Silence or story?

Silence or story?

Ivan is the protagonist of Grossman’s novel Everything Flows, apparently modelled on his brother in law.  This is an account of a man who spent three decades in a gulag and then one day found himself back in ‘normal’ life. By telling the story of one...
Out into the world

Out into the world

Maxim Gorky’s childhood was a bed of harshness softened by rays of light and kindness, principally from his long-suffering grandmother.  His grandfather, while having a few admirable qualities, also believed in the patriarch’s right to violence even to...
The apostle of freedom

The apostle of freedom

Vasily Grossman sings freedom despite having lived in a time and place where it was desperately rare.  Even one of his masterpieces was arrested and it is miraculous that he managed to avoid the same fate.  If I had to sum up his credo it would be the freedom of the...
A letter in the dark

A letter in the dark

A desperate and yet hopeful act, this.  People throwing letters out of trains taking them to the gulag, trusting that those letters may be found, and found, sent, and sent, reach their destination.  And how much more remarkable that some of those letters, cast into an...
Chain of consequences

Chain of consequences

Grossman’s novel deals with a man who returns to ‘normal’ life after 30 years in the gulag.  Here he shows the extent to which words have consequences.  Words, spoken or written in this or that form of denunciation, translate into horrific suffering...
A fog of hostility

A fog of hostility

Following the death of his father when he was a small boy, Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) went with his mother to live with his grandparents.  There he encountered what would now be described as a dysfunctional family with the terrifyingly fierce grandfather at war with his...
The honey of knowledge

The honey of knowledge

This is from the first of a trilogy of memoirs by Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), whose life began in Tsarist Russia and ended in the Soviet Union.  His childhood was marked by inhuman cruelty and superhuman kindness, and yet he managed to survive it without being alienated...
One month or five years

One month or five years

Although I can’t vouch for its accuracy, I liked this neat formula for deciding how long to spend getting to know a new country.  Not surprisingly, Steinbeck and Capa chose the one month version rather than the full five years for their visit to the Soviet...
Normality and absurdity

Normality and absurdity

Grossman is a master of capturing tiny details that show something touchingly ordinary in an extraordinary setting.  Here, modelled on a real and ruthless individual who caused the deaths of countless innocents in Stalin’s purge-fest, he describes a domestic...
War in all its gory

War in all its gory

Steinbeck met a number of people in the Soviet Union who had survived the worst depredations of the Second World War, including the battle for Stalingrad. Here he captures a grim snapshot of unforgettable trauma. ‘They spoke of horrid things they could not...
Of time and mind

Of time and mind

A beautiful story about a Jewish school teacher in a town subjected to Nazi massacre. Rosenthal defends his right to commit suicide if life becomes unbearable. Time, and approaching fate, have worn him down, but his mind retains its sovereignty, visible through the...
The mule and the mare

The mule and the mare

Listening time: under 3 minutes Grossman writes with great empathy of animals and their experiences. Here an Italian mule, requisitioned to the war effort and finding itself transported to a boundless Russian plain, is hitched up to a cart alongside a mare. The two...
Of pens and pencils

Of pens and pencils

Listening time: under 3 minutes.   This is a charming account of negotiating communist bureaucracy at the height of the Cold War.  John Steinbeck and his pal Robert Capa showed up in the Soviet Union in 1946 for a month of exploration.  Here they encounter a small...
Missing homework

Missing homework

Here Steinbeck suffers a bout of exam nerves before being bombarded with highly intellectual questions from his counterparts in the Soviet Union, particularly regarding ‘American writing’, which for some reason they expected him to know something about. As...

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