The kindly idiot: part 1.

In the middle of the countdown to our move, I learned that Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad had finally been published in English.  This novel is the first of two, with his magnum opus Life and Fate the conclusion.  I mentioned that I was reading Life and Fate back in 2017, but never wrote anything about it.  I think I was just in awe.  At a loss for words.

Within days of hearing of its publication, I was engrossed in reading Stalingrad.  During many sleepless nights when I was up worrying about all that had to be done for the move, racing through this 961 page novel kept me distracted.  For more than 650 pages Grossman ensnares the reader in the lives of multiple characters themselves caught up by the forces of the German advance and Russian retreat, culminating in the shelling and bombing of the city to flatten the way for Nazi infantry and armor to reach the Volga.

Suddenly, however, the story loses this momentum as Grossman digresses into a long section about the coal miners and their importance to supplying the power and the steel needed on the front lines.  (A note by the translator says this section was inserted at the insistence of Stalinist censors.)  For the next 300 pages the novel does not so much move as it jumps from scene to scene.  Some of these scenes recreate the tense momentum of the early sections of the novel.  Some seem pointless, and some contain marvelous descriptions of people and their worlds disconnected, however, from  the flow of a story.

One scene caught my attention because it spoke to the struggles I was having with letting go of all my Princeton stuff.  Grossman’s narrative appears below.  Its connection to the issue of letting go of stuff speaks for itself.  In my next post, I will have more to say about the deeper implications of this scene in the context of both volumes of Grossman’s work.

The incident occurs as a group of Russian reservists are heading west towards Stalingrad to join in the defense of the city.

Coming the other way from Stalingrad were groups of refugees: men wearing hats and greatcoats, children carrying pillows, women staggering under heavy burdens.

“How far do you think you’re going to walk with all that?” a young soldier asked one of the women.  She had a bundle strapped to her back, and a bucket and a large bag hanging against her chest.  Walking behind her were three little girls with bags on their shoulders.

She stopped and looked at him.  Brushing a lock of hair from her forehead, she said: “To Ulyanovsk.”

“You’ll never get to Ulyanovsk carrying all that,” said the soldier.

“And my children?” she replied.  “I’ve no money, and they have to eat.”

“I call it greed,” said the soldier, remembering the night he’d thrown his gas mask into a ditch because it was hurting his shoulder.  “People weigh themselves down with clutter, and then they can’t bear to throw it away.”

“You’re an idiot,” said the woman.  Her voice sounded distant and lifeless.

The soldier she had called an idiot took a large piece of dry, crumbling bread for his knapsack.  “Here you are!” he said.

The woman took the bread and began to cry.  Her three little girls all had large mouths and pale faces.  After looking quietly and seriously first at their mother, then at the soldiers lying on the ground, they too began to cry.

The family went on their way.  The soldiers saw the mother breaking the bread with her free hand and sharing it out between the girls.

“She didn’t keep a crumb for herself,” said Zaichenkov, the former accountant.

“That’s mothers for you,” someone pronounced with authority.

Next, the soldiers saw the girls approach a small boy.  He looked about three, he had a large head and stout little legs, and he was eating a huge, unwashed carrot, spitting out bits of earth.  As if by prior agreement, the girls all stopped.  One slapped the boy in the face, the second pushed him in the ribs, while the third snatched his carrot.  Then the girls went on their way again, mincing along on their slim legs.  The boy sat down on the ground and watched.

“And that’s solidarity for you,” said Usurov.

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