New books — From the December 2009 issue
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One result of this revolution was the publication in Russia, in 1988, of Life and Fate, a novel by the Russian-Jewish writer Vasily Grossman, who died in 1964 without knowing whether his greatest works, which demonstrate a range and moral urgency that have been justly compared with Tolstoy’s, would ever be published. In EVERYTHING FLOWS (New York Review Books, $15.95), Grossman begins with the story of Ivan Grigoryevich, a once-promising young man deported to the gulag, who is liberated after the death of Stalin and returns to Moscow and Leningrad in late middle age, completely estranged by his experience from his former relatives and friends, with their more pedestrian traumas. It is clear that this man stands no chance of ever resuming anything like a normal life.
His life is, like this book, a fragment, but the form does not make the novel any less powerful—to the contrary, its incompletion and fragmentation are perhaps ideal reflections of an experience so lightless and fundamentally incomprehensible that prose will always be unequal to it. Grossman is not an ideologue; his novel endeavors to capture the thoughts and motivations of everyone entangled in the impossible Communist system: “But do you know the vilest thing of all about stool pigeons and informers? Do you think it is the bad in them? No! The most terrible thing is the good in them; the saddest thing is that they are full of merits and good qualities.”
If Grossman understands the motives that kept this system going, he must also have understood that this novel could never have been published in the old Soviet Union: he died twenty-four years before Gorbachev assumed power, yet writes as if he were free, even going so far, in describing the death of the Red Tsar, as to anticipate the end of his empire: “The State’s body, the State’s flesh, was in fact mortal and earthly. It too, like Stalin, suffered heart tremors; it too had albumen in its urine.” Nor does he hesitate to attack the immortal body preserved in Red Square. “There was nothing that Lenin shrank from, no tactics too vicious for him to employ,” Grossman writes—again, not for ideological reasons, but to explain the sources of Lenin’s personality, the degradation of his people. “It is time for the students and diviners of Russia to understand that the mystique of the Russian soul is simply the result of a thousand years of slavery.”
The subjects—a man condemned to the gulag, a Ukrainian village condemned to famine, a woman separated from her child and husband and sent to die in Siberia—could not be more grim, but the book is a delight to read. Grossman is dryly funny (“Again and again he saw the same signs: ‘MEAT’ and ‘HAIRDRESSER.’ In the twilight the vertical ‘MEAT’ signs shone red; the horizontal ‘HAIRDRESSER’ signs were a piercing green. These signs, which had appeared together with the first residents, seemed to reveal man’s carnivorous essence”) and skilled at creating scenes of gently tragic power, as when Ivan Grigoryevich, his cousin, and his cousin’s wife reunite and the awkward realization of all that they have lost dawns on them: “If you ever have the feeling that you’ve lost whole decades and that your life has been wasted,” the cousin, a successful scientist swelled with his own importance, stammers, “if ever you feel like this when you meet people who have spent their lives writing books and suchlike rather than felling trees and digging the earth—don’t even give this feeling the time of day!”
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