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A Twenty-First Century War and Peace

By Oscar Mardell.

A Twenty-First Century Twentieth Century War and Peace:
On A Complete Edition of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad Being Published in English

Today we published the final chapter of The People Immortal by Vasily Grossman. It was serialised over eighteen issues of the newspaper, and after each one the interest of the readers increased. For eighteen days, and even nights, I stood with the writer by my desk proofreading one chapter after another in order to publish it in the next issue. There were no conflicts with Vasily Semyonovich. Only the end of the novel caused heated discussions: the main character, I. Babadzhanyan, gets killed. When I was reading the proofed version of the final chapter, I kept asking the writer whether it wasn’t possible to resurrect the main character, of whom the reader had grown so fond? Vasily Semyonovich replied: “We have to follow the ruthless truth of war.”
– Major-General David Iosifovich Ortenberg, diary entry for 12 August 1942

In fact, Grossman was to face acute embarrassment, the sort that any novelist dreads, even though it had been unusual to give the main character in the novel his real name as well as identity. Babadzhanyan had not been killed, as Grossman had been told. But the future general of tank troops forgave the novelist for his fictional death.
– Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, A Writer at War

two things we all love
in Grossman’s work

the level of the artistry
(for who has ever heard of
the interest of readers
increasing over time?)
a Soviet Tolstoy as it were

also the power to follow truth
which doesn’t care for resurrections
even when his editors
(who doubled as his censors)
insisted that it must

and on this second thing especially
rests Grossman’s name today
(the Hell of Treblinka
was even used as
evidence at Nuremberg)

Life and Fate is best known as
the first to make the case
that Stalin’s Russia
and Hitler’s Germany
were mirror images

a case taken for granted now
but heresy within a state
which didn’t simply pride
but justified itself outright
on its defeat of Hitler
(and hence that novel was itself
arrested in sixty-eight)

the artistry of Stalingrad
has never been in doubt
but surely it can’t follow truth
so closely?

shredded by the censors
the Jewish theme downplayed
the dead unseparated
the roles of Stalin and the Party
grossly exaggerated
the debts to common soldiers
written off

even a restored edition surely
would have little inkling
of the full depravity?

but Stalingrad follows
another truth
perhaps more ruthless
definitely stranger
than that of war per se

war’s proximity to fiction
the way it all felt like a script
like déjà vu to those at Stalingrad

the sense that they were
not just soldiers in the fight
but players in some old Tolstoyan epic
a myth to justify a state
that couldn’t be sustained

in this we find
another mirror image

Oscar Mardell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 28th, 2020.