Probably the Russian literature event of the year in the English-speaking world has been the publication of the English translation of Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad,” the first part of his two-part series about the battle of Stalingrad that concludes with “Life and Fate.”
Me reading “Life and Fate” for my PhD comps while camping out on Springer Mountain, December 31, 2008. It was chilly that night. Very chilly. And the hardback Russian version of the novel was not light.
Publication is a strange thing, and so a censored version of “Stalingrad,” titled “За правое дело” (“For a Just Cause”), was published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The sequel, “Life and Fate,” however, was unpublishable. But it *did* get published in English translation later, while “Stalingrad/For a Just Cause” itself has only just come out in English. This translation combines the Soviet published versions of “For a Just Cause” with material from Grossman’s drafts of the novel in order to create what the editors believe to be something close to what he would have wanted to be the finished and complete version of the book.
Grossman’s fictional account of the battle of Stalingrad has been compared to “War and Peace,” and not without reason. Although “Stalingrad” and “Life and Fate” are maybe not *quite* as sprawling as Tolstoy’s work, they still encompass a large cast of characters, with action taking place all over the Soviet Union, and Germany as well. Grossman is also following deliberately in Tolstoy’s footsteps not just in the theme and scope of the work, but in his frequent meditations on the nature of history and the unconscious will of the people.
This is seen not just in the battle scenes, but in the chapters describing workers in the factories and mines, pushing themselves to superhuman heights in order to produce the coal, energy, and steel necessary for the war effort. In fact, while “Stalingrad” is definitely a war novel, it is also a Soviet-style production novel, with the heroism of the common worker put front and center.
Production novels may not sound exciting, but Grossman makes those scenes just as riveting as the battle scenes or the love triangles that populate the novel. Soldiers, scientists, nurses, artists, and coal miners all get their due, so that a broad cross-section of wartime Soviet society is depicted.
It’s hard to say whether something as momentous as “Stalingrad” is “good” or not. Like with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” it seems wrong to focus too much on its artistic merits. But as with “One Day,” it does have plenty of artistic as well as historical merit. And while it is not a quick or an easy read, it is an engrossing one. Although it is most likely to appeal to Russianists and WWII buffs, anyone who likes a good epic will find plenty to enjoy here. I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis of the text here, other than to recommend that you go out and read it.
Grossman was writing for his own time and place, so there are lots of details that are opaque to the modern, especially non-Russian, reader. Helpfully, this translation comes with an extensive critical apparatus, including extensive end notes, maps of the Eastern Front and of Stalingrad, an account of the publication history of the book, and a chapter-by-chapter discussion of which scenes came from which version of the original text. Although not all readers will want to read all of this, they form a handy reference.
In short, read “Stalingrad”! Then go read “Life and Fate.”