Vasily Grossman: Everything Flows (1961) Literature and War Readalong October 2013

Everything Flows

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?

Other reviews

Andrew Blackman

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Silver Seasons (Silver Threads)


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.

45 thoughts on “Vasily Grossman: Everything Flows (1961) Literature and War Readalong October 2013

  1. I have read both Life and Fate and The Writer at War. Here are links:

    Both are outstanding books. I started with Life and Fate, and that experience moved me to go on and read Grossman’s other books. Life and Fate is right up there with War and Peace: real people, both high and low, confronted with the worst of times. A Writer at War includes his report on Treblinka.

    As to Everything Flows, I found it the least satisfactory of the three, but still a very affecting report on Stalinist Russia:

    • I suspected it might not be as good as Life and Fate but as you just said, it’s decidely great anyway.
      I’m very interested in the Write at War now. I’ll tackle Life and Fate a bit later.
      Thanks for the links.

  2. I plan to read his Life and Fate first, and note SilverSeason’s comment that this isn’t his strongest, but it does sound very powerful even so. The mixture of fact and fiction is interesting, perhaps fiction alone wasn’t enough to cover what he wanted to say.

    • Probably a good decision to start with Life and Fate. It was too long for the readalong. .
      It seems that he wrote Everything Flows thinking Life and fate would never be published and wanted to emphasize some points that he’d written about in fictional form in Life and Fate.
      I just read Silver Season’s review of The Writer at War and that sounds like a must.

  3. Sounds very interesting! Have you read A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich – that’s all about surviving the gulags. I found it very good – if very sad.

      • I went to a very left wing school. For the year-end school musical the teachers had the bright idea of doing a musical version of Ivan Denisovich. The only number I remember is one where I was in the choir – we had to sing about keeping moving so as to avoid freezing to death in the Siberian cold.

        I still wonder what the hell the school was thinking.

  4. Again and again I hear great things about this book. Though a work of fiction it truly does sound like it is an accurate reflection upon Stalinism. It is striking how such states have effectively managed to have otherwise good people turn on and betray one another.

  5. I need to learn more about this part of history. I read a book way back when, but can’t remember the title. This sounds good. And who can really answer the question of what would you have done? Like you, I would hope I would be honorable and strong, but how can I know for sure. The threats and violence used broke many good people.

  6. Interesting that you cite a lack of coherence in a book called Everything Flows! I still have not yet Grossman; I think I’m afraid to, because of all the strong emotions it would evoke over things that are real. So much easier to read about things that could never be real. I also know I would not hold up very long under torture or deprivation, so I have boundless admiration for survivors!

    • That’s funny! I must admit I don’t exactly know what he meant with the title.
      It’s not a gruesome account but it has, of course, awful moments.
      It’s hard to imagone what those people went through.

      • I took the title to refer to how life flows on and leaves people behind. Ivan comes back from the camps after 30 years and life has gone on without him. His cousin is successful, his friend who betrayed him has also done very well, the woman he loved has given up on him and married someone else. He goes to his old haunts but they’re not the same any more.

  7. Wonderful review, Caroline! I liked very much the first passage of your review. It is a difficult question to answer. It is interesting that a considerable part of the book is based on facts and can be classified as nonfiction. Normally I don’t like that much – authors putting too much information in a book – but in the case of Grossman’s book I can understand how it would have been perfect. I have seen Vassily Grossman’s books at the bookshop, but never got around to buying them. Now after reading your review, I would like to try one of his books. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I’m glad the review inspired you to read him. It’s really worth it. And, as it seems, I haven’t even read the best ones yet.
      It’s entirely difficult to answer the question. Grossman doesn’t judge, it almost seems as if he wants to say that this type of betrayal under these circumstnaces is very human. I suppose it’s true.
      When you’ll read Andrew’s review, you will see that he thinks it’s not finished while in my book (I read the German translation) they say that the inclusion of non-fiction material was a later development in his writing and he would not have altered that. I guess however, transitions would have been made smoother.

  8. It’s hard to answer the question you ask when you’re safe in your house. Your answer is the honest one: nobody knows what they’re capable of in a period of stress or threat on their life or their famly’s life.

    Great review but it must have been a difficult read. He’s on mydaunting list; I don’t know if I’ll read him one day although I know I should.

    I’m not sure about mixing fiction and non-fiction especially when the non-fiction is about historical facts. For the reader without the historical background, the frontier is blurred between what is true and historical facts and what is fiction. Was it difficult to sort this out or the passages were clearly separated. (and then you still have the problem that the non-fiction parts aren’t written by a historian)

    • His writing is very accessible, so there is nothing daunting on that front but the topic is bleak. The non-fiction parts were separate chpaters, you could just skip them but they were interesting. Especially the long essay on Lenin. But to fully apreciate them I would have needed to be better equipped and know more.
      I’m sure you will “like” him. Stupid word in this context, I know.
      We cannot answer this question and mostly people presume – sitting safe in their houses – that they are more courageous than they are.

      • I thought this was a great question to ask, Caroline, and I agree that we can’t know. This was one of the strengths of the book for me – to show how difficult it was living under that system, and how good people could lose the ability to make good moral choices.

        I remember going to a talk by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare in London a few years ago, and he said that when people criticised him for not speaking up against the dictatorship, they were basically telling him “You should have died.” That was the price of dissent in those days. To know that and to speak out anyway takes a courage that most people don’t possess.

        • I thought it was an interesting aspect of the book that he didn’t condemn those who were cowards or not heroic. I think that we cannot compare Stalinist Russia with Hitler Germany but maybe I’m very wrong.
          I still think that all those Germans who were not Jewish could have done more.
          It must be very painful to be asked that question and live with the shame. I’m sure there is always shame.

  9. Caroline, the question that you have asked is so disturbing. Sometimes one is just swept away by the forces of that particular time.

    Thanks for an excellent review. I want to read the author now.

    • Thanks, Neer. It is rather disturbing isn’t it. The way he present the question made me wonder for the first time if I wouldn’t have caved in as well. Before reading this I was someone who would have ssaid “No, I would never do that.” He brings us very close to the reasonng of those who “fail”.
      I hope you will like him. Life and Fate seems the better novel but it is very long.

  10. Pingback: Literature and War Readalong: Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman | Andrew Blackman

  11. Interesting thoughts Caroline. And I look forward to Silver Season’s review of Life & Fate.
    A Writer at War is next for me.

    I wonder about the “re-discovery” of writers like Grossman and Fallada in recent times. Does it mean the issues they address resonate for people now? Is reading their work a way to think indirectly about the worries and stresses of our own time? Or is it just that at some meta-cultural level we can’t seem to get enough of WW2?

    • That’s a very good question, Leroy. I don’t know. Why were they rediscovered now and why do they receive so much attention and praise. What does it mean if we can’t get enough of WWII. Are we collectively still trying to atone?
      I really don’t know.

  12. I have this one–mainly because it’s NYRB and I know that I ‘should’ read it at some point, but it’s something I have to prepare myself for.

    On Leroy’s last question: I think it’s a bit of all of the above.

    • It is very thought-provoking, especially with that in mind. It must be awful to look back on something like this. Luckily it was of no consequence, the people were let go but I guess that doesn’t help you with your conscience.

  13. Am nearly finished reading so have just barely skimmed your post/comments and will come back and read properly when I am done. This a very powerful, but very bleak story–that much I can say. Strangely, as hard going as it is at times I am finding it absorbing reading nonetheless. Quite different from An Armenian Sketchbook, yet I still can see some similarities in style/attitude. This has been a great choice–though I am glad it was not the December book! More later….

    • Like you I found it fascinating. The more non-fcition parts are in the later half, maybe you’re not there yet or you mind less.
      It wouldn’t be December reading but I’m afraid the December choice will be even bleaker than this. I’m glad he wasn’t very graphic.
      I’m loking forward to your review.

Thanks for commenting, I love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.