Thursday, June 17, 2010

On Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows

A slightly different version of this piece appeared last weekend in The Sunday Telegraph.

Any history of twentieth-century Russia must open by marking and comparing two groups of citizens within the former Soviet Union. There were, on the one hand, those Russians who adapted their lives successfully to the dogma and paranoia of the perennially looming, all-consuming Soviet state, and on the other, those who fell afoul of it and were made to serve in labour camps, jailed, or killed.

As Vasily Grossman’s scathing and sorrowful novel Everything Flows shows, these two groups were not independent of each other. Often a man might make a move up in his own life by writing a “denunciation” that suspected, and merely by alleging went a long way towards proving, the conspiracy or treason of another.

People thus feared not only the state, but also their own neighbours. In the “people’s state”, the most innocent words were sounded in whispers, and the simplest freedoms disabled. Everything Flows, which was still being revised by Grossman when he died in 1964, is an unforgettable examination of both the perverse machinations and the moral agony of a hollowed-out humanity.

Like Rip Van Winkle, the protagonist of Everything Flows, Ivan Grigoryevich, leaves society a young man and returns elderly, bowed, and perplexed. His exile, though, has not been one of sleep, but of thirty years in Stalin’s Gulag for a trivial offence. His life has been shredded by the state: his mother is dead, his lover long ago married someone else.

In a striking passage, he goes to Moscow to see his cousin, the prospering scientist Nikolay Andreyevich. Nikolay offers him a confused welcome, while his wife Maria Pavlovna worries that “if Ivan did use their bath, they’d never be able to get the bath properly clean again, neither with acid, nor with lye.” That last qualifying phrase about acid and lye might have been left out by a lesser writer, but it is precisely this that brilliantly brings alive Maria Pavlovna’s pinched hospitality. The detail is cleanly double-sided, managing simultaneously to be both a justification and a condemnation of Maria Pavlovna's conduct. We begin to see how fiction can really be made to work in a layered, mind-expanding way.

Grossman was a bold, unconventional writer, and the form of his book echoes its title, ingeniously employing a variety of narrative lenses as it winds in and out of the corridors of a society feeding upon itself. One chapter unforgettably describes the days of a young mother in a labour camp; another is a meditation on a thousand years of Russian history and the country’s “slave soul”; and a third supplies an intriguing study of Lenin’s personality. This is a genuinely visionary work of art, and a worthy sequel to Grossman’s magnum opus Life and Fate.

An excerpt from Everything Flows, published in the Russian-English literary journal Cardinal Points, is here. A long interview with Grossman's translator Robert Chandler, whose services to Russian literature are immense (he is also the translator of works by Pushkin, Nikolai Leskov, and Andrey Platonov) is here.

And some other essays on Russian literature: on Nikolai Gogol's "The Overcoat", "A Kiss in Chekhov", "The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam", "On Hamid Ismailov's The Railway", and on EE Cummings's Russian travelogue Eimi.

And two longer essays on what the work of translation means for literature in general and for Indian literature in particular are, respectively, here and here.

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