“You, you will reap what I have sown”; Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad

 

Late last year I happened upon a piece by Mike Smith, which led me to his website, where I found several posts on Vassily Grossman’s STALINGRAD.  I was struck by his openness to share his thoughts as both a writer who reads and a reader who writes. These musings struck me not so much as an expression of separate activities, but rather as someone who, as a writer himself was seeking to explore and unearth both the heart of the writing process, as much as revealing the tale-weaving that emerges from a place literary artistry, while encapsulating the experience of readership, in and of itself.
Several weeks went by and, as happens with me when I encounter writing for the first time, that lingers in my head and a mental conversation ensues with that writing, or because of it, I inevitably return to learn more about what and why my mind is now preoccupied by their ideas or the writing itself.

The qualitative apprenticeship underpinning Mike Smith’s curiosity was clear from his blog posts. Here was someone who, after what is clearly years of crafting, still expresses a serious curiosity about form, technique and linguistic process, in the formulation of masterful storytelling. In today’s world of perhaps, overly accessible publishing and the pervasiveness of ‘self expression parading as writing’, this was not just a breath of fresh air, but simultaneously a spotlight on what is seriously undervalued in writing these days: A serious craftsman in pursuit of pure storytelling artistry, and where better to delve into its depths, than the penmanship of Grossman.
I contacted Mike and asked if he’d consider a review of Stalingrad for Literati Magazine and with Mike’s permission, I would like to share his initial explorations into the world of Stalingrad as a way of introduction to his review that follows.

 

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I read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate a few years ago. I was gripped by it. There’s a chapter in there that’s a more powerful telling of the holocaust than anything fictional, or factual that I’ve ever read  before on the subject – possibly because I had read my way to it, and had to read my way from it in the story. I tried a second reading, but for some reason bogged down early in the story. I’ll try again. So, when I came to read the recently published  Stalingrad, I was braced for a gruelling ride. I’ve read a few accounts of the battle, and several on the wider ‘Russian Campaign’. Tramstop Moscow, and Enemy at the Gates spring to mind. A section of the latter formed the basis of an equally gripping film I saw most of – but not the beginning, so I have no idea what it’s called (and haven’t got round to finding out)!

There are moments in the battle that have cropped up in many histories, and no doubt in a few fictions too: a flaming oil spillage that flows down to the Volga past the Russian HQ bunker; the defence of a particular house named after a Sergeant; the horrors of the shrinking pocket in which Paulus’s army was finally sealed; Hitler’s announcement, before the surrender, that the 6th Army had fought to the last man. Five thousand or so prisoners, out of about half a million taken, were returned to Germany in 1955. Montgomery had one rule of war: ‘Don’t invade Russia’.

It’s hard to shake off prejudices and expectations when facing a novel like Stalingrad. Two hundred pages in, and I’ve been surprised: It’s not just that I’ve hardly seen a shot fired in anger, except far away and by report. The war hovers on the edge of the consciousness of all the characters I’ve met so far, and as is the case with Grossman’s other epic, there are lots of characters to meet. In amongst so many stories, so many relationships, families, friends, work colleagues, from peasants to scientists and professors, it’s amazing to find moments of fine detail, as good as any you’ll get in a perfectly crafted short story.

The first little gem of this type to spring out at me, was near to the end of Chapter 4, barely 20 pages in:

‘How beautiful children seemed in this hut. Early in the morning when little fair-headed Vanya came running across the floor on his bare feet, he was like a warm, moving flower.’

Perhaps that’s why I found myself reading 10-20 pages at a sitting, and no more: It is as tightly packed as a short story needs to be, and as a novel, just shy of 900 pages, rarely is.

Not surprisingly perhaps, my first few blog posts about the epic novel, Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman, have focussed on ‘what’s it about?’ rather than ‘how it’s done?’. Readers, I think, instinctively tend to ask the first, writers, the second. And a novel like Stalingrad grips you as a reader, well it did me, before it grips you as a writer (which, if you’ve got any sense you won’t be aspiring to be). At circa page 560, I’ve experienced the several chapters of the German bombing offensive against the city, with its head-spinning whirlwind of events in which characters that you’ve got to know over the past 100 short chapters have been swept away, seemingly and actually, randomly. But right from the beginning, I’ve been aware of one particular element of ‘how it’s done’, a technique that I can’t remember having seen so frequently and extensively used in any other novel. I certainly haven’t noticed it before, and thinking back, can’t come up with another example. In fact it’s a technique I might have considered a fault when I speculate about how I might use, or have used something similar.

It’s a simple idea, so simple that you might not notice it, were it not being deployed so frequently. David Lodge, in a book on novel writing (somewhere) makes the point that style might be described as something you do (something one does), so often that the reader notices it. Grossman’s massive novel is littered with, is created of, a series of lists (well, at least, I can say the first 560 pages are). Sometimes these lists are of single words, sometimes of phrases, sometimes of longer fragments. The variety of possible uses may be what gives it value, binding the story stylistically, yet not limiting what it can touch upon.

‘The military-industrial machine created by Hitler had absorbed vast riches: French steelworks, French engineering and car factories, the iron mines of Lorraine, Belgian coal mines and steel furnaces, Dutch precision mechanics and radio factories, Austrian metalworking companies, the Skoda arms manufacturer in Czechoslovakia, the Romanian oil industry, Norwegian iron mines, Spanish tungsten and mercury mines, and the textile factories of Lodz.’ – Ch.1,p3

  ‘That night, the city was suddenly filled with noise: hooters, loud shouts, the sound of car and truck engines.’  – Ch.19,p91

  ‘These first flickering stars were perhaps giving birth in his mind to thoughts of proton explosions, of developmental phases and cycles, of  super-dense matter, of cosmic showers and storms of varitrons, of different theories of cosmogony, including his own, of instruments for recording invisible streams of stellar energy…’ –Ch.42,p215

  ‘All that remained were tyre tracks; scraps of newspaper; empty tins outside huts; mountains of potato peelings beside the village school, which housed the HQ canteen; narrow, carefully dug slit-trenches, their walls lined with withered wormwood; and an aspen pole barrier, now raised to the vertical: the road was open – anyone could drive wherever they wished.’ – Ch.65,p349.

It can be tricky to pick out and assess the contribution individual parts make to the whole, and I’m conscious that, reading in translation (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of word or spirit – but I can for the potency of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s version), one can’t be sure if the author’s intention has been captured intact, watered down unavoidably, or intensified, but I get the feeling that the lists deepen and intensify the statements that they, almost always, follow on from. Each list is a sort of exemplar of a point Grossman is making, has made. Sometimes descriptive, sometimes speculative; sometimes of actions and events; sometimes of nouns and adjectives. Occasionally of whole sentences with similar structures, often the opening words being repeated.

It was like this, he says, over and over again, and then adds, and like this, and this, and this and this! The lists are emphatic, not merely widening our perspectives, but deepening them too. A sort of verbal equivalent of that shot in the film adaptation of  Gone With the Wind where the casualties are laid out and the camera pans back revealing more and more, wider and wider, until the screen is filled with a landscape of the wounded. Grossman’s lists sometimes work on that scale, sometimes much more closely and in finer detail. Sometimes they deal in physical appearances, sometimes in political ideas, but they are always there, recurrent, resonant, amplifying the point he is making, crowding our consciousnesses.

Notable is the seeming fact – though harder to prove in such a long text, being a negative – that the characters do not themselves appear to speak using this structure, though there is another Grossman technique that might tempt us to search for such usages. This is his practice of interspersing the many short chapters of narrative thread with ones where a political-philosophical conversation, monologue or train of thought is expounded, where issues about war and peace, and society, and individual character, ethics and morality are discussed, explained, or asserted.

Repetition of linguistic structures, with differing ‘branches’ added to the repeated ‘stem’, is a technique of rhetoric, and chapters like this are in effect rhetorical flourishes. They are not merely decorative however, but represent, perhaps, the truths that contemplation of the events in the book might be thought to lead us towards.

17th November. 2019


Stalingrad.cover

“You, you will reap what I have sown”; Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad

  M I K E   S M I T H

 

[spoiler alert: being a short story writer at heart, Mike begins by focussing on the end]

                            

 

Chapter 48, in Part III of Vasily Grossman’s long novel, Stalingrad, begins forty pages and eight short chapters from the end of the book. That’s slightly over 95% of the way through the story, taken by pages. At five and a half pages long it’s one of the longer chapters in this novel of usually short chapters (number 47 is a tad under 3 pages, number 49 only a line or two over half a page). The book is named after a famous battle of World War Two which took place in and around the city now known as Vogagrad.

It was a turning point of that war. Yet, though the novel begins in and re-visits the city repeatedly, or moves in the company of people who are heading towards or away from it, the battle itself does not commence until we are nearly two thirds of the way through – page 560 in my 893 page edition.

In Chapter 47 of Part III, German burial teams are removing the corpses of their soldiers from the vicinity of the Railway Station, where men of the Russian 3rd Guards Rifle Company have fought to the death in defence of everything the book is about. In a handful of previous chapters, characters we have followed throughout the story have been brought to battle, overwhelmed, and killed.

‘No one would ever again cross paths with any member  of Filyashkin’s battalion. All were dead and can play no further part in this narrative.’

Thus begins Chapter 49, in which Grossman gives a short summary of the battle and of its significance in the context of the wider Russian Front: ‘a strict but unwritten law that had matured in the consciousness of the nation…’ The will to retreat no further.

Chapter 50 continues this journalistic overview and considers the relative contributions to victory of the two great arms of the Soviet forces: infantry and artillery. While the former stubbornly, and to near the last man, clung on to the west bank of the Volga, the latter, from the illusory relative safety of the east bank, provided the fire support that underpinned both defence and counter attack. Chapter 51 resumes the narrative of the Shaposhnikov family, arguably, but not in fact, what the story is truly about.

The father, Stepan Fyodorovich is in charge of the Stalgres power station, which as the book draws to a close is coming under direct German assault for the first time. The focus of the chapter, though, is not on this military detail, but on what Grossman’s novel is asserting is the more important detail: that Stepan’s daughter, Vera, is pregnant, implicitly with the child of the airman whom she has nursed in the Stalingrad hospital, and who has now returned to his squadron – and is, for all we know, already dead or wounded. The chapter ends with an observation, made by Vera’s father, that is greater than it might at first seem: ‘We won’t let your little one come to harm.’

This ordinary, personal and domestic observation, encapsulates much of what the novel, arguably on a par with the Illiad, and War and Peace, and certainly with other wartime classics, like All Quiet on the Western Front, or Her Privates We, is intended to remind us of. Grossman is not writing, primarily, as others have done, about the horrors of war. Indeed, they are often in the background, still present, still potent, still devastating, but relatively unimportant in comparison to greater truths about how and why people, as individuals and as members of groups resist and endure.

In closing down the narrative of his great novel, Grossman is not bringing us to the end of the battle for which it is named, but to the reasons for which it must be fought. In fact, he leaves us at a turning point, long before the historical battle was finished; before, indeed, its final outcome could have been predicted with any certainty.
Chapter 52 returns to the journalistic approach, telling a wider story of the battle’s significance; how it affects the earth itself, the landscape, the wildlife; how all over Europe, and across the globe the battle is watched, and reported, and taken as inspiration by those who in city and in forest resist and oppose the Nazi regime.

Two chapters remain; 54 and 55 bring back a character we have met before. Commissar Krymov, last seen during the retreat from the Don to the Volga, impatient with his hapless driver, with the retreating soldiers, with himself. Now he is no longer heading from west to east, but is travelling, east to west, crossing the Volga to Stalingrad, in the heat of battle. His thought are of Vera Shaposhnikov, his ex-wife, of his fellow men, of the young girls and youths whom he encounters on his journey into the besieged city, of the battle he must now enter – he is going to lecture the troops – and of how this great clash of cultures and regimes will be remembered long into the future by people, among others, like us. The passage runs on for nearly two whole pages, and an almost any sentence could be pulled and would ring out with solemnity and prophecy.

My quotation comes from the beginning of its last paragraph, as Krymov arrives at the riverbank.

‘Perhaps in 800 or 1,800 years, when this road and these trees no longer existed, after this land and this life had fallen asleep for ever, covered by a new land and a new life of which we can know nothing – perhaps some old greybeard would walk slowly by, stop for a moment and say to himself, ‘There were trenches here once. Long ago…’

This closing thread recalled to mind a TV programme I saw many years ago, most of which has faded from memory, but it was centred upon a visit by the British politician, Enoch Powell, to Russia. There, beneath the vast The Motherland Calls statue on the Mamayev Kurgan, Powell, apparently, began to see, what was at that time, our Cold War adversary, in a new light (which any reader of the histories of the Russian Front might have seen). Suddenly, at Stalingrad, he seemed to understand the magnitude and the magnificence of the story that Grossman here tells.

Grossman’s novel is not a simple assertion of the Marxist faith. There are many sections that read almost as covert and damning critiques of the Stalinist regime, and those who enforce it. Rather it is an assertion of the human spirit; of life, love, of loyalty and sacrifice for the wider good. He emphasises the willing unity of purpose that will bring ultimate victory, but he does not allow his characters to be become stereotypes. They all have their personal issues and agendas. They remain individuals, real people, and we can both empathise and sympathise with them. In whatever system we struggle it is those who are not daunted by their fears whose heads are likely to be blown off above the parapets. But Krymov’s epiphanies in these two closing chapters are not the climax of this novel. Nor is the heroic last man defence of the Railway Station by Malyarchuk and Usorov and their comrades that has preceded Chapter 48.

As a short story writer I’m particularly interested in where and how stories end, but the crushing, revelatory, or minor key endings of short stories are not like those of novels. What we pay attention to in a short story is that full stop shot. It makes us reflect upon where we’ve come from, where we’re going to, or where we’ve arrived at, but the novel does something entirely different, even when it does one or more of those same things.

The climactic element of novels will come some distance before the ending. Even in a short novel it might be several pages in from the final words, and a game that students of writing might happily play is to look for where the ‘ending’ begins – just as they might ask where, and why the beginning ends – and to ask what it does. Because novels are not single strand stories, as short stories usually are. Novels are made of many threads. They have sub-plots and comparative storylines; alternative narrative threads, and even alternative characters with whom the reader might wish, or fear, to indentify. All these will remain to be tied up, closed down, resolved and reported upon after that climactic scene.

Two techniques stand out for me in this massive novel. The first, and most obvious, most pervasive, and most frequently employed, is the simple list.
Over and over again throughout the story, Grossman appends lists to what we might call opening statements. Like the stems of trees bearing multiple branches, simple observations are expanded by lists, of single words, of phrases, of clauses, and on occasion of whole sentences. There is a section near the end, where several paragraphs begin with the same words. The lists amplify Grossman’s observations, be they about places, people, ideas, or events.

‘The military-industrial machine created by Hitler had absorbed vast riches: French steelworks, French engineering and car factories, the iron mines of Lorraine, Belgian coal mines and steel furnaces, Dutch precision mechanics and radio factories, Austrian metalworking companies, the Skoda arms manufacturer in Czechoslovakia, the Romanian oil industry, Norwegian iron mines, Spanish tungsten and mercury mines, and the textile factories of Lodz.’ – Ch.1,p3

‘That night, the city was suddenly filled with noise: hooters, loud shouts, the sound of car and truck engines.’  – Ch.19,p91

  ‘These first flickering stars were perhaps giving birth in his mind to thoughts of proton explosions, of developmental phases and cycles, of super-dense matter, of cosmic showers and storms of varitrons, of different theories of cosmogony, including his own, of instruments for recording  invisible streams of stellar energy…’ –Ch.42,p215

    ‘All that remained were tyre tracks; scraps of newspaper; empty tins outside huts; mountains of potato peelings beside the village school, which housed the HQ canteen; narrow, carefully dug slit-trenches, their walls lined with withered wormwood; and an aspen pole barrier, now raised to the vertical: the road was open – anyone could drive wherever they wished.’ – Ch.65,p349.

The second technique is the interspersing of chapter-long what are effectively philosophical discussions between characters, authorial observations, or speculations in the minds of individual characters.  Krymov’s speculation about the future’s memory of the battle, mentioned earlier, though not a whole chapter, is an example. They touch on issues of war, science, social arrangements, and political regimes. They examine the ideas that lie behind the telling of the story; the ideas that the story is designed to make us confront and to reflect upon for ourselves. And when we have negotiated all these lists, and considered all these ideas, we shall come to the closing chapters of the novel, where one chapter, it seems to me, stands out from the rest.

It is the chapter that focuses on Marya Nikolaevna Vavilova – Chapter 48 – that spotlights what Grossman, the Battle of Stalingrad, and, perhaps from his perspective, the Soviet Union itself, are all about. Marya is the wife of Pyotr Vavilov, a relatively lowly (by some estimations) relatively old peasant soldier, who at the very beginning of the novel has been called to arms. If there is one hero to pick out in this book, then here is a candidate. It was in the few chapters describing his life and feelings as he prepares to leave home for war that I found the sentence that first alerted me to the delicacy of Grossman’s writing, near to the end of Chapter 4, barely 20 pages in:

    ‘ How beautiful children seemed in this hut. Early in the morning when little fair-headed Vanya came running across the floor on his bare feet, he was like a warm, moving flower.’

I was surprised that in such a long novel I should find such a powerful and tiny detail, but this novel is made up of such intimate observations. Vavilov, when all ‘official’ commanders have been slaughtered, becomes the natural leader of all those left standing. When he too dies, Grossman makes it an almost magical event, reminiscent, to me, of Golding’s elevation of Simon’s passing in Lord of the Flies.

. . . ‘he had dissolved in the dusty, milky, yellowish mist swirling in the morning sun.’

In Chapter 48, Marya has yet to hear of this ending. The chapter takes place in the fields of the home village that Pyotr left at the start of the novel. She and other women, and old men, the young men all being away at war, are harvesting the summer wheat. Consequently the crop is coming in more slowly than the Kolkhoz manager would like, and the winter wheat is already ripening in neighbouring fields. But Grossman uses this to make a telling and moving point about the war, and about life in general. As Marya works she tells herself:

‘You sowed and now here I am, reaping what you sowed….’
‘And you will come back, you, you will reap what I have sown.’

Though we know that he will not, we know also, that in a wider sense, what she says is universally, and eternally true. Marya talks to another woman as she works, one who is distressed because she knows  for certain of her own husband’s death.

                    “Why do you keep crying?” Marya asked.
 Degrarova looked round at her, said nothing for a few moments as if she hadn’t heard or understood, then said quietly, “I think you are crying too.”

The first two thirds of this book are dominated by the threat of what is to come, and most of the remaining third is a description of that horror. Over a series of chapters Grossman gives us the preliminary bombing of the city in which, ‘afterwords’ appended to the novel remind us, in reality, 40,000 people died during the first twenty four hours. The grim close combat fighting – where men kicked each other to death and bludgeoned their enemies with spades  – follows, but Grossman does not lead us to an ending like Zola’s in The Attack on the Mill, where ‘Victory! Victory!’ is called with such trenchant irony, or Harry Brown’s A Walk in the Sun, where the central character says, as he charges the enemy stronghold, ‘It is so terribly easy.’

Grossman gives us a pregnancy, and the promise of protection for ‘your little one’, and the certainty that what has been sown shall be reaped, and he gives us ‘the calm, fresh breath of the night-time Volga’ and ‘the earth of Stalingrad’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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