Review: John Garrard and Carol Garrard, The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.

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Hardback: 436 pages. Free Press, 1999. ISBN: 0684822954.

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) is among my favorite authors, and his best novel, Life and Fate, is my favorite twentieth century novel. (It is available in English translation, though it deserves a better translation than it has received to date.) Grossman’s reputation in Russia deservedly eclipses Solzhenitsyn’s and Pasternak’s, though his work is little known in the English-speaking world. Life and Fate is many things – an 800-page novel can afford to be – but, above all, it is as profound a statement on human freedom as I have ever read.

The Bones of Berdichev is a the first book-length biography of Grossman in English. The title refers to Berdichev, a city in Ukraine, where more than 18,000 Jews were slaughtered in three days in September 1941. One of them was Grossman’s mother. But this is not only a biography; it is also a history of the Holocaust, from a very personal viewpoint. As such, it is not light or enjoyable reading; it is dark, deeply moving, rewarding reading.

Grossman is nearly always in the foreground, but the Holocaust looms large, as it did for him, through his years as a renowned and gifted war correspondent, and through the official disgrace in which he lived his last years, as punishment for writing things the Soviet government did not want to be written.

As the Garrards note, “Grossman was in fact a man of deep contradictions, like the times in which he lived. His was a life full of moral, cultural and philosophical conflicts.” Such a life is interesting enough, but there is more. This is the life of “a human being who went through the fires of hell and emerged with his soul intact.” There is, therefore, much to admire, and much to learn.

In the Preface the Garrards demonstrate an unfortunate tendency to preach, but after that, this is as fine a scholarly biography as one might hope to encounter.

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