Paris – Kindness is Our Resistance to Evil

This seems particularly apt from Vasily Grossman today. His novel Life and Fate holds some very impartant lessons and observations about humanity, a timeless read. I have no words to express the sadness that I feel for what happened in Paris last night, how can we humans do this? So I will resort to the words of another, who struggled with the same questions 50 years ago.

“Today I can see the true power of evil. The heavens are empty. Man is alone on Earth. How can the flame of evil be put out? […] I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” – Vasily Grossman


Music and Silence Part II

I have written about the opposition of music and silence before and have been thinking about this post for a while. I still am not sure about the relationship of silence and music here but would like to highlight it anyway. A while ago me and my friend Jo got rather excited about a new (to us) book being published called A Comedy in A Minor Key by Hans Kielson. Kielson wrote the novel in 1947 and it was translated into English in 2010. You can read more about Kielson in this informative Guardian article. The novel itself depicts the story of  a German Jew hiding from the Nazis in the home of a family in Holland. It depicts the mundane and dreary aspects of hiding – being confined to a small space from which you can never leave – a rather difficult prospect. As Philip Otterman says, “When the book is sad, it’s never so in a manipulative way.” And I would agree, it doesn’t seem manipulative, but at the same time, it is constantly sad. Partly, this sadness is expressed through silence in the novel. As I suggested in the last post on this subject, silence can be powerful and even loud in its way, pointing towards the unspeakable nature of a feeling or experience. In this novel I believe silence becomes the main character.

Speaking about the death of his parents in Auschwitz, Kielson suggests that there is a sadness that cannot be deleted. He connects his feelings about their death and his own survival to music: “Music is always written in a major and a minor key: they need each other to make the right sound. It’s the same with sadness and happiness.” Kielson allows for the existence of both, hence the comedy and the minor key, the laughter and the sadness. The novel has very warm, awkward and funny moments between the couple who are hiding Nico, yet it is steeped in unspoken sadness. This silence that permeates the novel has a profound way of testifying to events in history that were unspoken on so many levels.

I admire Kielson’s ability to invoke this silence and make it as present as a character. The novel focuses on the couple that harbour the fugitive, Wim and Marie, not on Nico. So even on a basic level he is hidden within the narrative. The whole plot of the novel is about trying to hide him, to not speak of him, not to speak to him (not too much), and to keep it all hidden, both within the house and in relation to neighbours and wider society. Wim and Marie don’t even know his true identity (for safety reasons). So, the reader doesn’t find much out about Nico either, he is hidden from us as well. A passage in the novel describes this silence and secrecy very well:

“A secret! It was not only that they had sheltered him – he himself, his person, his life, constituted the secret. It was as though a no man’s land lay all around him, alien and impenetrable. It was impossible to bridge the gap. Even while he was alive, everything she heard him say, everything she saw – his voice, his movements – was like something seen from the opposite bank of a river while mist hung over the water and masked any clear view. It almost melted away into the impersonal, colourless swirls of fog.”

So here it is, the minor key. The higher note of caring for a fugitive mixed with silence and secrecy. Both exist and neither triumphs. I suppose it is a bit like history. These inspiring stories of brave people who helped hide Jewish fugitives are always connected to the sadness that this should ever have happened.

Music and Silence Part I

Yes, I do realise that music and silence seem mutually exclusive, BUT it is possible (consider John Cage’s “4,33” for example). In Vasilii Grossman’s writing for example music leads to deep silent contemplation (see Krymov in Life and Fate). Silence has been a very popular point of literary and philosophical analysis over the past decades. For me the interest lies in its relationship to trauma, and its almost unchallenged status. In trauma studies silence marks an impossibility of responding to the overwhelming nature of the experience. Silence however, does not necessarily mean an absence of something, silence can be very charged and full of meaning.

One such instance that I particularly love and admire is the silence in the iconic Soviet spy-series “Seventeen Moments of Spring” (or Semnadtsat’ mgnovenii vesny). (big leap I know, but it only struck me recently how silent the film is) This miniseries is something that every Russian knows of and has seen. I remember its theme as a constant melancholy background in my childhood that made me wonder who this Shtirlitz is and what happened in those dark days of World War II. My father’s absolute love for the series also made me think that there must be something utterly exquisite about it. I also found that he was strikingly alike my grandfather, whom I never had the pleasure to meet but whose albums I used to spend hours looking through, seeing photos of him in his uniform on various marine missions. (My favourite one was a picture of him holding a huge bunch of bananas, now that was exotic!) It is only recently that I managed to watch the entire series and see the scene that everyone I know says is one of the most powerful cinematic moments. It is heart-breaking. The whole series is full of silence as Shtirlitz is a spy and thus carries an unspeakable secret; silence is at the centre of the story. In this scene however, Shtirlitz meets his wife in a cafe and cannot speak to her, due to the fact that he is a spy and cannot have any contact with his family. The two sit and look at each other across the room, like true “star-crossed lovers”. It is a very powerful scene that is made all the more moving due to the emotive and beautiful music that accompanies the scene. The music oddly highlights the silence in the scene. I also find it quite curious how the cafe in which they meet is called Elephant, and although there is no saying in Russian, there is one in English about “the elephant in the room”. So, it may only make sense to the English, but there is definitely an elephant in the room in this scene that creates the silence. Enjoy…

“Passions of Literature”?

I very rarely read Derrida as I assume I will not understand anything. Many times when I read such complex modern theories I feel a bit like I’m in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, where I just want to say “It doesn’t make any sense!”  However, the other day I was reading Derrida as one of his essays is called “Fiction and Testimony” – an irresistible combination for me. I came across this quote which I absolutely loved. I think it fits in with the theme of this blog pretty well. Not sure I have made any sense of it yet, but there is something poetic and crazy about it. I like the way it seems to pick up pace towards the end. Derrida is speaking here about the title of the lecture series for which he delivered this paper: “Passions of Literature”.

“No exposition, no discursive form is intrinsically or essentially literary before and outside of the function it is assigned or recognized by a right, that is, a specific intentionality inscribed directly on the social body. The same exposition may be taken to be literary here, in one situation or according to given conventions, and non-literary there. This is the sign that literarity is not an intrinsic property of this or that discursive event. Even where it seems to reside [demeurer], literature remains an unstable function, and it depends on a precarious juridical status. Its passion consists in this – that it receives its determination from something other than itself. Even when it harbors the unconditional right to say anything, including the most savage antinomies, disobedience itself, its status is never assured or guaranteed permanently [à demeure], at home, in the inside of an ‘at home’. This contradiction is its very existence, its ecstatic process. Before coming to writing, literature depends on reading and the right conferred on it by an experience of reading. One can read the same text – which thus never exists ‘in itself’ – as a testimony that is said to be serious and authentic, or as an archive, or as a document, or as a symptom – or as a work of literary fiction, indeed the work of a literary  fiction that simulates all of the positions that we have just enumerated. For literature can say anything, accept anything, receive anything, suffer anything, and simulate everything; it can even feign a trap, the way modern armies know how to set false traps; these traps pass themselves off as real traps and trick the machines designed to detect simulations under even the most sophisticated camouflage.” ( Jacques Derrida “Testimony and Fiction” in Maurice Blanchot The Instant of My Death  and Jacques Derrida Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 28-29)

Yes, I’m not sure where he is going with the army metaphor (or any of it), but I like it nonetheless. I sense a complete love of literature in this passage and that is something I can relate to!

The war in For a Just Cause

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.

Before Life and Fate

Before Life and Fate came For a Just Cause. I was recently re-reading the novel again and what I really enjoyed was the description of life in Stalingrad just at the start of war. The novel starts with a meeting in Salzburg between Hitler and Mussolini, moves onto the conscription of Vavilov and only then do we meet the whole Shaposhnikov family. In this way the narrative moves from the events in the world to the effects on the individuals. And it is the relationships between the characters and the history that surrounds them that Grossman depicts so well. After the recent focus on Life and Fate and all the horror of war that it depicts, I have really enjoyed going back to the very beginning. I hope people will be able to read the novel in English soon.Until then, I thought I would summarise the plot of the novel, for those interested in the very beginning.

After introducing the events as they unravel at the hands of people in power, Grossman narrates the impact that this has on normal people. Firstly we are introduced to Vavilov who is drafted and then the Shaposhnikov family, who gather together to say goodbye to Tolia who is on his way to the front. Vavilov is one of the last men in the village to be recruited and was therefore looked down upon, but now the villagers all look at him with compassion and sorrow. He spends his last night chopping wood, hoping to provide all he can for his wife and two children. Vavilov later days in battle in the Stalingrad train station. In Stalingrad, the Shaposhnikov’s gather for what may be their last meeting. This is where the reader is introduced to all the major characters that are at the centre of the two novels (Alexandra Vladimirovna, Marusya, Zhenia, Serezha, Vera, Spiridonov, Mostovskoy, Andreev and Sofya Levinton). Alexandra Vladimirovna is the head of the family (her husband died years ago), she is a chemist and mother of Marusya, Liudmila and Zhenia, as well as her son Dmitrii. Dmitrii is the father of Serzha. After being arrested he has now disappeared in a camp and it is assumed that he is dead. It is during this meeting that Tolia inspires Serezha to join the army, and the next day he is recruited. Alexandra Vladimirovna is devastated, as Serezha is only 17 and has lived with her throughout his childhood (his mother lives in another city and dies while Serezha is at the front). The reader finds out more about Serezha in Life and Fate.

Alexandra Vladimirovna and Sofya Osipovna Levinton are old friends. Sofya Osipovna is head of a surgical department and is depicted as a large woman of whom not only her department, but other doctors are scared of. Despite this, she is also sensitive to the horror around her and often bursts out in tears when describing the young soldiers she has to treat. She works all day and night and rarely sleeps. She and Alexandra Vladimirovna are separated during an air raid in a shelter, after which she is caught by Nazi soldiers together with Mostovskoy.

Marusya is Alexandra Vladimirovna’s middle daughter and is married to the StalGRES power plant engineer Spiridonov. They have the daughter Vera, who works for the military hospital in Stalingrad (they all live with Alexandra Vladimirovna). Marusya is supportive of the Communist regime and reprimands Zhenia for making art that doesn’t support the communist cause. However, Marusya is also shown to be trapped between the Party bureaucracy and her own felings and common sense. She is sent to an orphanage to reprimand the manager for not firing a worker, who has stolen shoes for her son. During the visit she sees a traumatised boy who refuses to speak.  Only one of the workers has been able to get the boy to speak and eat, and it turns out this is the same woman whom Marusya wants to see fired. In the end Marusya is highly confused and is pitied by the very person she had to reprimand. When the battlefront moves to Stalingrad Marusya follows the orphanage on its evacuation, and dies when crossing the Volga.

Spiridonov stays in Stalingrad as he has to keep the StalGRES power plant running. His daughter Vera stays with him. She falls in love with one of her patients, Viktorov, who leaves the hospital soon after his recovery. Vera is another hero of the battle. When the hospital catches fire during one of air raids and she finds the strength to go into the burning hospital and save the soldiers. She is severely injured and is in danger of losing her sight. However, she recovers and stays with her father at StalGRES in Stalingrad. In a touching scene she tells her father that she is pregnant, to which he is silent at first, and then puts his arm around the skinny shoulders of his daughter and says: “Don’t worry, we won’t let anything happen to the little one”.

Zhenia is the youngest daughter and has moved back to her mother’s after leaving her husband Krymov. Nobody in her family understands why she left a man of such a good standing and see her as being whimsical and the black sheep of the family. Zhenia is greatly admired by men and is seen as the beauty of the family. She is also engaged in a romantic relationship with Colonel Novikov, whom she met whilst studying at the Arts Academy. Novikov and Zhenia’s romance is very touching. Years pass since their first meeting and Novikov accidentally sees Zhenia on a train and ends up travelling for miles in the wrong direction, only to spend time with her. He also visits the Shaposhnikov flat when the army is moving through Stalingrad, and awakens everyone in the middle of the night. This is the only meeting between the lovers in For a Just Cause, however, it consolidates their relationship for the future. Novikov has always admired and been in love with Zhenia, so his devotion to her is something that sustains him during the warZhenia on the other hand has a complex relationship to both Novikov, whom she is undoubtedly in love with, and  also spends a lot of time thinking about Krymov, and pondering their failed marriage.

There are a few parallels between Novikov and Krymov. Although they are very different characters, there is some similarity in their thought processes. Both ponder their personal/romantic life as much as the war or communism. Both have a brother that they look up to as someone who has succeeded with their lives, especially in terms of having a family. And obviously, both are in love with Zhenia. Novikov’s brother is depicted separately from Novikov in the book. He works in a mine in one of those villages that sprung up all around the Soviet Union only to provide a space for the  industry. This village is depicted as being part of the war effort and is something that is reinforced by Novikov’s complete devotion to work. Both brothers sacrifice their lives to the war (as do other characters). Colonel Novikov is sent to Moscow to await further instructions. He is also the one who takes a letter to Shtrum from the Shaposhnikov’s, which turns out to be the letter that his mother wrote to him. This letter is passed from person to person until it reaches Shtrum. In Moscow, Novikov is worried that he is neglected by the army, but is eventually sent to the front, which is one of the happiest moments of his life. The same happiness can be detected in Krymov when he is in battle and when he returns to Stalingrad at the end of the novel.

Liudmila Nikolaevna is the oldest daughter of the Shaposhnikov family, and is depicted as more of a mother to Marusya and Zhenia than a sister. She met Abarchuk at university where he was deeply involved in revolutionary and Party matters and thought that she was too bourgeois. After they married and had a son Tolia, Abarchuk left them as he believed that the Party mattered more than Liudmila and his son. Grossman depicts Abarchuk as the most staunch Communist, and so the Shaposhnikov family is even more surprised when he is arrested as an enemy of the people in 1937. At the same university Liudmila meets Viktor Shtrum, whom Abarchuk attempts to have expelled from the university. Liudmila and Viktor marry and have a daughter Nadia, who is a little bit spoilt but a typical 15 year-old. In For a Just Cause the family has already evacuated to Kazan from Moscow. At the beginning of the novel Tolia is only just travelling to the front, while at the end of the novel we see him dying in a heroic battle just outside Stalingrad. He is depicted as a shy young man, however he leads his troop to the outskirts of Stalingrad where the German Army doesn’t expect to see the Russian troops. It is in this battle that he manages a surprise assault on the German forces and is then fatally injured. Throughout the novel Liudmila ponders the fate of her son and it is only the reader that knows what is happening to him.

Although Shtrum is one of the major characters in Life and Fate, he is less present in For a Just Cause. He is summoned to his academy in Moscow for a meeting to discuss whether it is possible to get the metal that he needs for his experiment. During his time in Moscow Shtrum returns to his flat to see it covered in dust and abandoned. Here he spends a lot of time with his neighbour Nina, towards whom he develops some romantic feelings, however, this doesn’t develop into a relationship. Shtrum then goes to his dacha (summer-house) where he reads the letter from his mother, something that the reader is not privy to until Life and Fate. The story of Shtrum ends with his return to Kazan from Chelyabinsk, where he met Krymov’s brother, an engineer at the steel plant that Shtrum was visiting. In Kazan Liudmila and Shtrum are visited by Alexandra Vladimirovna who has escaped Stalingrad at the start of the battle. It is from here that Life and Fate picks up.

This has been a lengthy but not at all exhaustive summary of the main characters and their fates in Za pravoe delo. I imagine it may make some boring reading, however I shall return to the many aspects of the novel in the future. There are so many reasons that this novel is great (and some that make it hard-going) that I really would like to share all the various facets of it. What I think I like most about the novel is that there is a sense of unease or inconsistency (possibly because I know the history of the novel) but there is something that makes it indefinable that I absolutely love and will return to in later posts.