Friday, March 03, 2006

Vasily Grossman

In the New Yorker, Keith Gessen presents a very readable and detailed account of the life and career of the great Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman. It's also a review of a new book of Grossman’s war writings— taken from his notebooks and his published pieces— which has just appeared in English as “A Writer at War” (Pantheon; $27.50), translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova.

Keith Gessen's overview of Grossman's last years underlines the tragedy:

He didn’t even know how to go about sending a manuscript abroad. Pasternak, who would have known, had died in 1960, after a nasty campaign against him in the Soviet press. Grossman read Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in manuscript and was ecstatic—at the achievement of the novella, and perhaps because this might mean that his own work would stand a better chance. But “Ivan Denisovich” described only the camps, whereas Grossman’s novel encompassed all of Soviet society. Touchingly, Grossman expected Solzhenitsyn to come and see him. The younger man had heard of Grossman’s book, and he had reached the same place as Grossman intellectually, but he had done so through the camps; by the time he began writing, he was implacably opposed to the Soviet regime. And perhaps there was some contempt for the accommodations that the older writer had made. Solzhenitsyn did not come by.

Life at home was miserable: Grossman was now debilitated by cancer, and got on poorly with his wife and his grown stepson, Fyodor. Olga thought that he should write screenplays, and when he was in the hospital she got rid of his dog. (Grossman, admittedly, had been conducting an affair.) Meanwhile, the people who watched such things continued to watch Grossman. On October 25, 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, the Central Committee heard a report from one of its stooges at the Writers’ Union: not only was Grossman unrepentant; he would, when prodded, become “very angry and express hostile views on Soviet society.” The next day, the committee learned that Grossman was at work on another “anti-Soviet” novel. Grossman’s American biographers, the Garrards, suggest that it was Fyodor who betrayed the contents of the book.
Via Neeka's Backlog
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