Top critical review
Ambitious and compassionate, but sprawling and confusing
11 July 2019
Much like the German invasion of the USSR, this work is a daunting monster, weighing in at 892 pages plus 100 pages of fascinating historical notes and the translator's take on the many versions of the book.
At its best, in the first half, Stalingrad is about families: their strength in love and their hell in emotional conflict. It is also about the forging of national resistance to the brutal Nazi war machine. These primal forces come together in moments when the leading characters are 'moved by an iron determination and by love for others.'
There are delicious vignettes of emotion and reflection: for example, the flight of a children's home on a struggling steamer across the Volga, beset by Stuka dive-bombers; or quiet scenes in a desolate Moscow as the scientist Viktor Shtrum falls for the pretty neighbour in his apartment block; or the last desperate but resigned days of a small group of Soviet troops defending the railway station in bombed-out Stalingrad (this is also virtually the only war-action scene in the book).
There is a brilliantly realised and disconcerting meeting between a nervous German staff Colonel, reporting from the Russian front, and a solitary Hitler. The Nazi leader is at the height of his power, despising 'flowers and music', in thrall to his own will, and contemptuous of mere strategic concerns.
However, the cast of characters is too vast, overwhelming the narrative integrity of this very loose novel. Central personalities in the first half - such as Shtrum, most of his family and Colonel Novikov - disappear entirely in the last quarter of the book. The interiority of the characters becomes increasingly subject to Grossman's desire to show how - by the time of the Battle of Stalingrad - the collective Soviet peoples united in the face of the German onslaught, independently of Stalin's draconian 'Not one step back' order of July 1942.
The novel succumbs to history and - despite the (excellent) translator's starry-eyed plea for the depth of this work – is undone by the author's intentions. From mid-way, the narrative drive chops and changes far too often; and there is an excessive amount of generalised description of the military leadership and forces of Germany and the USSR. Equally, there are far too many hymns to the single-minded dedication of workers in Soviet factories and mines, nearly all of which signally fail to come alive.
Grossman struggled for years with the censors to get this prequel to his truly great work, Life and Fate, published. A bowdlerised version was published in the USSR in 1952. This new translation, by the renowned Raymond Chandler, is effectively a new and far more complete version of Grossman's work, including previously censored and more daring sections.
However, despite Grossman's bravery in hinting at imperfect behaviour such as petty thieving, the influence of the Stalinist censors was too great. There is an unconvincing absence, except for a few oblique references, of memories of the pre-WW2 massacres by Stalin of his perceived opponents: around 1.5 million Soviet people were murdered by the regime (excluding the victims of the planned starvation to death of peasants, especially in the Ukraine). These highly publicised purges were focused on the types of people who populate the novel, ie the intelligentsia, factory managers and army officers.
Equally, there is an almost total absence of fear of the authorities and NKVD enforcers, except for an old peasant couple (who openly despise Commissar Krymov's allegiance to communism) and a few casual references to people being executed for anti-Soviet attitudes.
In my opinion, this book needs heavy pruning, and does not have anything like the complex but satisfying cohesion and emotional force of Life and Fate. One can see that - like a general gradually understanding in an early battle how to manoeuvre divisions while struggling to keep tactics subordinate to strategy - the creation of this literary Stalingrad was an essential learning curve for Grossman prior to writing his great war story, Life and Fate.
Nevertheless, Stalingrad is an intriguing and compassionate portrait of a people under siege. It is massive in its ambition and manifests an astonishing, Tolstoyan ability to telescope from a vast panorama of war down to a single soldier wondering what to write home to his mother.