Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War

Lately, I've been overwhelmed by the Russian literary tradition of finding literary beauty in everyday speech.  More than anyone, Svetlana Alexievich embodies this tradition.  And her introduction to Secondhand Time is perhaps the best explanation of this art form.  According to Alexievich, her goal is to find literary power within everyday jargon.  And certainly Alexievich does just this, although the everyday speech she analyzes usually contains literary gems from one only one of two literary genres:  tragedy and horror.  Linor Goralick's Found Life is less profound, but demonstrates that one doesn't need to conduct formal history interviews to find all kinds of beautiful expressions in common speech.  Without any pretensions to anthropology, one can hear the most wonderful creativity on the Moscow subway, or at a private party.

Of course, I may not have uncovered a particularly Russian form of expression.  Perhaps every literary tradition makes use of everyday speech.  But it seems that Russians must have a better ear than most other Europeans.  Or perhaps it's the tragedy of twentieth century Russian life that transcends quotidian dialogues and makes sense on the printer page.  This at any rate seems to be what makes Vasily Grossman's writings from the front line of World War II so quotable and so memorable.  Grossman was a brilliant journalist, and the conflict he witnessed was so incredibly tragic (even measured by the horrific standards of other modern wars), that perhaps anything he wrote down would demand our attention.  But somehow Grossman seems to have an uncanny sense of how to capture the full horror of the Soviet experience in war in the seemingly ephemeral observations, quips, jokes, and comments he overhears when mingling with ordinary Soviet soldiers.

Grossman's articles and journal notes deserve attention on their own merit.  The wonderful contextual commentary of Anthony Beevor help readers to put these causal writings into historical context. But one also suspects that these musings were the building blocks of Grossman's more traditional literary masterpiece,  Life and Fate.  

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