Review: Everything Flows

Vasily Grossman’s ‘biting critique’, presented in fictional form, reinforces the war correspondent’s high reputation


By Mark Glanville, June 24, 2010
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Privation and horror: the siege of Stalingrad was a formative influence on the literary vision of Vasily Grossman

Privation and horror: the siege of Stalingrad was a formative influence on the literary vision of Vasily Grossman

By Vasily Grossman (Trans: Robert and Elizabeth Chandler)
Harvill Secker, £16.99

As a war reporter accompanying the Red Army during its pyrrhic victory over the invading German forces, Vasily Grossman was present at the siege of Stalingrad. He also witnessed the consequences of the Holocaust at Treblinka. What he saw became the source material for his masterpiece Life and Fate, a novel which, in terms of its theme, scope and humanity, is not unreasonable to compare with War and Peace.

Everything Flows, though a quarter the size of Life and Fate, was begun in 1955 - five years before the larger work was finished - and left uncompleted at Grossman's death in 1964. It does not take the form of a conventional novel; the plot established in its opening pages, concerning the return of one Ivan Grigoryevich from the infamous Gulag and his attempts to re-establish himself in civilian life, is more or less abandoned after 60 pages for a digression on the nature of informers.

This in turn gives way to the harrowing portrait of a mother who has been sentenced to hard labour in Siberia for failing to denounce her husband.

There then follows an even more disturbing account of the state-engineered Ukrainian famine during which five million starved to death at a dictator's whim.

Grossman gleaned his information on the famine from first-hand accounts. The protagonist of Everything Flows learns about it from his mother in a dream, thus preserving the notion that it is a novel rather than a series of snapshots.

The book concludes with two essays, on Stalin and Lenin, their inclusion flimsily justified by the phrase: "Ivan Grigoryevich felt and understood all of this."

Despite its loose structure, the book is unified by its biting critique of the brutal Soviet enterprise. When Grossman's daughter saw the manuscript, she remarked that "the writer had evidently been in an intensely emotional state".

Grossman's passionate need to bear witness seems even stronger here than in Life and Fate. His painfully vivid portrayal of the victims of famine is the work of a man at the height of his considerable literary powers. "I saw one cart, it was stacked with the bodies of children… They looked thin and long - faces like dead birdies, sharp little beaks… Some were still making cheeping noises; their little heads were like ripe ears of grain, bending the thin stalks of their necks."

As Robert Chandler, Grossman's excellent translator in this most welcome reissue, asserts, "Only Dante… has written of death from hunger with equal power."

Mark Glanville is the author of ‘The Goldberg Variations’, a memoir

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