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The Road by Vasily Grossman

The Road

by Vasily Grossman

Other authors: Fjodor Goeber (Illustrator), Froukje Slofstra (Translator)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2921460,557 (4.39)20
Collects short stories, journalism, essays, and letters by the author of "Life and Fate," including the complete text of Grossman's report on the workings of the Treblinka death camp.



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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
I’ll start by saying this is a beautiful collection from New York Review Books, including short stories in sections over Grossman’s life (the 1930’s, the war/shoah, and late stories), helpful notes and introductory sections, and some nice photographs as well. It’s fascinating to see Grossman’s evolution from writing stories which supported the Soviet government but included small subversive truths, to all-out condemnation with his blistering honesty, damning the consequences.

While there are some very nice stories/articles throughout, I’ll just briefly mention my favorites from each section, starting with “A Young Woman and an Old Woman”, which is touched with a philosophical theme of transience and the inevitable shifting of things in life. “The Hell of Treblinka”, written in 1944 when Grossman arrived there as a war correspondent and one of the very first publications in any language about a German concentration camp, is stunning. “The Elk” is a nuanced and layered story of terminal illness, with an old man pondering a cow elk he shot years ago, and his wife who researches the Russian revolutionaries of the 1870’s.

Grossman’s courage is inspiring. It seems he became more honest as time went on, in contrast to Isaac Babel, whom he admired, but who said in 1930 “Believe me … I’ve now learned to watch calmly as people are shot”, dumbfounding Grossman. He recognized and spoke out about the danger of the government labeling people and institutions “enemies of the people”, as well as the Holocaust denial implicit in the government’s position that “all nationalities had suffered equally under Hitler”, in part because Stalin “needed a new enemy in order to justify his continued dictatorship” (as Robert Chandler and Yury Bit-Yunan explain). These things cast an eerie shadow over what today’s populist leaders spew at their rallies and on Twitter. There is a darkness to Grossman’s writing, and the outrageous evil of Hitler and Stalin is a constant presence, but there is also great humanity and truth.

On books, and God, from “The Old Teacher”:
“He loved books – and books were not a barrier between him and life. His God was Life. And he learned about this God – a living, earthly, sinful God – by reading the works of both greater and lesser writers. All of them, as best they could, celebrated, justified, blamed, and cursed Man on this splendid earth.”

On memories, from “The Old Teacher”:
“During the night he went through his vast store of memories. He remembered the hundreds of people who had passed through his life. He remembered pupils and teachers, friends and enemies. He remembered books and student discussions; he remembered the cruel, unhappy love he had lived through sixty years before and which had cast a shadow over his whole life. He remembered years of wandering and years of labor. He remembered his spiritual vacillations – from a passionate, frenzied religiosity to a cold, clear atheism. He remembered heated, fanatical arguments in which no one would yield.”

On the Nazis, from “The Hell of Treblinka”, in wondering how it had happened; it makes one consider who today’s comical charlatans are:
“Somehow the embryonic traits of a racial theory that sounded simply comic when expounded by the second-rate charlatan professors or pathetic provincial theoreticians of nineteenth-century Germany … all the nonsense about the superiority of Germans to every other race on earth, all the cheap nonsense that seemed so comical, such an easy target for journalists and humorists – all this, in the course of only a few years, ceased to seem merely infantile and was transformed into a threat to mankind.”

On transience, from “A Young Woman and an Old Woman”:
“And only when she was being driven to the dacha and buildings were appearing from nowhere, then vanishing in front of her eyes, did she feel that there wasn’t really anything so extraordinary about her existence; it was just that her life too had subordinated itself to this precipitate movement, to this swiftness that took one’s breath away.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Oct 14, 2017 |
The Road is a collection of short stories, essays and letters by Vasily Grossman, the Russian Jewish writer best known for his novel Life and Fate. Grossman (1905-1964) was both genuinely patriotic and devoted to the Communist cause when he served as a war correspondent with the Red Army in World War II. His early stories reflect his enthusiasm, as well as he acuity in observing the ordinary people caught up in the Revolution and subsequent turmoil. [return][return]The most memorable writing in the book is not a story, but Grossman's article on the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka in Poland, published only weeks after the camp was liberated by Soviet forces. After visiting the site and interviewing survivors and captured German guards, Grossman wrote a chilling, horrifying, but mesmerizing account of the operation of the camp, focusing on the mental state of the victims as they went from a state of hope, to doubt, to terror and death, all in a matter of minutes. He also examines the psyche of the Germans who designed and operated such an abomination, wondering, as we must still wonder, how any man could do such things to his fellow human beings.[return][return]After the war came a period of tragic disillusionment for Grossman, as Russians learned that their own government under Stalin had been guilty of mass murders rivaling those of the Nazis. His later stories show him clinging to shreds of his former hopes, often choosing to look through the eyes of an animal rather than a man. The title story, "The Road," tells of an Italian artillery mule driven to apathetic numbness by the horrors and privations of the Stalingrad campaign. "The Dog," following the career of the first canine to be shot into space and brought back alive, offers hope that perhaps, through love, we can endure our loss of liberty.[return][return]The editors have done a marvelous job of introducing and interpreting Grossman's writings by giving us a separate introduction to each section of stories, with appropriate biographical, historical and critical comments. The Road takes readers on an unforgettable journey through the darkest times of our recent past through the eyes of a perceptive, but deeply human, observer. ( )
  Dolmance | Oct 28, 2015 |
Vasily Grossman has become one of my favorite authors, thanks both to his novels and nonfiction writings. He was a journalist, born in Ukraine, and became renowned during WWII for his eyewitness reporting, including an in-the-trenches account of the fall of Stalingrad. He also wrote one of the first accounts of a Nazi death camp when the Soviet army reached Treblinka. [The Road] is a collection of stories, essays, and nonfiction pieces, including the piece on Treblinka, and depicts the different stages in his writings as he went from a patriotic Red Army journalist to a persecuted author disillusioned with Stalinsim. This NYRB publication is also valuable for the commentary by editor Robert Chandler.

The first section of the book is a collection of three short stories that Grossman wrote in the 1930s. In them, you get a sense of how Grossman felt pulled in different directions: he owed his education and success as a writer to the Soviet government, but his family had felt the effects of the Terror, and being Ukrainian he had an idea of the horrific scale and effect of the 1932-33 famine there, a direct result of Stalin's policies. His stories balance social realism, the State sponsored literary style, with moral dilemmas that suggest a different point of view. For instance, "In the Town of Berdichev" a young commissar is forced to choose between her newborn baby and her comrades in the Red Army. One of the themes that is to return again and again in Grossman's stories is that of maternal love.

The second section contains two short stories and two essays from the 1940s. The first story is very Soviet in tone and is based on accounts from Russians who lived in villages occupied by the Germans. The second story is more personal. Grossman's mother had been murdered in one of the first Einsatzgruppen actions in the Ukraine in 1941, and the short story "The Old Teacher" is not only a personal reaction to his mother's death, but one of the first works of fiction published about the Holocaust. In it, an old, revered teacher tries to deal with the change in attitude of some of the villagers when the Germans move in and with the foreknowledge of his fate at the hands of the Nazis. We not only sense Grossman trying to imagine the thoughts of the Jews in situations like his mother's, but also his yearning for the love between parent and child.

The essay entitled "The Hell of Treblinka" is an incredible piece of journalism. Grossman was there with the Soviet army and interviewed as many people as he could in a short amount of time: survivors, locals, and former guards in detention. Although he got some of his numbers wrong by extrapolating based on local accounts, he accurately depicts the workings of a death camp and captures the psyche of both captives and captors to explain how it happened. It was instantly translated into other languages and was a powerful document revealing the extent of the Nazi horror to the rest of the world.

The third part of the book contains six stories from the mid to late 1950s. These stories are more daring, treading more closely the line between what was acceptable and what would get him arrested. During this time, Grossman was writing and trying to publish his novel [Life and Fate], considered his masterpiece. In 1961, the KGB confiscated the manuscript and everything related to it, even the typewriter ribbon. Fortunately, Grossman had taken precautions and had hidden copies with friends, but he never recovered from the "arrest" of his book, as he called it. He was extremely fortunate not to have been arrested along with it. According to Chandler, only one other author had his book confiscated and remained free; only one other book was considered as dangerous—[The Gulag Archipelago]. The stories from this time deal with subjects like loved ones being taken in the night, their fates unknown; a young girl adopted by Yezhov, head of the NKVD during the Great Terror, and her devotion to him even after he is executed and she is sent away (based on a true story); the reception people released from the Gulag received when they returned home; the horror of war seen through the eyes of a mule; and how people who compromised with the regime would be blackmailed into becoming accomplices.

The next section of the book includes an excerpt from [Life and Fate] known as "The Last Letter" and is thought to be the letter Grossman wished his mother had been able to write him before her death. It is heartbreaking, as are the two letters that Grossman wrote to his mother after her death and kept with him the rest of his life. One written in 1950 and the other on the twentieth anniversary of her death, the letters show the love, anguish, and guilt that is reflected so often in his fiction.

In 1961, Grossman's health declined, and he died of lung cancer in 1964. "Eternal Rest", the last essay in the collection, is about death and the struggles people had to undergo to be buried where they wished. Although it is believed to have been written in 1956, shortly after the death of his father, it was to presage the difficulty his widow had in having him buried and the controversy over whether that was where he wished to be interred.

Overall, I find Grossman's writing to be highly personal, whether he is writing about the war, the Holocaust, or fictional characters. His stories reflect the changes he underwent as a result of all that he had witnessed and experienced. If it were not so dramatic, I would say that his soul is reflected in his writing, both tarnished and sublime. He obviously felt a great deal, and even when constrained in how he could say it, he managed to convey his feelings and ideas. I admire him a great deal. ( )
8 vote labfs39 | Nov 12, 2013 |
At times overly showy, at times bleakly depressing, at times heartbreaking, and at times surprisingly beautiful. This selection of Grossman's shorter work, covering his entire career and including both fiction and non-fiction, makes an excellent, if somewhat uneven, introduction. It's most definitely not an easy read though. ( )
  g026r | Aug 4, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is a very good collection of works, especially from a biographical point of view. The editing is well-done and puts a lot of perspective on Grossman's life and career as a whole. The earlier stories are a little weak, but still interesting in seeing his development. The essays and journalism are quite good. The later stories are the best part. ( )
  ateolf | Feb 19, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vasily Grossmanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Goeber, FjodorIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Slofstra, FroukjeTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chandler, ElizabethTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chandler, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mukovnikova, OlgaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Vasily Semyonovich Grossman was born on December 12, 1905, in Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was home to one of Europe's largest Jewish communities.
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