In Stalingrad, Grossman transforms his reportage into a work of lyrical art and fierce power. His descriptions of battle in an industrial age are some of the most vivid ever written – the whoosh of enemy fire, how “each splinter made its own particular sound”. “One, which must have had curly jagged edges, sounded like someone playing a comb or a kazoo. Another howled, ripping through the air like a large steel claw,” he observes...The Tolstoyan echoes are deliberate. Stalingrad and Life and Fate are modelled on War and Peace – the only book Grossman said he was able to read at the front. Grossman consciously took on the role of Red Tolstoy. He set out to write a requiem for the millions of Soviet citizens who perished, especially those lost in the months after the 1941 invasion. He succeeds – blending the sweep of Tolstoy with the minuteness of Chekhov.
Reviews of translations often either ignore the translator or – which is worse – simply summon up a few words of dutiful praise. In the case of Stalingrad this is not possible, and not only because the novel as we now have it in English would not exist were it not for the efforts of Chandler and Bit-Yunan. The translation that the Chandlers have put together is a masterpiece of empathy, a true mirror of the values that Grossman consistently champions over the course of Stalingrad. To have imposed unity on the mass of archival material, prior editions and typescripts is one thing, but to have turned all this into an engrossing, coherent and deeply moving work of art, in which the various characters’ individual voices are subtly defined and distinguished, is a truly remarkable achievement. Grossman is as skilled at the Grand Guignol of portraying Hitler – a Frankenstein’s monster putting his humanity to one side every morning – as he is at tracing the subtleties of the incipient affair between the scientist Viktor Shtrum and his attractive neighbour in war-shocked Moscow. The Chandlers capture every aspect of Grossman’s approach. It is difficult to think how their work could be bettered.
Meanwhile, due to “Cold War thinking”, as Chandler writes, Stalingrad, which Grossman’s publishers insisted on retitling For a Just Cause, has been dismissed. Though Chandler now considers it one of the great novels of the last century, he had to be persuaded to read it by the historian Jochen Hellbeck. His and Elizabeth Chandler’s fine translation reunites these two integrally linked works for English-speaking readers. Together with the Russian scholar Yury Bit-Yunan, Robert Chandler has made a fascinating new edition out of the eleven variants of the novel in Grossman’s archive, some written before Stalin’s death and others during the Thaw. It coincides with the appearance of Alexandra Popoff’s deeply researched biography, which offers rich insight into Grossman’s historical context and sheds new light on his creative evolution.
The novel has been reconstituted at great labour by editors Robert Chandler and Yuri Bit-Yunan, as no definitive Russian edition exists. The 1952 publication, just before Joseph Stalin’s death, was followed by editions in 1954 and 1956. Each edition is significantly different to the others, and different again to 11 typescripts in the Russian state’s literary archive in Moscow. The third typescript seems closest to what Grossman wanted to publish, before successive rounds of editorial revisions. The notes to this translated edition allow us see which version, or versions, each chapter was based on, and it is plain to see how much fine material had been excised for ideological reasons... Stalingrad is a magnificent but mutilated achievement. Any simple response to it is bound to be wrong. Anything that can be asserted about it needs to be contradicted. As soon as it is examined as a narrative, we are forced to delve into the story of its tortured composition.
In Stalingrad, Grossman pays homage to the individual and collective self-sacrifice that halted the Nazi advance against overwhelming odds. It is a less philosophical, more visceral novel than Life and Fate, with Grossman intent on expressing the underlying solidarity of a “people’s war” where “great deeds can be accomplished by simple, ordinary people”. The novel’s sweep is immense, by turns microscopic and panoramic... While Life and Fate is far more critical of Stalin than Stalingrad is, that does not necessarily make it a better novel. In fact the two should really be read as one ongoing inquest into the nature of the Soviet character that was borne out of the Bolshevik Revolution and how it came to be the antithesis of fascism... It would be wrong to think that Stalingrad is a gloomy novel. It teems with love, devotion and wonderful flashes of humour. Sometimes all three arrive at once, such as the description of the ageing artillery colonel whose feet are so small his wife has to buy his shoes in the children’s department of the army store. There are dozens of such moments, but the most indelible passages arrive during the battle itself. The blow-by-blow accounts of young men willing to die to gain enough time for reinforcements to arrive from the east bank of the Volga are positively Homeric.
In the end, Stalingrad is a strange and complicated book. It is undoubtedly an amazing achievement of translation and scholarship. It’s lucid and readable, with moments of wonderfully evocative prose. I can’t imagine it will ever feel like an indispensable prelude to Life and Fate, because, as a work of art it’s significantly flawed. These flaws are themselves fascinating. It is an astonishing example of the compromises between creativity and censorship. Observing the negation of Grossman’s art as it tries to burst into flame in spite of the dampening of the censor, you get a deeper appreciation for the empathy, truth and magnanimity of its sequel. Perhaps the most intriguing element of all is the overstory: the way the Grossman of this novel somehow became the dissident author of Life and Fate.
It gives voice to a dizzying array of experiences, from peasants and steel factory workers to soldiers and refugees, as it recounts the slow but inexorable German advance on what was considered an impregnable city. Grossman is invariably compared to Tolstoy but he doesn’t have that writer’s peerless understanding of character and, as you wade your way through Stalingrad (it’s more than 900 pages long), you rarely feel as if you are living it from inside someone else’s skin. Even so, you do feel as though you are there, wandering through those devastated streets among the starving, dead, and mad. It’s enough.
The appearance of Stalingrad, Grossman’s prequel to Life and Fate written a decade earlier, is then a cause for excitement. Why do we so admire him? If you haven’t read him, you may be surprised that he does not feel “new”. His prose is plain, rugged, nearly old-fashioned. He has none of the bravura of Bulgakov, Olesha or Platonov, not much of the refinement of Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn. He is Hemingway without the modernism (and exalted masculinity)... Stalingrad will draw comparisons to War and Peace, as Life and Fate still does. It is an astounding feat to have written not one but two novels that evoke Tolstoy’s masterpiece, but Grossman’s novels are crucially different: his war was on a far vaster scale, he wrote when its atrocities were acutely fresh, and he lived in the midst of the events he describes.