Review: Archie Henderson
Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman (Vintage Publishers)
It is said that Russians write long novels because of the long the Russian winter. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is just over 800 pages yet it can be read in a month (if you have the time) because its pages move smoothly and easily, the chapters are short, and some of the tedious parts can be skimmed.
When you reach the end, however, it’s not the end. There is a sequel, which almost everyone who has read it, says is a better book. Roland Hingley, writing in the New York Times about the second book, and expecting another gigantic Russian novel, feared it would be just a “gelded fictional brontosaurus”. He says he was pleasantly surprised to find it not so.
Stalingrad begins with Hitler planning a new offensive, a year after invading Russia. It ends with Hitler’s hordes at the gates of the Russian city on the Volga. Life and Fate, which is of similar length, is the sequel and tells how the Russians turned around the battle and, with it, probably World War 2. Those who have read both are right; by the end of Stalingrad I wanted to reach for Life and Fate, just to see how World War 2 ends – well, in the eyes, opinion and imagination of its author anyway.
Also, Life and Fate is more controversial. The Soviets wanted it banned because Grossman likened Hitler’s atrocities to those of Stalin. The manuscript was smuggled out to Switzerland and eventually published in English in 1985. The two novels have since been revived and re-edited from notes and the unpublished parts of the manuscripts. The husband-and-wife team of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler have been widely acclaimed for their work in the revival and recently bringing it to a wider Western readership.
Stalingrad was completed in 1952 after Grossman had started it in 1943. It was originally published as For a Just Cause and was written with censors and commissars looking over Grossman’s shoulder, suggesting changes, cuts and new characters to keep the novel in line with party policy. One of the novel’s heroes is Viktor Shtrum, a chemist and a Jew, who is given a gentile supervisor on recommendation of the editors/censors. As a result, Grossman has toed much of the party line.
It has left the book with many shortcomings. His characterisations are often weak, which is surprising since he draws a frightening picture of Hitler, with his “shattered nervous system”. The menace of the man is exposed in a chapter where the Führer meets Heinrich Himmler, his handpicked assassin who kills on an industrial scale. Grossman would have accumulated some of the information about Hitler’s character from interviews with Russian officers who were privy to some intelligence. The author was a war correspondent for the Red Star, an army newspaper, who was often on the frontline, including at Stalingrad.
But some of the other characters are unfortunately bland. The love interests are seldom fully developed although there is one touching relationship between a father and daughter who are caught up together in the Stalingrad power station, which is under almost constant attack by German aircraft and artillery.
Parts of the story contains scenes in factories that were, it is claimed, included at the insistence of the editors/censors who wanted the common communist portrayed in a good light. Those are the parts that can be skim-read; they are mostly tedious and are evidence that Grossman was being leaned on.
One quality of Grossman character shines throughout the novel: his humanity. Even the Germans get a compassionate press in the form of Lieutenant Bach, who is a committed soldier, but no Nazi. I fear he will not come off well in the sequel, however.