When people read obscure novels, when they listen to over-complex music or look at a frighteningly unintelligible painting, they feel anxious and unhappy. The thoughts and feelings of the novel’s characters, the sounds of the symphony, the colours of the painting—everything seems peculiar and difficult, as if from some other world. Almost ashamed of being natural and straightforward, people read, look and listen without joy, without any real emotion. Contrived art is a barrier placed between man and the world—impenetrable and oppressive, like a cast-iron grille.

But there are also books that make the reader exclaim joyfully, ‘Yes, that’s just what I feel. I’ve gone through that too and that’s what I thought myself.’

Art of this kind does not separate people from the world. Art like this connects people to life, to other people and to the world as a whole. It does not scrutinize life through strangely tinted spectacles.

As they read this kind of book, people feel that they are being infused with life, that the vastness and complexity of human existence is entering into their blood, into the way they think and breathe.

But this simplicity, this supreme simplicity of clear daylight, is born from the complexity of light of different wavelengths.

In this clear, calm and deep simplicity lies the truth of genuine art. Such art is like the water of a spring; if you look down, you can see to the bottom of a deep pool. You can see green weeds and pebbles. Yet the pool is also a mirror; in it you can see the entire world where you live, labour and struggle. Art combines the transparency of glass and the power of a perfect astronomical mirror.

All this applies not only to art; it is equally true of science and politics.

And the strategy of a people’s war, a war for life and freedom, is no different.

This is the entire text of Chapter 2 of Part Two of Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, New York Review Books, 2019. ISBN 9781681373270, 1088 pages, $27.95

grossman.1_1024x1024Just like War and Peace, with which Grossman’s two-part account of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 is constantly compared, the author takes time every now and then to step back and in asides addressed directly at the reader, reflect on life, history and politics.

That reference to politics in the second last line of the chapter may strike us as odd given today’s disenchantment with politics and politicians. But bear in mind Grossman was writing at a time when it was still possible to feel idealistic, and on the other hand at a time when criticizing the regime was a maladaptive strategy. However, compare and contrast this passage from a little later in the book (Chapter 30): “The twentieth century is a critical and dangerous time for humanity. It is time for intelligent people to renounce, once and for all, the thoughtless and sentimental habit of admiring a criminal if the scope of his criminality is vast enough, of admiring an arsonist if he sets fire not to a village hut but to capital cities, of tolerating a demagogue if he deceives not just an uneducated lad from a village but entire nations, of pardoning a murderer because he has killed not one individual but millions.”

As I wrote in my recent post, Gormenghast, “Stalingrad is the prequel to Life and Fate. Unlike that second installment, it was in fact published in Russia in Grossman’s lifetime, in 1952, though it was heavily censored and appeared under a different title (For a Just Cause). The wonderfully readable translation of this volume is also by Robert Chandler, joined on this occasion by his wife, Elizabeth Chandler. He can be heard discussing Life and Fate and other parts of Grossman’s work at my earlier post on Grossman.”

This new publication, the first translation into English, restores parts of Grossman’s manuscript which were censored or omitted from previous editions.