people and to the world as a whole. It does not scrutinize life through strangely tinted spectacles.

As they read this kind of book, people feel that they are being infused with life, that the vastness and complexity of human existence is entering into their blood, into the way they think and breathe.

But this simplicity, this supreme simplicity of clear daylight, is born from the complexity of light of different wavelengths.

In this clear, calm and deep simplicity lies the truth of genuine art. Such art is like the water of a spring; if you look down, you can see the bottom of a deep pool. You can see green weeds and pebbles. Yet the pool is also a mirror; in it you can see the entire world where you live, labor and struggle. Art combines the transparency of glass and the power of a perfect astronomical mirror.

All this applies not only to art; it is equally true of science and politics.”

And if you ask me, Grossman has achieved this in these three works.

Life and Fate is where the excruciating details are.

How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time? How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face?

And yet he does!

I overestimated my courage when I set out to read this. Some of the most heartrending passages in literature are found between these pages: A Jewish mother who is about to be seized writes a long farewell letter to her son, the last words being, “Live, live, live for ever… Mama”; a woman, mad with hunger, who had just eaten her two children; a suffocating chapter of a scene where Jews are being herded like cattle to their deaths; a childless woman who had a chance at freedom but chose to hold the hand of a boy on the way to a gas chamber, and as she draws her last breath, she reflects, “I’ve become a mother.”

It took me longer to finish reading this than expected because I had to put it away so many times just to catch my breath or to calm myself down before continuing, not to mention a fever that made it difficult for me to read the last two hundred pages. But then again, Life and Fate concludes the painting. And what work of realism would be complete without its darkness?

The thing about masterpieces is that you cannot merely read them. You experience them.

As I review my notes of the three books, I notice recurring themes: Warnings about the tendencies of totalitarianism and its evils, what it means to be human, what causes one to cease being human, freedom, and kindness as the greatest achievement of the soul.

Never mind the fascinating passages on quantum mechanics that reflect Grossman’s knowledge in this field, never mind that Life and Fate contains some of the most illuminating discussions on Russian literature, never mind the other things about Grossman and his works that easily come up in internet searches, Raymond Chandler sums it up beautifully in his introduction to Life and Fate, “It is an exhortation to live.”

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