Kate Chisholm

Novel experiment

Having argued last week that it takes time (maybe a couple of generations) before fiction can be appropriately applied to traumatic historical events along comes a Radio 4 season celebrating the work of the Russian writer and ‘heroic war journalist’ Vasily Grossman, who wasted no time in translating his bitter experiences into a series of novels. Grossman witnessed the struggle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–3 as the war correspondent of the Red Star newspaper. He followed the Nazis’ retreat from Russian soil, and was one of the first reporters to enter and then write about the extermination camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz.

But as Stalin’s iron grip on life in Russia tightened, Grossman (who was Jewish and from Ukraine) turned against the Party and to fiction to tell of what he had witnessed — the extermination of the Jews, the devastating famine in Ukraine, the gulags, the purges. The Soviet authorities were not pleased, and in 1961 the KGB called on him at home, not to arrest him in person but rather to take into custody the manuscript of his latest book, Life and Fate, which they believed could be as dangerous as nuclear weaponry. The Soviets were scared of the power and impact of Grossman’s fictional truth-telling.

Life and Fate was never published in Grossman’s lifetime (he died, of cancer, in 1964), and only finally appeared in English translation in the 1980s. Since then, this epic tale of ordinary people in a time of war has come to be regarded as not just a masterpiece but the finest piece of writing about the lasting legacy of military combat on the individual soul. Next week we’ll get a chance to make our own judgment on whether Grossman outwrote Tolstoy when Jonathan Myerson and Mike Walker’s eight-hour dramatisation of the novel haunts the Radio 4 schedule.

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