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52 Books #20: Everything Flows

May 24, 2011

A strange beast, this. Ukrainian author Vasily Grossman’s final book Everything Flows (Vintage Classics) is billed as a novel, but it’s also a lengthy discursive essay and a history. Igor Gregoryevich, newly released from the Soviet gulag, is making his way home, where his ex-lover Anna, his cousin Nikolay and even the man who had Ivan arrested, await him. Each has suffered during the privations of the thirties, forties and fifties: this is their story, but it’s also the story of a nation’s experiences.

In fact the plot, such as it is, rather disappears in its telling — this is an unfinished book a third of the length of the novel Grossman published in 1959, Life and Fate, and there’s a sense that had he lived, Everything Flows could have been just as long, swelling as it does to encompass other modes than narrative fiction. What is to be made, for instance, of the four-page Chapter 15, the story of Vasily Timofeyevich, his wife Ganna, and their son Grisha, a family who “always talked in soft voices” and astonish their neighbours by being “so alike, equally timid, equally meek in their hearts” — a gentle, loving family who starve to death one after the other, “not separated even by death”? “Even during his last hour [Vasily Timofeyevich] felt no indignation, no anger with regard to the great and senseless thing accomplished by the Styate and Stalin.” (pp.150-1) But we do, reading it: we pity the family and are furious at the inhuman treatment meted out by a dictator to the people who, despite everything, don’t even question his actions. This isn’t part of the ‘plot’ of the novel, that is, but it is instrumental to Grossman’s project.

Just as vital is the preceding chapter, in which Ivan encounters, or dreams, a woman  whose expression contains something he has never seen before — “she was beautiful because she was kind” — and who proceeds to recite a monologue we can assume to be Grossman’s own essay on collectivisation, the forced eradication of the land-owning class, the famine and the lies told to naive Western journalists. This is the most compacted and in some ways impactful description of this period I’ve come across so far, in a year or so of reading books on Stalin’s various Five Year Plans and the people who suffered from them. (It also resonates strongly with Barbara Demick’s book on modern-day North Korea, Nothing to Envy (2010), which details cruelty on a similarly unimaginable scale. It is horrific enough to conceive of the deliberate and brutal starvation of an entire nation happening once, generations ago: it beggars belief that it should be happening again, elsewhere, right now.)

I began to be interested, reading Grossman’s clear-eyed accounts of the astoundingly awful acts and incredible braveries of this time, in the notion of authority and ‘fittedness’ to write about these things. Grossman, clearly, is closer to the horrors of the Stalinist purges, the forced-labour camps and the great famines than (say) Robert Conquest, whose history of the Ukrainian famine, Harvest of Sorrow, is frequently referred to in this book’s (enlightening and comprehensive) endnotes; Conquest in turn, by dint of his extensive research, writes as more of an authority than a contemporary author whose book includes an interlude set in the gulag (naming no names here). Authenticity and authority are always ambiguous — when it comes to writing about this or any other mid-century Holocaust. Grossman isn’t writing from experience — he wasn’t imprisoned as Igor Grigorievich has been — but his book, unfinished and unstructured as it is, has the clout and authority of the best writing about these most brutal times.

Other reading in Week #20:

Harvey Swados Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn (New York Review Books)

Granta 115: ‘The F Word’ (Granta)

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