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Vasily Grossman: from Stalingrad to toilet trouble

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In 1998 I stumbled upon a Russian novel called “Life and Fate.” I was surprised because I had never heard of it or its author Vasily Grossman, yet by its size, Tolstoy-echoing title and subject matter (the book was about Stalingrad) it was obviously supposed to be important.

I bought it and was soon drawn into Grossman’s world; I remember standing on crowded trams, unable to put down this imposing brick of a book. “Life and Fate” was excellent, a profound meditation on war, Stalin, and much else – and yet it was also totally obscure. This was bizarre. Was I wrong? Was it actually rubbish?

Fifteen years later and Grossman’s star is on the rise. “Life and Fate” has been serialized on BBC radio, and the British edition of his war journalism was edited by Anthony Beevor, the man responsible for the bestselling history book “Stalingrad.” Recent editions of his work even come with a glowing blurb from the nigh pensionable literary enfant terrible Martin Amis.

Grossman’s posthumous success has also encouraged publishers to take a chance on his “lesser” books. The most recent example is “An Armenian Sketchbook,” a work of non-fiction about Armenia, a country I’ve long been fascinated by but have never visited. Barely longer than 100 pages, it is Grossman’s account of two months he spent in the country in the early 1960s while translating an Armenian novel.

Now, the two most common pitfalls that await the travel writer are:

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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, who currently resides in Texas after a ten year stint in the former USSR. Visit him online at
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