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Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman
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Between August 1942 and February 1943, the city of Stalingrad, 1,000km south of Moscow, “experienced the fiercest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare”, said William Boyd in The Sunday Times. As a mighty German army laid siege to the city, a “hellish conflagration raged” on its streets, resulting in around two million casualties. Vasily Grossman, then a 37-year-old war correspondent, spent 100 days in Stalingrad during the siege, and sent back celebrated reports of heroic Soviet resistance. After the War, he used the events he’d witnessed as the basis for a “dilogy” of novels, Stalingrad and its sequel, Life and Fate. Briefly, these works seemed poised to make him the “Soviet Tolstoy”, but then the authorities turned against him, imposing “censorious redactions” on Stalingrad (which was published, in 1952, under the title For a Just Cause) and later seizing (or, as Grossman put it, “arresting”) the manuscript of Life and Fate. Although Grossman narrowly escaped execution, he died, in penniless obscurity, in 1964.

Only in the last decade or so has Grossman’s true literary importance come to be recognised, said Marcel Theroux in The Guardian. When Robert Chandler’s revised English translation of Life and Fate was published in 2006, the novel earned comparisons with War and Peace. And now, for the first time, its predecessor has been translated (also by Chandler, along with his wife Elizabeth), with the censored passages restored. Reading it is an “eerie experience” because much of the action takes place before the siege; characters who, in Life and Fate, we encountered being killed or sent to concentration camps, are here restored to “the bloom of good health and fortune”. But while there are “moments of wonderfully evocative prose”, Stalingrad is a too “conventionally Soviet book” to be the equal of Life and Fate.

That’s selling it short, said Luke Harding in The Observer: this is a “dazzling prequel”. The battle scenes are extraordinarily vivid, and like Tolstoy, Grossman “convincingly portrays the thoughts of ordinary soldiers in the hours before their deaths”. If anything, Stalingrad is “even more moving” than its successor, said Julian Evans in The Daily Telegraph. And that’s because it charts a “liminal moment” – one “briefly innocent” of the “full hell” of the holocaust that Grossman would document in Life and Fate. Over its 992 pages, you’ll fall in love with its characters, and, when you finish it, you’ll feel the urge to “read it again”.