24 February 2006

A Writer at War

A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, edited and translated by Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova.

Hmmm. Edited, eh? That's putting it lightly.
Vasily Grossman was a Russian Jew who worked as a journalist during the Second World War and was reporting from the front for the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. This book is a collection of his notebooks from the war, along with copious commentary. His notebooks are marvelous. The commentary, not so much.
Grossman's notes are marvelous. I don't know if he actually scrawled his notes in brief fragments or if the editors just excerpted them that way, but the book is filled with brief bits, or one-liners. This has the effect of making everything seem very profound, so you get these gnomic utterances like: "The political-moral state of the troops is good. Deserter Toropov was show in front of his company". Many of Grossman's observations are just that, brief impressions of what he sees, but he really has a way with language and an incredible eye for detail - it's wonderful to read. He also does a fantastic job with interviews - there are these brief segments about soldiers, generals, peasants, etc, and you have a sense of this person's voice, he evokes them marvelously, usually just by relating a brief anecdote they're told him. Wonderful stuff.
Also highly fascinating, in that one learns a lot about the war. Not only through Grossman's observations, but also from the commentary, which provides background information and context. It's useful, and for the most part, fairly well-written, and quite interesting. It really makes you realize though, how much war has changed. Imagine, now, a general attacking with 650,000 troops! Real trench warfare, and close combat. It's also fascinating to read about people fighting a war that they truly believe in - it's incredibly moving, actually. I almost cried when the Red Army reached Berlin.
The real problem with the book is the editorial commentary, and the selection from the notebooks. The commentary does well when it's providing historical background, less so when it provides personal info, or discussions of censorship and rising anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, or interpretations of Grossman's work. Also, the selections from the notebooks feel frustratingly like excerpts. I want more! I suppose though, that the thing to do would be to read Grossman's novels, particularly Life and Fate, which this book claims is one of the greatest masterpieces of Russian literature. They may be a wee bit biased though.

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