Thursday, January 21, 2010

Brief Review: "Everything Flows" by Vasily Grossman

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, written during the early 1960s but suppressed by the Soviet government; finally published in Russia in 1989; translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Anna Astanyan 2009.

The last novel of Vasily Grossman, completed as he was dying of stomach cancer in 1964, Everything Flows is a scathing indictment of Soviet Russia and its leadership, especially under Lenin and Stalin. The novel is rather loosely structured and follows the central character Ivan Grigoryevitch once he is released after 30 years in prison and the Siberian workcamps for crimes against the state of which he was in fact falsely accused. Lost in a world he knows virtually nothing about, he briefly encounters a few individuals, particularly his cousin, a successful Soviet scientist, as well as Pinegin, the man who had falsely accused him; in each case, we are given insight into each of those individuals and what each has done (and has sacrificed) in order to survive and prosper in Stalin's Russia. He finally finds a home with Anna Sergeyevna, a war widow, and a job as a metalworker in a small machine shop. Becoming lovers for a brief period before she dies of cancer, she reveals to him her experiences as a Soviet official in the Ukraine during the Terror, the period during 1932 - 1933 when Stalin caused the starvation of millions of Ukrainians and what the consequences were to the Ukraine as well as to herself. He spends much of his time thinking about what he learned from his experiences in the camps, and it's these meditations that form the central focus of the novel. His speculations take a number of forms in the work: a short mental drama in which a series of informers reveal why they became informers; a number of brief narratives seen from the point of view of various individuals suffering under Soviet rule (including a wife and mother arrested for failing to inform on her husband and a middle-aged farmer who with his wife and infant son starve during the Ukraine Terror); and a series of journal entries, essentially essays, in which he evaluates the characters of Lenin, Stalin, and Russia itself, and, after reviewing Russian history, comes to understand something of how his homeland has fallen into the state in which it exists under Stalin and his successors. Eventually, he comes to believe:

"The evolution of the West was fertilized by the growth of freedom; Russia's evolution was fertilized by the growth of slavery. This is the abyss that divides Russia and the West" (p. 179).

Ivan Grigoryevitch doesn't know if Russia can ever escape from the cycle that has trapped it from its earliest history. However, despite doubts as to that possibility, he does believe absolutely in what he comes to call the "sacred law of life": "There is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom" (p. 164).

As a novel, Everything Flows is episodic in nature with little narrative progression; however, many of the episodes which take place in the central character's memory or imagination are powerful, painful embodiments of the experiences of those who were arrested, imprisoned, interrogated, and sentenced to serve in the Siberian workcamps. In this respect, I'd say it's easily as powerful as Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And its damning first-hand analysis of the Soviet State is the final legacy of of a writer who loved his country and hated what it had become in the hands of those he viewed as the most despicable of warlords and powermongers. Everything Flows is not an easy book to read; it is a book I recommend without reservation.


Blogger Unknown said...

I read Everything Flows in German (Alles Fliesst) in 1985 when I took a class on the literature of Soviet Dissidents during my junior year abroad. To this day, Everything Flows is perhaps the most profoundly unsettling book I've ever read. For a book that wasn't quite finished, my guess is that it accomplished what Mr. Grossman intended. Thank you for posting your review and the interview.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting; I'm glad to hear from someone else who's read the work and was as impressed with it as I was.

I've just learned that a collection of Grossman's short stories The Road will be published in September by the same publisher, New York Review Books; I'm looking forward to reading it.

Thanks again.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hedgie, thanks for letting me know. I will check out those short stories!

9:44 AM  

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