“A Soviet Critic from Within”: a Vasily Grossman Q & A with Marat Grinberg


Over the last couple of weeks I’ve posted several times on Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. You can read my introductory thoughts on the novel, my thoughts on Grossman’s use of character and lists, and the place of the Holocaust in the novel.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time with this book and even have some expertise with its subject matter, especially its use of the Holocaust, I don’t know much about Soviet writing, and I can’t read Russian. So I was eager to reach out to a friend who is an expert on these things.

Marat Grinberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is Associate Professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College. He is the author of “I am to Be Read not from Left to Right, but in Jewish: from Right to Left”: The Poetics of Boris Slutsky (2011) and co-editor of Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (2013). His most recent essays on literature and cinema have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Commentary, Tablet Magazine, and Cineaste. His latest book is Aleksandr Askol’dov: The Commissar, a study of the great banned Soviet film.

I emailed Marat some questions I had about the novel, and he was kind enough to reply. I hope you enjoy his thoughtful responses as much as I did.

 Dorian Stuber: I’d appreciate some context for understanding Grossman. Where does he fit among other Soviet writers of the time? Would you say he is a Jewish writer?

Marat Grinberg: I would hesitate in calling Grossman a Jewish writer, although that, of course, depends on how one defines this contentious category. Clearly he was a Jew who never denied his Jewishness and was invested in figuring out the place of Jews in history. The Holocaust and post-war Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns made this awareness stronger as well as more profound, tragic, and personal. At the same time, if we think of a Jewish writer as someone who engages in dialogue with Jewish textual universe, both sacred and secular, and comments upon it, this would describe Grossman only to a limited extent. First and foremost, he was a Soviet Russian writer, shaped by the Soviet project, which is precisely why his eventual denunciation of it after the war was so stark and unpredictable. A celebrated writer in the 30s and even early 50s and a legendary war journalist, Grossman was always a Soviet critic from within and from the depth of Russian history.

DS: One of the most striking aspects of Life and Fate is the way it links Nazism and Stalinism. Specifically, it suggests these ideologies are linked through their treatment of Jews. Is Grossman arguing that totalitarianism is anti-Semitic?

MG: I don’t think Grossman is arguing in Life and Fate or in other works dealing with the nature of totalitarianism, such as Everything Flows, that totalitarianism is inherently anti-Semitic. What fascinates him about Nazism and Stalinism and what makes them so similar in his eyes is how they both sacralize ideology and deny any value to individual human life. Like Hannah Arendt later in Origins of Totalitarianism, he views anti-Semitism as a convenient tool of totalitarianism, but I also think his understanding of anti-Semitism is limited by how he ties it to totalitarianism. Anti-Semitism is for him essentially a hatred of the other – Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and the Jew” comes to mind – but he overlooks the deeper roots of it in the polemical wars between Judaism and Christianity. The secular humanist that he was, he could never quite decide in Life and Fate whether the Nazi (and others’) hate of the Jew was an aberration or an ingrained part of human psyche and its capacity for evil.

DS: Can you tell English-speaking readers about the connotations of the two terms that give Grossman his title—and that he uses all the time?

My hunch is that fate is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life.

By contrast, I sense that life is, if not antithetical to fate, then at least in some kind of struggle with it. Life is where value resides for Grossman. But is it possible to think of life without fate?

MG: I think you’re absolutely right, fate for Grossman “is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life” and “life is where value lies for Grossman.” In this, he, of course, is following very consciously in the footsteps of Tolstoy. Life and fate is in many respects a paraphrase of war and peace, keeping in mind that the proper translation of Tolstoy’s epic would be War and World. Grossman mimics Tolstoy structurally, thematically and philosophically – Tolstoy also thinks of history as governed by larger structures, grand fate or destiny of a sort. It should be noted that War and Peace was the book that Russian intelligentsia and writers, in particular, turned to during the war. Boris Slutsky would later write a poem about how everyone was incessantly rereading and memorizing War and Peace in those years. So Grossman’s choice is not accidental, but what is also interesting is how he critiques the great novelistic projects of Russian literature, by Tolstoy as well as Dostoevsky and Turgenev, co-opted by the Soviet regime. He locates in them precisely the same obsession with totalizing explanations of human history which he identifies in totalitarianism and which invalidates the individual. Thus, the other key term in his novel, apart from life and fate, is freedom, which very much implies the individual’s ability to make choices and resist evil even when that evil becomes history’s organizing principle. It is through this type of phenomenological freedom that life can be salvaged for Grossman. In terms of Russian history and literature, he locates the potential for it in Chekhov, the least totalizing of Russian writers. Ultimately Grossman wants to have his cake and eat it too: write the 20th century version of War and Peace and question the very foundations of epic novelistic writing.

DS: Viktor Shtrum, one of the main characters, often said to be a stand-in for Grossman, is a particle physicist. Grossman himself trained as an engineer. Do you think Grossman’s background as a scientist affected his writing of the novel? (I’m especially wondering about its structure.) Or does science function in the novel mostly as a way of critiquing the Soviet state’s ability to politicize every aspect of life?

MG: So it’s Tolstoy’s proclivity toward discerning structures in history that mainly impacts Grossman’s systematizing thinking in the novel, but his engineer background might very well have had something to do with it. Overall the link between art and science is at the core of early utopian Soviet vision and the later Stalinist version of it. As a nuclear physicist, Viktor serves the state, which turns against him as a Jew, and exemplifies both the potential and the horror of human progress. Russian literary thinker Lydia Ginzburg defined Tolstoy’s characters, such as Levin in Anna Karenina, for instance, not as auto-biographical, but auto-psychological, in other words their task is to replicate the author’s psychology and his intellectual, moral and spiritual crises. Viktor is very much a character in that mold. His rediscovery of his Jewishness in the context of anti-Semitic assaults and the split he experiences as a result between being a member of Russian intelligentsia and a Jew reconstructs Grossman’s own trajectory in this regard.

DS: Do you think there are qualities to Grossman’s writing—in Life and Fate in particular, but more generally too—that are underrated? Are there aspects of his style or even of his preoccupations that don’t come across well in translation?

MG: In Russian criticism of Grossman there’s a tendency to view him as a great thinker, but not a great writer and because of that, some believe, he does not lose much in translation. The moral courage and breadth of his project in Life and Fate make discussing it as an aesthetic work almost impossible or at least very difficult. Certainly there are parts in it that are much more psychologically nuanced than others and it can be overly sentimental and sociological, which can be explained by his uneasy relationship with the genre of the novel. Hence some prefer his shorter works, such as Everything Flows and “The Hell of Treblinka.” Perhaps it’s the Greek and Roman historians, such as Thucydides and Tacitus, both artful writers intent on figuring out structure within history and how the human variable fits into it, that Grossman resembles most closely.


Thank you, Marat! So interesting to get your expert opinion on these questions.



The Dead Secret–Wilkie Collins (1857)

My (very slow) journey through the complete works of Wilkie Collins continued this weekend with The Dead Secret (1857). This was Collins’s fourth published novel, the one right before he hit the big time with The Woman in White. It’s really quite good, absolutely enjoyable if a bit soppy at times and a little baggy. But there are a number of wonderful characters and some genuinely creepy and atmospheric scenes.

In his preface to the one-volume edition of 1861, Collins describes the phrase of his title as if it were a familiar idiom (he mentions it couldn’t be translated into French). I’d never heard the phrase “a dead secret” before, but apparently it means an “absolute secret, not to be revealed under any circumstances.” In this sense, Collins’s title is ironic, since the secret the story revolves around is supposed to be revealed in the first chapter—and it sort of is, though not conclusively enough for readers, or at least this one, to be sure what it is—but the person who is supposed to reveal it chooses not to.

As I observed recently in regards to The Law and the Lady, Collins here too anticipates Freud’s belief that “no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips.” Collins is fascinated by the idea that whatever is buried will eventually come to light. The Dead Secret begins with the maid Sarah Leeson attending the deathbed of her mistress, Mrs. Treverton, in a remote and falling down Cornish mansion called Porthgenna. Mrs. Treverton writes a letter to husband revealing a secret only she and her maid have known about until now, and just before she breathes her last she is on the point of making Sarah swear that she will pass the letter to Captain Treverton. Instead Sarah—whose hair is shockingly gray even though she is still a young woman, a sign of some terrible thing in her past—hides the letter in a locked room in the disused wing of the house and runs away from the Captain and his five-year-old daughter.

Ben Nicholson--Wrong Century, Right Place

We pick up events fifteen years later when that little girl, Rosamond Treverton, marries a young man, Leonard Frankland. Frankland is blind, blindness being a motif, I gather, that reappears in later works, and of course fittingly literalizes the figurative state of most of Collins’s characters. Collins uses Leonard’s blindness as a way to mediate the telling of the story even in the midst of the action. In this sense it seems an even more sophisticated version of his preference for shifts from third or first person narration to epistolary, or amongst various narrators or between various interpolated texts. These shifts emphasize the telling of the story over the events that are told. So for example Rosamond must describe everything she is doing to Leonard, especially once they find themselves caught up in trying to find the mysterious letter in a place Leonard has never been. This has the effect of slowing down the action while also ratcheting up the suspense, even in instances where there shouldn’t be any. We know where the letter is hidden, after all.

Although the mystery—which concerns them more than anyone—couldn’t be solved without them, Rosamond and Leonard are the book’s least interesting characters. The most interesting is Sarah—certainly she gets the most extraordinary scenes. She’s not really the heroine—the book’s attention is too diffuse, too decentralized among so many characters to have a heroine, and besides it’s unclear for the longest time whether or not we’re even supposed to like her: she’s continually rubbing other characters the wrong way—but she is at the heart of its enigma. Collins loves disguises, and in the scenes that most stuck with me Sarah hides her identity without actually lying about who she is. In the first, under the name Mrs. Jazeph, she becomes the nurse to Rosamond when the latter’s journey back to Cornwall is interrupted by the early arrival of her first child. The nurse, who has been nervous and flighty all evening, keeping herself at an unnatural distance which makes her charge increasingly uneasy, finally approaches Rosamond—but now she comes too close:

[T]he nurse was stopping midway between the part of the room from which she had advanced , and the bedside. There was nothing wild or angry in her look. The agitation which her face expressed, was the agitation of perplexity and alarm. She stood rapidly clasping an unclasping her hands, the image of bewilderment and distress—stood so for nearly a minute—then came forward a few steps more, and said inquiringly, in a whisper: —

‘Not asleep? Not quite asleep, yet?’

Rosamond tried to speak in answer, but the quick beating of her heart seemed to rise up to her very lips, and to stifle the words on them.

The nurse came on, still with the same perplexity and distress in her face, to within a foot of the bedside—knelt down by the pillow, and looked earnestly at Rosamond—shuddered a little, and glanced all around her, as if to make sure the room was empty—bent forward—hesitated—bent nearer, and whispered into her ear these words: —

‘When you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room!

The hot breath of the woman, as she spoke, beat on Rosamond’s cheek, and seemed to fly in one fever-throb through every vein of her body.

The creepiest part of this passage is the qualifying clause “as she spoke,” which seems initially redundant—did we think the breath came from anywhere else?—but which in the end focuses our attention on the almost animalistic quality of Sarah. Similarly disquieting is the ambiguous pronoun at the end, which makes it hard to distinguish Sarah from Rosamond. (Shrewd readers will guess already that this suggestion of symbiosis is fitting.)

The scene could easily have been risible—and depending on your appetite for sensation fiction maybe it is—if it weren’t so true to the proto-Freudian theory of the unconscious (later Sarah will marvel that she said the last thing she wanted to say, or at least the last thing she thought she wanted to say) and so well executed.

Similarly dramatic is the second scene with Sarah that impressed itself on me. Sarah and her uncle Joseph (more about him in a second) rush to Porthgenna in advance of Rosamond and Leonard and brazen their way into the house, but Sarah is unable to retrieve the secret letter because she is overwhelmed on the threshold of the nfamous Myrtle Room by guilt and anxiety and maybe a genuine ghost. I’m too pressed for time to cite the passage: suffice it to say Sarah confuses the flapping of loose wallpaper with the admonitions of her late mistress and collapses in a dead swoon. Collins shows his genius in making us feel anxious and upset even though we know the (ostensible) cause of the disturbing noises. You can see Collins figuring out how to unsettle readers, and two years later he’ll write a masterpiece in which the kind of scenes I’m talking about here, which here are scattered across the book, will be much more prominent.

But The Dead Secret isn’t just apprentice work. I was disappointed by Ira Nadel’s introduction to the Oxford edition (unusual for that estimable line). Nadel meanders through the novel’s motifs, content simply to point out similar instances in other books by Collins. He never tries to interpret this book on its own merits. I was especially let down because the blurb tells me Nadel is the author of a book called Joyce and the Jews. And my pet theory about this book is that Sarah’s uncle, Joseph Buschmann, is in fact Jewish. Collins never says so, and he never resorts to the typology of this and other periods (hooked nose, swarthy, lecherous, usurious, etc) that would telegraph to readers, even unconsciously, a character’s Jewishness. We do know that Joseph is German, though he proudly asserts that he is also a citizen of England. We know he loves music—his prized possession is a music box given to his elder brother by Mozart himself: this automaton is just part and parcel of the book’s fascination with the uncanny, the Gothic, etc. We know he’s not quite five feet tall. He’s endearing in his insistent guilelessness, and kind and loving to Sarah despite all her troubles. Basically he’s a total mensch and I really wanted him to be Jewish not just because he was my favourite but because he is so determinedly not characterized by negative stereotypes. But being musical and short and kind and a little schmaltzy isn’t enough to make someone Jewish—though it’s a pretty good start.

Can anyone who’s read this book help me out here, and support this fancy of mine?

Either way, The Dead Secret doesn’t deserve to be one. A great book for your vacation reading.