It is a prodigious novel, following the lives of dozens of characters, including historical figures, over the course of the war. The Battle of Stalingrad lies at the novel’s centre but it is far more than a fictionalised version of military history... Not being a reader of Russian I can’t testify to the translators’ first responsibility, fidelity to the original text, but I can vouch for the translators’ second responsibility, readability in the new language. The Chandlers have done a superb job in rendering Grossman’s Russian prose into a limpid and evocative English... However, for all their efforts, it is a characteristic of Grossman’s fiction that moments of precise observation such as this often sit with passages of earnest, formulaic exhortations, ramming the message home... [Grossman's] experience as a war reporter honed this talent and it is probably Grossman’s humane gaze and clear understanding of the complexities of the human condition that made the paranoid Soviet authorities see potential subversion everywhere in his fiction... Milan Kundera famously observed that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Vasily Grossman’s epic novels contribute massively to memory’s endurance in that unending confrontation.
Alexandra Popoff’s biography is crisp and comprehensive, deftly interweaving Grossman’s personal life with the momentous events he experienced. The portrait she paints in Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century is of a highly intelligent and surprisingly cheerful man, who viewed the world with a kind and quizzical gaze and defended his friends and principles with near-reckless courage. As she writes, it was the worst and most dangerous time to be a humanist, pacifist and internationalist. His core belief that “there is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom” was a forthright challenge to both Nazism and Stalinism. One of the recurrent, and most moving, themes of Grossman’s life and Popoff’s book is the love he felt for his cultured and handicapped mother and the excruciating guilt he experienced at not doing more to save her following the Nazi invasion.