Best known for his novel Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman also wrote short stories and worked as a war correspondent in the Second World War. A Ukrainian Jew with parents who worked as urban professionals, Grossman did not represent the common stereotype of the Eastern European Jew living in a “Litvak shtetl.” The Road, a collection of short stories, journalism, and letters published by New York Review Books, provides a useful jumping off point for anyone interested in the life and work of Vasily Grossman. It includes his earliest stories and his last short story he wrote. “The Hell of Treblinka,” one of the first pieces of journalism about the Holocaust, is the centerpiece in the section devoted to the stories he wrote that focus on the Second World War.
Grossman had his share of tragedy in life. His mother perished at the hands of the German war machine. He wrote his masterpiece Life and Fate to deal with this loss. The Soviet authorities “arrested” the book and Grossman became a non-person following his commitment not to whitewash Soviet complicity in the Second World War and the Holocaust. Becoming a victim of the USSR’s anti-Semitic policies forced him to come to terms with his allegiance to the Soviet Union. The Road charts this gradual disillusionment through his fiction and non-fiction. His earliest stories, written in the 1930s, reflect the common tropes of Soviet Socialist Realism. (Not too different from the heavy-handed moralizing of Ayn Rand’s fiction except that the heroes are Soviet soldiers and not industrialists.) By the 1950s, he had abandoned the trappings of Socialist Realism, transcending literary movements to craft miniature literary gems.
New York Review Books has produced a beautiful book. In terms of content, the translators have chosen the fiction and non-fiction selections that represent the overarching themes important to Grossman. The selections also show Grossman developing as a writer, from devotee to Socialist Realism to literary artist. A photograph opens each section. Each section has an introduction explaining the historical context and specific linguistic issues each piece presents. For instance, the story “Living Space” ends on a complex pun. The translators avail themselves of the challenge successfully. The story involves the everyday lives of residents in a communal apartment after a rehabilitated Gulag prisoner is assigned to live with them. Following the main text, two appendices are included. The first expands further on Grossman and his coverage of Treblinka. The second explores his delicate relationship with Nikolay Yezhov, head of the NKVD and architect of the Great Terror, and his wife Yevgenia, who held a literary salon. Like Roberto Bolaño, Grossman examined the dangerous interrelationship between art, politics, and terror. Bolaño critiqued the US-supported South American authoritarian regimes, most notably Augusto Pinochet, while Grossman casts a subtle eviscerating eye on the lives of the Yezhovs. The short story entitled “Mama” charts the life of a child adopted by the Yezhovs. The child, orphaned by the very same NKDV that Nikolay heads, witnesses the rise and fall of her parents. Yezhov eventually gets pushed out and meets death at the hands of Levrenti Beria.
“The Hell of Treblinka” explains in a few short pages the monumental horror of the Holocaust. With a journalist’s trained eye for the immediate, the reader gets into the head of both the victims and the perpetrators. It explains the demonic efficiency the Germans used to strip the Jews of their humanity. The dehumanization is combined with an equally efficient method of murder on a massive industrial scale. (It hearkens back to Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism in Capital. Beginning with the commodity, he ends his critique by describing the cruelties of mass production and industrialization. Instead of spinning cotton or making clothes, the death camps produced death on a scale unseen before or since.) On the cover of the book, the reader sees a black and white photograph of a road in close up. Grossman explains how the German policy of extermination changed radically following their defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad. Intoxicated by their successes, the SS simply buried their victims in mass graves. After Stalingrad, Himmler ordered the bodies dug up and burned. The SS tried to cover its tracks when German defeat became a foregone conclusion. They did so by covering the road approaching Treblinka with the ashes of the dead. Then they also worked to destroy the camp itself. “The Hell of Treblinka” provides a witness to the Shoah and also makes any reference to an American politician as “a Hitler” as something obscene. It trivializes a tragedy, exposing the intellectual laziness of the accuser. Grossman’s reportage and fiction would later get him into trouble when it failed to line up with official Soviet policy that “all races suffered in the camps.” The policy artfully sidesteps Soviet complicity prior to 1941 and avoids recognizing the unique fate of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their willing collaborators.
One would be remiss without mentioning the more upbeat works in this collection. While Grossman lived in the darkest time of modern history, he brought forth stories reflecting his humanism and compassion for both man and animal. “The Road” is a story about the Italian participation in the German invasion of Russia. Told from the perspective of a mule in an artillery company, it has this pack animal contemplating the meaning of infinity and solving Hamlet’s dilemma. Grossman masterful tale combines gritty realism with elements of a fable. He succeeds in making the reader empathetic to the mule while not making it sound contrived. Another animal story, “The Dog”, tells the story of the first dog to successfully travel in space.
“The Sistine Madonna” is a non-fiction piece devoted to Raphael’s painting. The story relates the travels of the painting from the Dresden courts (now under Soviet control following the Second World War) and its arrival in the Hermitage for an exhibition. Combining art history, reportage, and imaginative reverie, Grossman creates a visionary tableau in appreciation of Raphael’s work.
The Road offers an embarrassment of riches for the reader. Newcomers to Grossman or readers familiar with his novels will appreciate the work of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Mukovnikova. Vasily Grossman works of literary genius place him with the great modern stylists Samuel Beckett, Truman Capote, and Thomas Pynchon.