Stalingrad – Vasily Grossman

Having just come to the end of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (912 pp) and looking around for something else to read, a neighbour knocked on my door and said he had a book, that as a historian, I may like to read – Stalingrad. This sounded perfect so I thanked him and the next day he arrived with it. When I saw it I nearly had a fit as I could see at glance it was another 900 pager and my heart sank. Not just because of the length, but also because these 900 pagers are so heavy to hold – and on top of that it was a hardback. Actually I was wrong, it’s 1008 pages. Anyway, being a woman of her word, I thanked him and settled down to read.

In the end it turned out to be a great read ( as was the Mantel). Knowing the story in history as the 1942 battle for Stalingrad (written in 1952) it is all inevitable but this does not detract. Grossman’s writing (translated from the Russian) is totally gripping. In particular the context, hence his descriptions. Grossman has a gift for lists when describing say – items on a table – but in such a way that the listing of these objects, colours, textures etc is fascinating. His characters are solid and believable.

I found the last 200 pages completely absorbing as we reached the German desecration of the city and its destruction. SPOILER COMING UP. It was so inevitable that all the people guarding the railway station were going to die. The question that remained was how and would they suffer or would it be quick? I read the last 150 pages one afternoon in a single sitting. The horror of that part of the war, the suffering of the ordinary people, and the bravery of the citizens and the soldiers all described in minutiae, but not portrayed as heroes or villains. Ordinary people caught up in the most appalling circumstances.

Grossman wrote a follow on “Life and Fate” with some of the same characters and I think I will read that especially as other reviewers have stated it is better than this volume. I find that hard to believe. Some have described this work as a 20th century Tolystoyian “War and Peace”. In fact, apart from the tanks and modern weaponry it was sometimes difficult not to imagine this novel actually set in the 19th century and I think this was because of the deprivations experienced in the rural areas and by the marching soldiers. I would describe this book as faction of the very best kind in its seamless blending of the fictional characters with historical events, people, and places.


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