Would you inform on people to save your own life? Sign papers knowing very well it will send people to the Gulag? Would you? If you are like me, you are unable to answer this question. You will hope that you wouldn’t but how can you be sure. It didn’t take a lot for people to be sent to the camps. Anything would make the state suspect subversiveness.Some were sent because others signed a paper, some were sent because they didn’t sign papers. According to the afterword Grossman did precisely that, he signed a paper which served to arrest a group of doctors. He must have felt guilty all of his life, resented his own weakness. Exploring why people would do such a thing, is one of the themes in Everything Flows. It’s not always out of fear or cowardice.
A friend of Ivan Grigoryevich is responsible that he is sent to the Gulag for thirty years. He is released after Stalin’s death in 1953. At first he visits his cousin Nikolay, in Moscow. Nikolay is a scientist who has made a remarkable career, due to some extent to his betrayal of others. When he sees Ivan again, he’s incapable of showing compassion of listening to Ivan’s story. All he does is talk about his own hardships. How very cynical. No deprivations endured outside can be compared with what those in the camps had to go through. These are poignant scenes, which show the selfishness and faulty thinking of so many, the struggle between a bad conscience and the aim to refuse any responsibility. Ivan then moves on to Leningrad where he hopes to meet a former lover. He meets Anna Sergeyevna instead and shares a room with her and her little son. Her husband has been sent to a camp. She blames herself for having taken part in the Terror famine of 1932-3.
The story of Ivan is the only coherent storyline. It is interrupted by stories of other people and many non-fiction parts – on the terror against the Ukrainians, on Lenin and Stalin, on their terror regimes, on the way the Soviet Union worked. This made me wonder often whether Everything Flows can really be called a novel. Where is the borderline? How much non-fiction elements can a book contain and still be called fiction? Grossman didn’t see the publication of Everything Flows and it is possible he would have altered it, still, according to the afterword, it’s finished the way it is. He would not have removed the nonfiction parts, although it seems obvious that they were added to the manuscript later.
Until WWII Grossman was loyal to the Soviet state but after having witnessed the war, having been in Stalingrad, that changed completely. From then on he was focussing in his work on writing about everything as truthfully as possible, on not embellishing and buying into the state’s way of distorting the truth. This cost him almost everything and I’m surprised he was never sent to the Gulag himself. One of his most traumatic experiences was when his novel Life and Fate was confiscated. What further contributed to his critical view of the Soviet state was Stalin’s antisemitism.
In his best parts Everything Flows is an amazing testimony of compassion and humanity. In other parts it is a masterful depiction of the human condition and an open criticism of totalitarianism. Some of the non-fiction parts were a bit heavy going, as I was not familiar with many of the names and with Soviet history in general. I think he rendered the atmosphere of being unfree and the paranoia very well.
I’d like to read a biography of Grossman. He served 1000 days during WWII, was present in Stalingrad and his The Hell of Treblinka was the first eyewitness account and was used during the Nuremberg trials. Has anyone read the Gerrard’s biography The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman or Grossman’s The Writer at War?
Everything Flows was the tenth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel Death of the Adversary aka Der Tod des Widersachers by German writer Hans Keilson. Discussion starts on Friday 29 November, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.