As ancient as …

As ancient as …

As a simile for ‘ancient’ you could use a range of places and races, but here the intoning of the prayer makes ‘Jewish’ particularly appropriate.  In other contexts, we could say as ancient as China; as ancient as Babylon; as ancient as a...
As puny as …

As puny as …

An ideologically committed army officer expects her child to be born robust and struggle-ready, and is disappointed by his neo-natal vulnerability and apparent weediness.  She soon abandons him to the care of the poor family who provided her with a room in which to...
Lasting love, changing love

Lasting love, changing love

A touching description of how love can be constant and yet changing.  This is a long standing and quietly happy marriage, and over time the fulcrum has shifted.  And the love they share sets things to rights when they have an off moment. And he loved her too, but his...
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...
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...
Putting everything right

Putting everything right

Grossman’s capacity to capture, with simplicity and delicacy, the nature and strength of love in many contexts is always touching.  Here he conveys something of the closeness of a long marriage.  I am not yet grey-haired and haven’t been married long, but...
The gift of our stories

The gift of our stories

Robert Chandler is a translator of one of my most admired tellers of human stories, Vasily Grossman.  Grossman’s skill lies  in illustrating the realities and dangers of vast people-grinding ideologies through the details of ordinary lives.  I like that his...
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...
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...
Life and Fate – documentary

Life and Fate – documentary

Stumbled across an excellent documentary by Priscilla Pizzato, Life and Fate by Vasili Grossman (in French, with English subtitles) on the European channel Arte.tv.  If you haven’t yet read the book, this could be the trigger.Sorry to say this was only available...
Of edible houses

Of edible houses

A donkey nabbed by the Italian army in the Second World War finds himself in Abyssinia where, from his perspective, the houses are edible. Having tasted this novel form of fodder, he is again exposed to the sickening slipperiness of a ship’s deck with the...

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