Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grossman’s Mysterious Everything Flows

It’s never easy to write about unfinished books, and the difficulty multiplies when the book is as serious in subject and diverse in form as Vasilii Grossman’s Всё течёт (Everything Flows): Grossman writes about history, freedom, and Soviet prison camps, incorporating a combination of fictional characters and essay-like passages. The main narrative line in Everything Flows concerns Ivan Grigorievich, who is released from prison after 30 years, but Grossman interrupts Ivan’s story many times to describe and illustrate aspects of Soviet totalitarianism.

I admit: I get frustrated when a book moves so much between different types of narration. I admit: I didn’t read all the portions on history very carefully. And I’ll also admit: I’m one of those ridiculously stubborn readers who gets used to a character and then wants to stay with him or her. And Ivan’s story is compelling. Grossman shows us, with heartbreaking details large and small, Ivan’s awkwardness as he returns to “everyday” life outside the camps. He doesn’t fit with the parquet floor and chandeliers at his cousin’s apartment, and he feels that both he and Leningrad have changed. Though life outside the camps is frightening, he prefers freedom.

Grossman also tells of wives imprisoned for refusing to denounce their husbands. And a woman Ivan lives with tells of her experiences during the Ukrainian holodomor. Grossman makes their stories so immediate and poignant that I didn’t want to leave them, either. Robert Chandler, who translated Everything Flows for New York Review Books with Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan, says in an interview with Book Serf that there is something distinctive about Grossman’s “vivid” selection of details. Those details – as varied as protruding lower teeth, Ivan’s job in a locksmith workshop, and the whitewashing of walls in houses where people died during the holodomor – result in writing that is both lyrical and documentary.

The long passages about Lenin, Stalin, and freedom, and a sketch composed of dialogue held my interest far less than the purely fictional chapters, despite Grossman’s choice of subjects: informants, Lenin, Stalin, and what they did to the Soviet Union. Toward the end, Grossman stresses that human history is the history of freedom.

The book cohered for me, rather mysteriously, in its last two pages, when Ivan returned to his father’s home. Somehow, all the disparate pieces and figures in Everything Flows ended up melding into something bigger, probably because Grossman’s conclusions about humanity and freedom were so movingly generous in acknowledging human flaws that they left me with a lump in my throat.

Everything Flows is, like Life and Fate, (previous post), not an easy book to read, and it’s probably obvious that I don’t feel very comfortable writing about it, but I think the fictional passages alone make it worth reading. Readers who prefer nonfiction might say the same about the passages about history.

Level for Nonnative Readers of Russian: 3/5, medium difficulty.

For more:

“Anti-Socialist Realism” on TNR.com

A review of Everything Flows from The Guardian

Also: The Road, a collection of Grossman’s fiction and nonfiction, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Mukovnikova, will be available from New York Review Books in late September 2010.

Next up: Vladimir Sorokin’s Sugar Kremlin, then two detective novels by Leonid Iuzefovich.

1 comment:

  1. Languagehat had technical difficulties posting a comment yesterday so sent a note with what he wrote on LibraryThing about Everything Flows. I thank him very much for sending it:

    "This is a powerful work and as good a summary of the dark side of Russian history as I've read; in 200 pages it provides unforgettable vignettes of the various kinds of suffering imposed by the rulers of the Soviet Union, as well as sometimes lengthy historical analyses. If I encounter anyone who (after all this time and all the information that's come out) still doubts the horror of what Lenin and Stalin created, I will give them this book and hope they are open to what it has to say. The account of the Ukrainian famine of the early '30s, to take just one example, is crushing and convincing.

    However, it presents itself as a novel, and it's really not. It starts out as one, with a 50-year-old protagonist, Ivan Grigorevich, returning to Moscow from the east Siberian Gulag and meeting his well-off cousin, but it quickly becomes a series of musings by Ivan about the course of history, and for long stretches Ivan himself is forgotten and Grossman pours out his rage at what was done (tempered by his understanding of the human beings who did it) and reaffirms his belief in the ultimate value of freedom. This is not meant as a criticism, simply as a warning to anyone who might go into it expecting a traditional novel with a plot. This is not that, but it's something valuable in its own right."

    P.S. I adjusted the commenting settings.