Some of the best and also the most tedious (for me) parts of For a Just Cause are concerned with the war. War is a constant theme in the novel, it is its very subject, however, at the start of the novel the front hasn’t moved to Stalingrad yet and war is distant. There is a great concern among all the characters about the events at the front and whether the war will reach Stalingrad. In this sense it is much like the beginning of War and Peace that starts with a discussion of politics and the progress of the Napoleonic war. In For a Just Cause the conversation is a lot more sensitive, the characters express half thoughts, showing how fear of war becomes almost unspeakable. Also, perhaps it is the conflict between the silence/fear that permeated the Soviet society and the relative freedom of the war years: the characters find themselves trapped between two different realities. The belief in the Soviet army and the “just cause” of Communism is mixed with the fear of the power of the German forces.
So, the first two-thirds of the novel are concerned with the war moving towards Stalingrad and the preparations for the possible battle, and the last third depicts the actual battle within Stalingrad. One of my favourite early passages is of Vera and Viktorov in the hospital.
Vera returns to her duty after the family gathering (described in the previous post) and looks over the city. To me this is one of the most potent descriptions of a city before the war. Vera leans on the window sill of the hospital and looks over the city, which is enveloped in an aura of death. The moon shines with a cold deathly light over the covered and dusty windows of houses. They no longer emit the warm light of a family home but now reflect the cold and brutal light of the moon. This light is fragile and one only has to look in another direction for all to be bathed in deathly darkness. The fresh air of Volga mixes with the stale air of the hospital, sometimes it wins over this air and sometimes it seemes as if the whole city is enveloped in the smell of carbolic acid and the clouds are cotton pads. Vera stands there and listens to the dying men in the hospital and sees new injured men enter. Here, by the window, Vera feels she is part of two worlds. One that consists of the beautiful stars, the fresh air and water of the Volga, and is timeless. The other world is filled with the smell of cigarettes and people dying, the boring forms she has to fill in and the arguments at home. These two worlds collide as Viktorov approaches her and everything seems united into one. It is this description of death everywhere and the love that is born at this moment that makes this scene so moving. Vera’s thoughts are both beautiful and also childishly deep, the mundane mixes with the real threat of war and death. Out of this presence of death life is born as well (as we find out at the end of the novel). It is this mixture of the grand and epic and the small and particular that I love in Grossman. This is what makes the war real to the reader.
The other aspect of war in For a Just Cause is the one I found most tedious. This is purely due to my lack of interest in (and knowledge of) military matters. As the front moves to Stalingrad, Grossman depicts the exact movements of the various battalions. Some move across the Volga to the city and some retreat from the Don back to Stalingrad. This is all (in my mind) meticulously documented, and is something that is for me hard to understand. All the various numbers and names of Colonels and Sergeants are hard to follow. However, this is all saved by the fact that Grossman follows these battalions into war. As the German army approaches and starts to bomb Stalingrad, the descriptions turn to the individuals and the personal experience of war. Because Grossman explains the movement of all the various troops, and then return to the same troops it becomes clearer to the reader how many lives were sacrificed during the war. Many of the characters Grossman depicts die during these early battles in Stalingrad. One example is the battle that takes place in the Train Station, which is very engaging. The reader has followed these characters for some time and they all are murdered during this battle (including Kovalev who accompanies Tolia to the family party earlier in the novel).
There is a very potent depiction of a female Senior Sergeant Lena Gnatyuk, who receives a parcel from the United States, as part of some form of charity. As she stands there covered in mud and dried blood she opens a parcel of silk stockings, a woollen patterned cardigan, a dress and some perfume. The uselessness of the items in the parcel seems offensive, but more than that, it is painful. Lena feels how she will never experience all that a young beautiful girl should, she will never wear that dress and go to dances. The contrast between the feminine content of the parcel and her masculine uniform and dirty appearance is painful not only to her but also to the soldiers watching her unwrap the parcel. She throws all the contents in the corner declaring their uselessness to her, and hours later she is killed by a German bomb. Whilst searching the shelter after the raid, a German soldier finds the package that Lena threw into the corner and is pleased with the find that he will send to his wife back home. It is through small episodes such as this, that Grossman depicts the brutality of war.
Through depicting, sometimes tediously, the movements of the troops and soldiers in these troops, Grossman actually manages to create an impression of the scale of loss during the war. Every soldier he depicts is accompanied by a small episode that makes him/her very human to reader. Having made the soldiers real to the reader Grossman then kills them, including Tolia Shaposhnikov. By luring the reader into the private life and emotions of the soldiers and them killing then off, Grossman shows the reader the unbearable and brutal losses of the war. In this sense the passages that I find so tedious become absolutely vital in order to understand the battle of Stalingrad. Sometimes, even reading comes with boring chores or “musts” that prove to be worth the effort.