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)

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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.

Literature and War Readalong October 28 2013: Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

Everything Flows

I’m very late in announcing this month’s readalong title. Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows isn’t a war novel per se. It’s a post war novel. I found it’s about time to have a look what state countries, which had participated in WWII, were left in after the war. Russia is decidedly one of the most interesting places when it comes to the post-war era and Grossman is famous for the way he captures this time. Like many other Russian authors Grossman’s novels were forbidden during the Soviet era. Everything Flows was written after his major work Life and Fate.  I have seen a few of his books reviewed on various blogs ( Silver Threads on Life and Fate –  A Work in Progress on Armenian Sketchbook –  Caravana de Recuerdos on Life and Fate) and the feedback was always more than favorable.

I’ll leave you with the b blurb and the first sentences.

Ivan Grigoryevich has been in the Gulag for thirty years. Released after Stalin’s death, he finds that the years of terror have imposed a collective moral slavery. He must struggle to find a place for himself in an unfamiliar world. Grossman tells the stories of those people entwined with Ivan’s fate: his cousin Nikolay, a scientist who never let his conscience interfere with his career, Pinegin, the informer who had Ivan sent to the camps and Anna

Here are the first sentences

The Khabarovsk express was due to arrive in Moscow by 9 a.m.. A young man in pyjamas scratched his shaggy head and looked out of the window into the half-light of the autumn morning. He yawned, turned to the people standing in the corridor with their soap boxes and towels and said, “Well, citizens, who’s last in line?”

I will be reading the German translation Alles fliesst. I have this idea that Russian works better translated into German.

Alles fliesst

 

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The discussion starts on Monday, 28 October 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

From Australia to Russia via the US – A Few Challenges/Events in 2013

Aussie-Author-Challenge-2013

I have decided to be less active this year when it comes to challenges, readalongs and other events but there are still a few things I want to do or rather challenges I’d like to sign up for again.

All the Australian books I read last year were wonderful books and I want to explore more Australian literature. That’s why I singed up again for The Aussie Author Challenge at Booklover Book Reviews.

These are the possible choices

Secret River

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

That Deadman Dance

Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance

lovesong

Alex Miller’s Lovesong

American Revolution Reading Challenge 2013

I will also participate again in Anna’s and Serena’s War Through the Generations Challenge. The topic this year is the American Revolution. I haven’t read anything about this period yet and don’t know any books at all. Suggestions are very welcome.

oblomov

Last but not least I’m planning on joining Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) for one or two of his 2013 Russian Reading readalong titles.

Here is the list.

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (c. 1960)
 
Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842)
 
Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859)
 
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877)
 
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (c. 1940)
 
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955)
 

Please visit Richard’s site for the details.

Andrei Gelasimov: Thirst – Žažda (2003)

Masterfully translated from the original Russian by award-winning translator Marian Schwartz, Thirst tells the story of 20-year-old Chechen War veteran Kostya. Maimed beyond recognition by a tank explosion, he spends weeks on end locked inside his apartment, his sole companions the vodka bottles spilling from the refrigerator. But soon Kostya’s comfortable if dysfunctional cocoon is torn open when he receives a visit from his army buddies who are mobilized to locate a missing comrade. Through this search for his missing friend, Kostya is able to find himself.

I owe the discovery of  Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov to literalab, my go-to blog for Central and Eastern European literature (if you don’t know it, you need to have a look). While French and German publishers are usually much faster in discovering foreign language authors this time they are lagging behind big time. That’s probably a reason why I had never heard of Gelasimov before, although Thirst isn’t his only book, not even his first. When I saw the review I realized that I havent read any contemporary Russian literature. One more reason for reading Gelasimov.

Thirst is a taut, short novel about a young veteran of the Chechen war. He was trapped in a vehicle and almost left for dead, burned beyond recognition. So badly in fact that he looks like a monster. There is nothing to escape this truth. He is confronted with it while still in the hospital wearing bandages. Maybe it is typical for Russians, I’m not sure, but it’s typical for the people in this story, they tell the truth in such a direct way, it’s like a shot in the gut.

“So what about you?” he asked me. “Do you have a girl back home?”

I said I didn’t.

“That’s good. Other wise she’ll leave you. Have you seen what you’ve got under the bandages?”

“No. There is no mirror in the bandaging room.”

I was lying. There was a mirror in the bandaging room. For the nurses. In a military hospital where it’s all guys lying there, girls have to keep up with those things. “L’Oréal Paris. After all, I’m worth it”. Who knows where you’re going to meet your destiny? Though we weren’t much to write home about. If you really tried, you might make one normal guy out of three of us.

The novel which is told by the first person narrator Kostya, is told in small episodic chapters that move back and forth in time. At the beginning of the novel Kostya fills his refrigerator with Vodka bottles. Drinking Vodka, watching TV and scaring children is all he does at present.

Kostya’s life before joining the army was the typical life of a young boy, coming from a poor family. The father left the mother when Kostya was just a little child, he cannot stand his step father and school is a drag. One of his teachers discovers that he has a rare talent. Kostya is amazing at drawing. While his teacher downs one Vodka bottle after the other, young Kostya spends his time with him instead of going to school and develops his rare gift. After the teacher is fired, Kostya starts to drift, joins up, gets trapped in the APC and is maimed. He still occasionally meets his three army buddies who were with him that day. Seryoga, who got out and saved them; Pashka and Genka, trapped with him but saved earlier because they still moved.

While Kostya is on a binge, Pashka and Genka appear and want him to follow them to Moscow and look for Seryoga who has disappeared.

If I hadn’t had the chance to meet quite a lot of Russians in my life, I might have thought this constant Vodka drinking was a cliché. Well, it’s not. And it’s very hard to say “no” because, drinking is a sociable thing. You’re only considered to be an alcoholic when you start drinking on your own. Saying “no” to a glass of vodka in public makes you look unsociable and unfriendly. Very often a glass is accompanied with a toast, mostly to some dead relative. That’s where it gets tricky. Saying “no” to the Vodka is saying “no” to the toast is not acknowledging people’s dead relatives…

There is a lot of drinking going on in this novel, a lot of pain gets swallowed down with the Vodka. The society depicted here is very patriarchal, with very strictly defined roles for men and women. Little Kostya remembers how he was told not to cry as a little boy when he had to have his appendix removed.

“What’s this, are you going to cry now?” The voice under the surgical mask was different now. “You’re our future soldiers. Soldiers don’t cry. Do you like to watch war movies? What? Speak up. Why are you whispering?”

I repeated , “I like them.”

“There you go. And you know how soldiers sometimes get hurt? But they don’t cry. They have to be brave. Will you be brave when ou go to war?”

The war and becoming a soldier is mentioned all through the novel. Even during Kostya’s childhood it is clear, he will be a soldier once, like his father was and that he will fight in a war as well. His father fought in Afghanistan, he will fight in Chechnya.

The characters in this novel are very lonely, the way they treat each other is honest but brutal. A lot is left unspoken. Despite all this, the book isn’t only bleak. There is hope as more even than the novel of a veteran it’s the novel of an artist. Art transforms the way Kostya sees the world, it will eventually transform him as well.

What I liked a lot is Gelasimov’s writing and the voice. The cuts, the shifts, the breaks which reminded me sometimes of the nouveau roman without the experimental feel. Each and every episode is very well executed, highly expressive, realistic and to the point. They are like short sketches that capture the characters and say more about them than a lot of words. One of Gelasimovs novels, Gods of the Steppes won the 2009 Russian National Bestseller literary award. It will be available in English this September. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Do you have any modern Russian literature recommendations?

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Poor People/Poor Folk – Бедные люди [Bednye lyudi] (1846)

Presented as a series of letters between the humble copying-clerk Devushkin and a distant relative of his, the young Varenka, Poor People brings to the fore the underclass of St Petersburg, who live at the margins of society in the most appalling conditions and abject poverty. As Devushkin tries to help Varenka improve her plight by selling anything he can, he is reduced to even more desperate circumstances and seeks refuge in alcohol, looking on helplessly as the object of his impossible love is taken away from him.

Poor People – or Poor Folk, depending on the translation – was Dostoevsky’s first novel. Published in 1846 it was highly acclaimed by fellow writers and critics alike. At only 24 Dostoevsky became a literary celebrity. It is generally not considered to be his best book, his masterpieces were still to come, but it already contains many of the elements that made Dostoevsky famous.

I must admit this was not an easy read. The style is simple and descriptive but the story was unsettling and depressing and it did ring unbearably true.

Poor People is an epistolary novel set in St.Petersburg among the very poor. The letters are exchanged between a young orphaned woman, Varenka,  and an elderly distant relative, the copy-clerk Devushkin, who loves her very much.

Those two poor people live very close to each other but have to hide their friendship as it could be misunderstood. The descriptions of Varenka’s past, how her parents died and mean people pretended to take care of her while in reality there was only abuse, are paired with Devushkin’s descriptions of the way he is living. Although he is very poor himself he tries to help the fragile young woman and sends her what little money he has. In order to save money he left his old apartment after his landlady died and moved into another place. In this apartment he lives with a great number of equally poor people together in close quarters. He really only occupies a little corner of the kitchen that is separated from the rest by a piece of fabric.

He doesn’t even mind living like this at first as he can see Varenka’s windows from his room but after a while it gets harder for him. In their letters they try to comfort each other and describe in great detail how they live. The tone is very emotional, there isn’t much they hold back. On some days they are cheerful and will write about nice things they have seen or experienced but on most other days they are in despair and very sad. Varenka is often ill and can’t work while Devushkin has a hard time to hide his poverty at work. His clothes are shabby and would need mending, he loses his buttons, his shoes have holes and the soles are coming off. The poorer they get, the worse they are treated by others, also from those who are as poor as they are.

As if matters were not bad enough, Devushkin spends what little money he has on alcohol. He invariably pays his escapades with fear and shame. One misfortune follows another as they have little or no means to prevent them.

Varenka is a very intelligent young woman. Unlike Devushkin she is educated and likes to read. She loves Pushkin and Gogol. In some of the letters and a little notebook that she sends to Devushkin, she describes her childhood. These are wonderful passages that capture the life in the country, the changing of the seasons. She describes with great detail how golden the autumn was in the country, how wonderful winter could be because they would sit around a fire and tell stories. These passages show how masterful a writer Dostoevsky is.

Devushkin on the other hand tells her what he sees when he goes out in Petersburg. It makes him sad to see beautiful rich women and to know how arbitrary it is to be either born poor or rich.

One of the themes of the novel is the arbitrariness of poverty and how prejudiced the rich are. They treat the poor as if they were contagious. On the other hand they like to see them because it makes them feel superior. For that very same reason they  like to give them alms. The lack of privacy makes matters worse. Living with so many or being stuffed into a tiny office space with many other clerks exposes you constantly to the prying of others.

It seems as if one should never undergo a certain level of poverty, once you fall below there is no getting up anymore. There are numerous little stories of other poor people who fall ill and of children who die because no medicine is available.

Devushkin and Varenka are amazing characters. Despite their destitution they always think of each other first and if they receive just a little bit of money from somewhere they will give to those who have even less.

Reading this in winter, when the days are getting shorter and it is getting colder was really not easy. It’s depressing and sad. I thought of a documentary that I watched not long ago about Russian pensioners and some of those people lived in the same dirty, shabby and unhealthy tiny apartments. I remember one old woman, sitting in a box-like room, crying all through the interview. She had hardly any food, no heating, her clothes were rags. And this in Europe in 2011.

I didn’t enjoy reading this but on the other hand I felt very bad for thinking like this. Those who live under such conditions cannot just decide to walk away from them. Who am I to want to shelter myself from reading about such things?

I accidentally landed in a slum once, in Fort-de-France, Martinique. I felt really miserable, not because I thought it was dangerous, (maybe it was, no clue) but because it felt like prying. By walking between the shacks I could see into the homes of these people, they had no windows or doors and I felt like a voyeur. I was then asked angrily what the heck I thought I was doing but they understood, that I had lost my way and once they realized it wasn’t curiosity, they were very helpful.

It is really in bad taste but apparently it is part of many a guided tour in Brazil to pay a visit to the favelas.

I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s books, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, with the exception of the last, they didn’t seem this depressing and I liked them very much.

I still got White Nights, Notes From Underground and The Brothers Karamazov to read. But not just yet.

I didn’t include any quotes as I’ve read this in a German translation. I like the German cover a lot.

Anton Chekhov: The Black Monk aka Чёрный монах (1894) and Peasants aka Мужики (1897) Stories

The Black Monk (Penguin 60s)

Unlike Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Chekhov isn’t known for his novels but for his short stories and his theater plays. Some people believe that there has never been a finer short story writer than him. I agree, he is an accomplished writer and reading him is a real joy. I had this little Penguin book containing The Black Monk and Peasants for years now but never got around to reading it.

I have read many of Chekhov’s stories and I’m well aware that he was someone who was interested in the fate of the Russian peasant and the poor, nevertheless I don’t think I have ever read anything by him that was as bleak as these two stories.

They are very different but there is a common topic in those stories which is illness. Mental illness in the first and a neurological illness in the second.

The Black Monk tells the story of the Master of Arts Andrey Kovrin. Kovrin feels exhausted and tired and decides to go and spend the summer with his former mentor, the famous horticulturalist Pesotsky and his daughter. Being an orphan, Korvin grew up with Pesotsky and loves him dearly. The old man has a wonderful estate with beautiful gardens and orchards that produce a lot of fruit and vegetables.

The beginning of the story is very idyllic. Korvin enjoys the beauty of the gardens, the company of his friend and to work on his numerous projects. Nobody seems to be aware at first that he hardly sleeps. He is very nervous and overeager and works like a mad man. Strange thoughts haunt him and he constantly thinks of a tale that he once read about a black monk who is a real person in one place but a sort of mirage in others.

As idyllic as the story starts it soon gets darker when Korvin not only to sees the black monk but speaks to him as well and finally has a nervous breakdown. I found this a highly interesting story as we think at first that it is a ghost story and then realize that Korvin is psychotic. This reminded me a lot of Maupassant’s Le Horla and there could be an influence. The Black Monk is a story of a nervous breakdown that leads to hallucinations and visions that are so intense that Korvin takes them for real. He believes everything the monk tells him and what he tells him flatters him.

The black monk says to Korvin that he is one of the chosen ones, an artist and that artists never see the world like everybody else.

But how do you know that men of genius, in whom the whole world puts its faith, haven’t seen ghosts too? Nowadays scientists say genius is akin to madness. My friend, only the mediocre, the common herd are healthy and normal.

After the breakdown Korvin undergoes a treatment with bromides, gets a lot of rest and becomes extremely depressed. His visions are gone and so is his feeling of grandeur. Being cured is insufferable to him. Chekhov’s psychological insight is really amazing. I’m not sure whether Korvin suffers of schizophrenia but it could be. He could also be bipolar. Both explanations are possible and both illnesses have the trait that during the moments of (megalo)mania the patient is quite happy. Often however they don’t sleep, don’t eat, are highly agitated and a break down mostly puts an end to the high.

Peasants is a completely different story. Nikolay Chikildeyev is a waiter in Moscow when he starts to develop a strange illness. His legs get numb and he cannot work anymore as he falls constantly. It isn’t said what it is but it could have been a neurological affliction or MS. In any case he decides to go back to the country and take his wife and his daughter with him.

What follows is unbelievable and I think it must be one of the bleakest stories I have ever read. Chikildeyev’s family are peasants and so incredibly poor, it would be heartbreaking. I did say “would” on purpose because these people are not only poor, they are dirty and brutal, constantly drunk, they hate each other and life, they are mean and abusive.

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. They were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarreling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspicion.

On the other hand they are extremely religious but in a very irrational way. No one can read and would really know what is in the Bible but they mix up elements the priests said, with Bible quotes and childish beliefs and wishes and pure superstitions. They believe in heaven and hell and the Virgin Mary but without a clear idea what each of them really means. The holidays are followed religiously as each of them is an opportunity to get drunk.

If they could choose they would rather be dead than alive but on the other hand they are extremely scared of being ill and hate Chikildeyev because he is a mirror of their own frailty.

Far from having any fear of death, Marya was only sorry it was such a long time coming, and she was glad when any of her children died.

What is also amazing is the fact that some of the older peasants wish themselves back to serfdom as they were at least fed regularly.

I have never read anything like it and it felt almost like reading nonfiction as it is written in a very realistic and detailed way. It seems as if  Chikildeyev’s illness was just a pretext to have these outsiders come to that place of desolation and depravity. The story also underlines that when you have lived under such circumstances for a long time you hardly see them any more and certainly do not see that you are part of the problem.

Both stories are amazing and show how talented Chekhov was. I cannot say I “liked” them but I would recommend them because they are very enlightening. They show you the talent of an author and the reality of a society of which we don’t know that much anymore but that has certain traits and elements that can still be found nowadays.