cover image The People Immortal

The People Immortal

Vasily Grossman, trans. from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. NYRB Classics, $19.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-68137-678-3

Grossman’s insightful novel, originally published in 1942 before the linked WWII novels Life and Fate and Stalingrad, follows a Soviet battalion assigned a suicide mission in 1941: cover a Russian regiment’s retreat from the unyielding Nazi advance for as long as they can. The doomed group is a rogue’s gallery of Soviet archetypes. There’s Bogariov, the battalion’s levelheaded commissar, a peacetime professor of Marxism who is happy to test his convictions on the battlefield; Ignatiev, a cheery, rakish collective farm worker, whose boldness and knowledge of the land make him an invaluable guerrilla; and Cherednichenko, the steely, veteran divisional commissar looking to spin victory out of certain defeat. The text, which Grossman (1905–1964) wrote shortly after his own visit to the front as a war correspondent, hums with fine details: the leaves of dead birches hang “small and yellow like copper coins”; soldiers identify the fields they march over “by the swish of falling seeds, by the creak of straw underfoot and by the rustle of the stalks that clung to their tunics.” Though straightforward and unmistakably propagandistic, it’s elevated by Grossman’s clarity of thought and vision. The result is a worthy look into Russian wartime psychology. (Sept.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated this book was part of a trilogy.