A letter carried, quite literally, close to the heart, despite the torment its presence provokes. Vasily Grossman’s mother died in a ghetto, and having failed to get her out of it while he could, he lived with the sorrow and guilt of her loss. His Life and Fate was dedicated to her, and in it one of the main characters receives a letter from his mother who then dies in a ghetto.
This is the letter that Shtrum cannot bear to put aside despite the pain it causes him. Grossman effectively composed the letter he wished he had received from his own mother, and in reality, outside the novel, he wrote two responses to that never written letter, nine and twenty years after her death.
‘Shtrum had no wish to show this letter to any of his family. Several times a day he would bring the palm of his hand to his chest and pass it over the jacket pocket where he kept the letter. Once, in the grip of unbearable pain, he thought, “If I kept it somewhere else, somewhere farther away, I should gradually start to feel calmer. As it is, it’s like an open grave in my life – a grave that is never filled in.”
But he knew that he would sooner do away with himself than part with the letter that had so miraculously found him.’
For another letter carried close to the recipient’s heart, for entirely different reasons, see a reaction to one by the poet George Herbert.
Source: Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, quoted in Introduction to Three Letters, The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Olga Mukovnikova, afterword Fyodor Guber (New York: New York Review Books, 2010), p. 263
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