The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays by Vasily Grossman
Edited by Robert Chandler, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Olga Mukovnikova
NYRB Classics, 373 pp., $15.95
They say there are people who are born under a lucky star . . . But the star under which Grossman was born was a star of misfortune," wrote Vasily Grossman's colleague Ilya Ehrenburg. When Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, a month before the removal of Krushchev by Brezhnev, he had already been devastated by the efforts of the Soviet regime to delete him from history. He had pinned hopes on the Thaw, but in 1961 the KGB confiscated the manuscript of Life and Fate, his major novel indicting Stalinism and Hitlerism. "They strangled me in the back alley," Grossman said to Boris Yampolsky. "They" included not only the regime and its active accomplices, but the silent majority of Grossman's literary brethren.
Grossman had been one of the principal voices of anti-Nazi resistance, and a legendary journalist who spent 1000 days at the front during World War II. But his final years were difficult. Close friends still adored Grossman; Semyon Lipkin, who helped to smuggle the manuscript of Life and Fate to the West a decade after Grossman's death, called him a "saint." Grossman also enjoyed the dedication of his last love Yekaterina Zabolotskaya, widow of the great poet Nikolay Zabolotsky, though it is not clear that she ever fully understood him. (In Life and Fate, the Russian wife of Grossman's fictional alter ego, Viktor Shtrum, loves him but fails to comprehend his Jewish anxieties.)
The Road, a new collection of Grossman's shorter prose published by a team of translators and scholars under the loving curatorship of veteran translator Robert Chandler presents a retrospective of the writer's career. The opening section offers a window into Grossman's prewar years. Born Iosif Grossman in Berdichev, once known as the "Jerusalem of Volhynia," he entered literature in 1929, the 2nd year of the first Five-Year Plan, with the Russian first name "Vasily." In these early writings, including the story "In the Town of Berdichev," one hears Grossman searching for a voice of his own. Isaac Babel and Andrey Platonov were among the early Soviet models, but as the story "A Young Woman and an Old Woman" demonstrates, Chekhov was Grossman's beacon. But Grossman was also something of a revolutionary romantic. Although he never joined the Communist Party, it took him a long time to rid himself of the belief that Jews were beholden to the revolution.