domingo, 31 de marzo de 2013

Una novelita lumpen

Una novelita lumpen (Anagrama, 2009)
by Roberto Bolaño
Spain, 2002

Toda escritura es una marranada.
Las personas que salen de la nada intentando precisar cualquier cosa que pasa por su cabeza, son unos cerdos.
Todos los escritores son unos cerdos.  Especialmente los de ahora.

[All writing is a dirty trick.
The people who come out of nowhere trying to pinpoint whatever thing is passing through their heads are a bunch of swine.
All writers are a bunch of swine.  Especially today's writers.]
--Antonin Artaud

As its title, its acerbic Antonin Artaud epigraph, and its first person female narrator's opening line ("Ahora soy una madre y también una mujer casada, pero no hace mucho fui una delincuente" ["Now I'm a mother and also a wife, but not long ago I was a delinquent"]) (13) all take different roads to Rome to suggest, Una novelita lumpen (either A Short Little Lumpen Novel or A Lumpen Novella--I prefer the former for its whiff of self-mockery and not taking itself too seriously), a genre novel set in Roma that Bolaño wrote on commission while trying to put the finishing touches on 2666 before the sands of time ran out on him, is a sort of a crime or female delinquency-oriented bildungsroman having to do with the teenaged orphan Bianca's temporary fling with prostitution in the days when the rest of her non-working girl life began to spiral out of control.  Something about the work made me think of it as a slighter, much less ambitious and just generally lesser version of The Skating Rink, but maybe that's just me.  In any event, the tale about how the teen prostitute's unhealthy relationship with two of her deadbeat brother's even more deadbeat friends eventually escalated into the group's planned robbery of her wealthy client, a former Italian Mr. Universe and one-time B-movie film star reputed to have a strongbox loaded with cash in his mansion on the Via Germanico, is all interesting enough from a giallo/pulp fiction/class war point of view; however, those of you pining for the title to be translated into English should note that, despite a convincing noir ambience and vibe, this novella only hints at the imaginative firepower of the author's best work.  Still, mediocre Bolaño is better than no Bolaño at all and Una novelita lumpen at least sometimes proves it with a swanky Manuel Puig homage (amid all the sordidness, an amusing chapter dedicated to Bianca's taking of a quiz from Donna Moderna magazine), occasional in your face examples of those wild interior monologues that make you feel like you've climbed inside the characters' heads, and--all my other disappointment aside--a terrific final paragraph which cranks things up just like the literary equivalent of a late-'70s punk song ending in a rousing hail of dirty chords and antisocial distortion.  P.S. to Rise: Godzilla!

 Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003)

miércoles, 27 de marzo de 2013

The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
by Henry James
USA, 1903

For all the not necessarily totally untrue lit crit chatter about the late-period Henry James being both the king of exquisitely tortured syntax and, what's more, a sower of the plague of narrative misdirection of almost biblical proportions via his deliberately halting, preternaturally inward-looking promotion of the use of indirect free discourse--literature's equivalent of the no-look pass--as an essential storytelling strategem at the expense of the 20th century's preferred steam engine of plot, I have a rather pedantic question to put to all of you more bibliographically savvy late James connoisseurs upon having recently finished my first novel by the guy in almost three decades: how come none of you fuckers ever told me what an unexpected page-turner he could be?!?  Ironically given my appreciation of the work's many charms, The Ambassadors doesn't sound like it would amount to a whole lot of fun pour moi even as I deign to write a capsule summary of it expressly designed to appeal to my flippant and surly self.  Lambert Strether, a mild-mannered 55-year old American from the manufacturing mecca of Woollett, Massachusetts, is dispatched to the City of Light (continent: the Old World) to retrieve Chad Newsome, the wayward son of Strether's patron and would-be love interest and future wife, the forbidding Mrs. Newsome.  The initial concern is that the fun-loving young Newsome is assumed to have gone native abroad--probably in the perfume-scented and fur-lined grips of a more worldly Parisian woman--but is now wanted back at home for the sake of the family business.  The reliable Strether naturally is deemed just the right man for the job of going about rescuing Chad--or at least he is until something about his new surroundings begins to open his hitherto complacent eyes to a new way of life that may jeopardize the profit that both he and Chad are sure to receive should they reject European freedom and return to their provincial New England Paris in Woollett.  All sorts of troubles--some funny, some rather sad, all masterfully related--ensue.  That being said, part of the joy of reading The Ambassadors is to be found in observing Strether's gradual awakening to the idea that he's let life pass him by.  "I seem to have a life only for other people," he wistfully admits at one point, an innocuous enough statement except that, in James' gifted narrative hands, the reader can sense that Strether's newfound self-awareness might have come too late in his life to profit him but not others as far as his diplomatic mission regarding Chad's return is concerned (191).  Why would I characterize such a bittersweet reflection as a joy?  Simple, it's always a delight to run into complex characters in real life or in print that you can actually care about.  On a related note, I also appreciated the subtlety of the depiction of the evolving friendship between the older Strether and the younger Chad and the assured, convincing interplay among the other characters in the novel in general.  Javier Marías' Your Face Tomorrow trilogy might have been the last modern work I read that had a similar depth to the characterizations paired with the feeling that conversations were being played out for me in something approximating real as opposed to novel time.  Finally, for all my joking about James' reputation for linguistic and narrative obfuscation at the outset of this post, The Ambassadors is actually an amazingly revelatory affair in which the art of deception--marital, storytelling, and otherwise, including a bloodless coup of a subplot "about" adultery in which adultery is never mentioned to the detriment of all the key characters involved--and our innately human capacity for self-deception are intricately intertwined thematically and in terms of how the story itself is related up until its crown jewel of a final line.  Considering the mixed reactions I had to other James titles when I was a lowly undergrad, a stupendous surprise and an enormously satisfying treat.  Yeah.

Henry James (1843-1916)

miércoles, 20 de marzo de 2013

El pasado

El pasado (Anagrama, 2003)
por Alan Pauls
Argentina, 2003

A pesar de ser un poco esquizofrénico en cuanto a sus pasos de la tragedia a la comedia, El pasado, Premio Herralde de Novela de 2003 para el argentino Alan Pauls, era un buen, un jugoso, y ocasionalmente incluso un excelente libro que, sin embargo, me dejó con sentimientos encontrados al final.  De hecho, a veces era como tomar un vino tinto con mucho cuerpo y encontrar pedacitos de corcho flotando en el vaso.  ¡Epa!  En líneas generales, la trama tiene que ver con la separación de Rímini y Sofía después de doce años y pico de haber sido la pareja perfecta según el juicio de sus amigos y sus familiares bonaerenses.  La novela es, por consiguiente, una especie de post mortem sobre la extinción de su amor y sobre cómo nuestros recuerdos reaccionan frente a un castástrofe tan personal.  Por turnos, Pauls narra con una mezcla de entendimiento psicológico sutil y un sentido de humor increíblemente corrosivo y escatológico.  Resulta que Rímini, un traductor de oficio y un cocainómano y un onanista incansable de hobby, reanuda su viaje amoroso con dos otras mujeres antes de sufrir una crisis nerviosa en la que pierde sus lenguajes extranjeros y ambas mujeres antes de tocar fondo.  Por su parte, Sofía, como un fantasma del amor perdido, parece contenta seguir los pasos a su ex a través de los años como una stalker en un thriller cursi.  Mientras el lector espera y espera la reunión inevitable de los dos amantes a lo largo de la obra, en el medio del libro Pauls hace un cambio de dirección radical y empieza llenar sus 551 páginas con una nouvelle dedicada a un artista, Riltse, cuya fama como el fundador del movimiento Sick Art supuestamente tiene algo que ver con el amor enfermizo de nuestra pareja.  Cerca del final, el novelista también añade un segmento más o menos nefasto en el que Sofía abre un bar llamado Adela H. donde se encuentra una sociedad autoayuda que se llama las Mujeres que Aman Demasiado.  En este punto, empezó a preocuparme que nunca iba a acabar con el libro.  A pesar de estas quejas, hay mucho en El pasado que me gustó.  Pauls, por ejemplo, me sorprendió con muchas imágenes fuertes en cuanto al tema del amor perdido.  En una escena, Rímini se niega a mirar las fotos de sus ex mujeres porque él finalmente entiende el poder devastador que contienen como testigos de su pasado personal.  Como explica el narrador, esto tiene que ver con la "muerte" de la personalidad del personaje como un joven: "No, miraba una foto y no decía: Esto que miro sucedió; decía: Esto que miro sucedió y ha muerto y yo he sobrevivido" (252).  En otra escena, Rímini se despierta y repite en voz alta el fragmento de un sueño que no recuerda haber tenido anteriormente: "Querer es lo que hacen los cuerpos, y nosotros sólo somos fantasmas" (444).  Dentro de un cuadro romántico realista en el que incluso la más optimista Sofía puede preguntar, "Qué es el amor sino una forma de la selección natural?" (306), estas observaciones dolorosas son bellísimas y conmovedoras a la vez.  También me gustó el alcance vertiginoso de Pauls como novelista.  Además de las escenas demoledoras sobre el amor y el deseo, El pasado tiene muchas escenas inesperadamente divertidas como el camafeo de Jacques Derrida en una charla pública en Buenos Aires y la descripción de la llegada de una delegación de argentinos a un festival de cine en Europa (la delegación, leemos, fue "la primera en llegar, la que más equipaje llevó  --pronto se enteraría de que la mitad de todas esas valijas estaban vacías-- y la única que exigió, bajo amenaza del cambiar de hotel en el acto, que la alojaran en un mismo piso y en habitaciones contiguas" [416]).  Curiosamente, la novela también tiene un lado enigmático en cuanto a su concepción del tiempo: el agujero negro en el pasado de Rímini parece empezar en el año 1976, o sea el fin de la juventud de Rímini y Sofía, aunque se nota que la dictadura militar no se menciona especificamente.  ¿Una mera coincidencia?  Podés juzgarlo por ti mismo.  Por mi parte, ahora tengo ganas de leer El factor Borges de Pauls dentro de poco para ver cómo el novelista funciona como crítico.

Alan Pauls

lunes, 11 de marzo de 2013

Grande Sertão: Veredas Group Read

While I'd hoped to spring the good news about this papal conclave-style secret more than a month ago, it gives me enormous areligious pleasure to finally announce the late May group read of João Guimarães Rosa's 1956 Grande Sertão: Veredas [a/k/a The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in its English incarnation*] that I'll be co-hosting with Miguel of St. Orberose, Rise of in lieu of a field guide, and Scott of seraillon (also, thanks to Scott who, with some assistance from Rise, came up with that cool button for the event above).  As befits a novel that at least one person with Wikipedia editing access has dubbed the Brazilian Ulysses for its ecstatic linguistic peculiarities and slippery range of high and low registers, the four of us will be reading this South American modernist epic in English (Rise, the intrepid re-reader in the bunch), French and English (Scott), the original Portuguese (Miguel), and Spanish (me).  You?  You're welcome to read the novel in any language you choose should you choose to join us in following in the tracks of the jagunço Riobaldo as he journeys through the arid Brazilian backlands wrestling with the problems of good and evil, life and fate, and his next shape-shifting monologue in no particular order.  In any event, please note that discussion of the novel is slated to commence sometime during the last week of May at all of the participating blogs.  Hope to see you then!

*A word about the English translation.  Rise has pointed out that the not universally well received translation of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands brought to you by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onis for Knopf in 1963 is long out of print and not all that easy to find.  Although that's certainly no way to treat a translation of a novel that The Guardian includes among The top 100 books of all time, you could still pick up a couple of beat-up used copies of it on Amazon for under $500 bucks each the last I checked.  Failing that, you could also start getting that ILL order ready now (trust me, libraries--and those handsome devils and glamorous she-devils who only work in them--are sometimes truly your best friends).

Other Readers

domingo, 10 de marzo de 2013

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum OR: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead [Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, Oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie fuhren kann] (Penguin Classics, 2009)
by Heinrich Böll [translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz]
West Germany, 1974
Without exactly being bummed about my time spent with this celebrated novella--promisingly but not necessarily intriguingly structured as a 103-page murder mystery told in reverse--I still have to confess that I'm not sure I really understand all the fuss about The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum either.  In fact, I was more or less consistently underwhelmed while reading it.  On the plus side, the title character's story, presented by an unnamed narrator who claims to have inside dope on the confessed killer's reason for committing her crime(s), serves as a gritty enough parable about the dangers of politicizing the pursuit of justice in the Baader Meinhof year of 1974.  As an added bonus, the fictional but purportedly nonfiction text offers up an appropriately murky cautionary tale about the totalitarian state-like power of the news media to try a person in the press--in this case, a powerless domestic--before she's received her day in court (in a key scene, a star tabloid journalist explains away the utter fabrication of an interview quotation damaging to the suspect by bragging that "he was used to 'helping simple people to express themselves more clearly'" [76]).  Also, readers looking for a moral in all this will be happy to note that the destruction of private citizen Blum's public reputation as brought about by both invented attacks upon her character in general and repeated falsehoods about her sexual character in particular--the "lost honor" of the title if you will--will eventually be exposed as part of the hypocrisy of the 1970s West Germany social fabric.  So far so good.  On the negative side of things, though, I have to say that I was increasingly annoyed with the narrator's smug tone in asides about "our reportorial obligations" and whatnot (65).  Maybe this was just a personal disconnect between the character and me that other, less-cranky readers of the novella wouldn't mind so much.  However, I'm not at all sure what Böll hoped to gain from promoting such an "ironic," intrusive meddler as the author figure in his work when the political and social themes under discussion are far more interesting than the rather drab and uninteresting subversion of the text provided by both the heavyhanded narrator and Katharina Blum's equally ponderous subtitle, How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead.  An OK read all in all but a bit of a bore all the same.
Heinrich Böll (1917-1985)
I read The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum as part of a two-man, group read tag team with the mighty Séamus of Vapour Trails.  Will link to his post below once it's available.  In the meantime, here's a strong statement in support of Böll from a book blog titan who admired the novella much more than I did:

lunes, 4 de marzo de 2013

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
by Edith Wharton
USA, 1920

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the end of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.  About a third of the way through it, after having cruelly subjected me to what I feared would be just another grating and stereotypical portrait of tradition-bound blueboods with hypocritical sticks up their asses presented with all the hollow conviction of a 1990s Whit Stillman film about superficial but annoyingly talkative yuppies, Wharton suddenly abandonded her fraudulent and irritating set-up and moved in for the emotional kill with an intensely felt and unpredictable close-up of a troubled marriage in 1870s "old New York" that basically destroyed me by the time I got to the final pages.  How could something that seemed so lightweight in the beginning unexpectedly develop such gravitas later on?  I'll hazard three explanations.  First, as stereotypical and trite as some of the other characters can be at times, the novel's three protagonists--convention-bound newlyweds Newland Archer and May Welland and May's independent but lonely cousin Madame Olenska, a free spirit and apparent soul-mate to Archer and hence a potential threat to the "happy" marriage between husband and wife which seems cemented more by duty than by romance--stand out for the complexity, credibility, and subtlety with which they're drawn over the course of the novel.  Second, Wharton is unrelenting in her questioning of the value of love and conformity as it pertains to marriage among the society people of the novel's world; communication, she writes at one point, took place by the social codes of an era in which people lived "in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs" (32), and marriage and infidelity, she suggests elsewhere, took place according to a rigid social contract not unlike slavery: "A woman's standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be lower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved" (214).  Finally, this is a novel that dares to take up the question of whether or not it's OK to hurt others to find happiness for oneself in matters of love.  I won't tell you how or even if Wharton answers this, but with biting lines like "she spoke with the cold-blooded complacency of the aged throwing earth into the graves of young hopes" (108) and "there was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free" (137), I guess the most ironic thing of all about The Age of Innocence's depiction of what at least one of its characters thinks of as a death-like marriage is the surprising amount of sympathy to be found for all three principals.  In other words, a stunning turnaround in what was previously a rocky relationship with this author.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

domingo, 3 de marzo de 2013

Life and Fate: Introduction + Links

Life and Fate [Zhizn' i sud'ba] (NYRB Classics, 2006)
by Vasily Grossman [translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler]
USSR, 1960

As an out of sequence addendum to my four previous posts on Life and Fate, I'd just like to put in a quick plug for translator Robert Chandler's excellent 20-page introduction, "'Speaking for Those Who Lie in the Earth': The Life and Work of Vasily Grossman": the centerpiece of a critical apparatus which also includes a short piece on the historical background to the work, a note on the text and the translation, and a page of bibliographical recommendations entitled "A Few Books about Stalinist Russia and Vasily Grossman." For those who aren't all that familiar with either Grossman or his doorstopper of a novel, here are a few of the more salient biographical and/or textual tidbits cribbed from Chandler's intro to help contextualize the Soviet writer's masterpiece.  To begin with, Chandler notes that Grossman's mother, Yekaterina Savelievna Grossman, the dedicatee of Life and Fate, was killed by the Germans in September 1941 in Berdichev, Grossman's Ukrainian birthplace, "along with most of the other 30,000 Jews who lived [there]" (x-xi).  Guilt over his failure to see that his mother was safely evacuated, together with his firsthand observations of the evidence of the large-scale Nazi butchery committed at Babi Yar and Treblinka after the tide of the war had turned, appear to have fortified Grossman's resolve to provide witness as a journalist and a novelist "on behalf of those who lie in the earth" as he once wrote to a colleague (xxiv).  Chandler also claims that Grossman's war reporting made him one of the first people to provide an account of the Shoah anywhere and that his 1944 article "The Hell of Treblinka," "the first article in any language about a Nazi death camp," was accordingly "republished and used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials" (xiii).  Unfortunately for Grossman and regardless of the importance of his reporting, "the official Soviet line, however, was that all nationalities had suffered equally under Hitler; the standard retort to those who emphasized the suffering of Jews was 'Do not divide the dead!'" (ibid.).  Still, after Stalin's death in 1953 and Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Grossman and some other public intellecuals apparently believed that criticisms of the Soviet régime such as those launched by Life and Fate might finally receive a more tolerant public hearing under Khrushchev's "Thaw."  Grossman misread the political tea leaves, though, and Life and Fate was itself arrested.  Here's Chandler's telling of the story:

In February 1961, three KGB officers came to the flat to confiscate the manuscript and any other related material, even carbon paper and typing ribbons.  This is only one of two occasions when the Soviet authorities "arrested" a book rather than a person; no other book, apart from The Gulag Archipelago, was ever considered so dangerous (xv-xvi).

Grossman, who'd been told by the powers that be that his dangerous book couldn't be published for another 200 or 300 years, understandably was crushed, complaining to a friend: "They strangled me in a dark corner" (xvii).  However, other copies of the manuscript, a work that Chandler argues "is important not only as literature but also as history; we have no more complete picture of Stalinist Russia" (xiv-xv), would be smuggled outside of the country and survive to see the light of day after Grossman himself had died.  As a final tribute to Grossman, whose bravery and passion as a novelist really got to me during my reading of and thinking about Life and Fate, I hope you'll forgive me the relaying of one last telling detail from Chandler.  After speaking about the novelist's belief that it was the victims themselves, all the dead but naturally closest to home his mother, who inspired and sustained him to help "fulfill his duty toward the living," Chandler shares this poignant anecdote about Grossman's appeal to Khrushchev about the death sentence given his work (xxiv-xxv):

Grossman's feelings are revealed still more closely in the letter he wrote to his mother on the twentieth anniversary of her death: "I am you, dear Mama, and as long as I live, then you are alive also.  When I die you will continue to live in this book, which I have dedicated to you and whose fate is closely tied to your fate."  His sense of his mother's continued life in the book seems to have made him feel that Life and Fate was itself a living being.  His letter to Khrushchev ends with a challenge:  "There is no sense or truth in my present position, in my physical freedom while the book to which I dedicated my life is in prison.  For I wrote it, and I have not repudiated it and am not repudiating it....  I ask for freedom for my book.

 It isn't difficult to find information about Life and Fate online.  However, I intend to add links to several bloggers I read who have written about the work (if you wind up on the list but don't want to be, just let me know).  Also, please note that Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat will be hosting a group read of Grossman's Everything Flows in late October as part of her Literature and War Readalong 2013.  Hope you can join in.

Dwight, A Common Reader

Himadri, The Argumentative Old Git
"The earth does not want to keep secrets": the writings of Vasily Grossman

Lisa Hayden Espenschade, Lizok's Bookshelf
World War 2, Life, Fate, and Spiritual Entropy

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman 

Pollo, 0 en literatura
¿Qué nos jugamos esta semana?  Vida y destino

viernes, 1 de marzo de 2013

Life and Fate: A Wrap-Up Post of Sorts

Life and Fate [Zhizn' i sud'ba] (NYRB Classics, 2006)
by Vasily Grossman [translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler]
USSR, 1960

Life and Fate, like many other winning books I've read since taking up the loser's hobby that is blogging, is just too big and too overwhelming an opponent for me to adequately deal with in a limited number of posts.  I surrender.  As part of my exit strategy for the novel, though, I'd like to say a few final words about the work here now before returning for one last post on translator Robert Chandler's introduction and some links to other bloggers' reviews of this book later.  To begin with, one of the things I feel I haven't emphasized about the novel is that it makes for surprisingly quick reading despite its massive size and the traumatic nature of much of its subject matter.  Part of this has to do with Grossman's "journalistic" style.  He isn't difficult to read in the manner of a Joyce or a Proust, for example.  Part of this has to do with Grossman's ability to peer into the abyss without looking away--his passages on the Shoah, while emotionally taxing, are nonetheless riveting.  And yet another part has to do with the occasionally bookish, often dramatic conversations his characters engage in.  Here in a scene from Part One, set in Kazan during the heart of the war, is an acquaintance of Viktor Shtrum's, the historian Leonid Sergeyevich Madyarov, going off on a drunken rant about Chekhovian humanism after the small circle of friends gathered at his brother-in-law's house has been debating the virtues of "reactionary" literature vs. the state-sanctioned Social Realism:

Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness--with people of every estate, every class, every age...  More than that!  It was as a democrat that he presented all these people--as a Russian democrat.  He said--and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy--that first and foremost we are all of us human beings.  Do you understand?  Human beings!  He said something no one in Russia had ever said.  He said that first of all we are human beings--and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers.  Do you understand?  Instead of saying that people are good or bad because they are bishops or workers, Tartars or Ukrainians, instead of this he said that people are equal because they are human beings.  At one time people blinded by Party dogma saw Chekhov as a witness to the fin de siècle.  No.  Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history--the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man.  Our Russian humanism has always been cruel, intolerant, sectarian.  From Avvakum to Lenin our conception of humanity and freedom has always been partisan and fanatical.  It has always mercilessly sacrificed the individual to some abstract idea of humanity.  Even Tolstoy, with his doctrine of non-resistance to Evil, is intolerant--and his point of departure is not man but God.  He wants the idea of goodness to triumph.  True believers always want to bring God to man by force; and in Russia they stop at nothing--even murder--to achieve this (283).

For those new to Life and Fate, Madyarov's monologue may seem interesting as far as these things go but perhaps politically out of step with the era given the level of repression that was known to have existed.  For those following the novel more closely, it will come as no surprise that almost every character present at the gathering will later live in fear that at least one of those present--including even Madyarov himself--might in fact have been an informer for the NKVD secret police.

In addition to the penetrating psychology and the talky dialogue on display above, another arresting weapon in Grossman's style arsenal is the way he authoritatively moves from one abbreviated chapter to the next, arranging and rearranging jigsaw pieces for the reader to make sense of, hand grenading the text as he toggles back and forth between narrator and lecturer functions.  Here, for example, are several soundbites lifted from Part Two, Chapter 31: a disquieting three-page digression on anti-Semitism sandwiched in between two narrative chapters on Eichmann's visit to a concentration camp and the Soviet army's preparations for a stealth attack on the German forces massed at the Volga:  

"Anti-Semitism can take many forms--from a mocking, contemptuous ill-will to murderous pogroms."
 "Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved.  It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems.  Tell me what you accuse the Jews of--I'll tell you what you're guilty of."
"Anti-Semitism is also an expression of a lack of talent, an inability to win a contest on equal terms--in science or in commerce, in craftsmanship or in painting.  States look to the imaginary intrigues of World Jewry for explorations of their own failure."
"When the Renaissance broke in upon the Catholic Middle Ages, the forces of darkness lit the bonfires of the Inquisition.  These flames, however, not only expressed the power of evil, they also lit up the spectacle of its destruction.
In the twentieth century, an ill-fated nationalist regime lit the bonfires of Auschwitz, the gas ovens of Lyublinsk and Treblinka.  These flames not only lit up Fascism's brief triumph, but also foretold its doom.  Historical epochs, unsuccessful and reactionary governments, and individuals hoping to better their lot all turn to anti-Semitism as a last resort, in an attempt to escape an inevitable doom."

These pronouncements, taken from pages 484-486, punctuate the narrative sections of the text and amplify the bracing qualities of the novel as a whole.  In a novel that describes the horrors of two competing political systems at war, it's worth repeating that Grossman rarely demonizes the foreign enemy without also castigating the enemy at home.

To provide one last example of the satisfyingly rich complexity which which Grossman operates as a novelist, I'd like to turn to a dialogue in Part Three where the increasingly depressed and guilt-ridden scientist Viktor Shtrum meets with the former director of his institute, Dmitry Petrovich Chepyzhin, who has been forced into early retirement for political reasons.  Chepyzhin, who as a matter of conscience chose not to pursue any research relating to nuclear fission because of his concerns about how the research would be used, has tried to cheer Viktor up with an idealistic speech about how one day science and reason will permit man "to solve the problems that were beyond God."  Viktor, a man who is being squeezed by the state to sacrifice his ideals in order to pursue his love of science, wants no part of this pep talk from his former colleague and close friend (691-692):

'Dmitry Petrovich,' he said, 'when you began, I was thinking that I might be arrested any day and that I wasn't in the mood for philosophy.  Suddenly I quite forgot about Kovchenko, Shishakov and comrade Beria; I forgot that I might be thrown out of my laboratory tomorrow and into prison on the following day.  But what I felt as I listened to you was not joy, but utter despair.  We think we're so wise--to us Hercules seems like a child with rickets.  And yet on this very day the Germans are slaughtering Jewish children and old women as though they were mad dogs.  And we ourselves have endured 1937 and the horrors of collectivization--famine, cannibalism and the deportation of millions of unfortunate peasants...  Once, everything seemed simple and clear.  But these terrible losses and tragedies have confused everything.  You say man will be able to look down on God--but what if he also becomes able to look down on the Devil?  What if he eventually surpasses him?  You say life is freedom.  Is that what people in the camps think?  What if the life expanding through the universe should use its power to create a slavery still more terrible than your slavery of inanimate matter?  Do you think this man of the future will surpass Christ in his goodness?  That's the real question.  How will the power of this omnipresent and omniscient being benefit the world if he is still endowed with our own fatuous self-assurance and animal egotism?  Our class egotism, our race egotism, our State egotism and our personal egotism?  What if he transforms the whole world into a galactic concentration camp?  What I want to know is--do you believe in the evolution of kindness, morality, mercy?  Is man capable of evolving in that way?

A moment later, Viktor apologizes to Chepyzhin for browbeating him with this "abstract" tirade.  A few pages later, he leaves his friend's house in tears--overwhelmed and possibly a broken man.  What does all this have to do with Stalingrad in 1942-1943?  A hundred pages later, Grossman provides an ambiguous but decidedly unheroic answer in this coda to the armed confrontation between two state terror systems and an uncertain future in which millions of people could suddenly cease to exist while the world looked on: "Every epoch has its own capital city, a city that embodies its will and soul.  For several months of the Second World War this city was Stalingrad" (796).

Red Army soldiers from the "Stalingrad Academy of Street-Fighting"
(December 1942, photographer unknown)