MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe author offers amusing accounts of Russian living conditions ... As one might expect from an accomplished travel writer, the author is especially interesting as she follows Chekhov on his journey to the island of Sakhalin ... Ms. Wheeler fears that academics will nitpick her discussions of literature and she proudly pronounces herself a generalist, which is all to the good. But is it nitpicking to be irritated at misstatements of basic facts? ... Ms. Wheeler’s love for Russian literature is clear, even when she misreads it. Her attitude toward Russia itself is harder to understand. She writes repeatedly that there is no such thing as Russian culture, since Russia is so diverse. But of course American, Indian and many other cultures are no less diverse. To speak of a national culture is to envisage not uniformity but a specific diversity, different from others in detail and in overall configuration. She might as well say there is no such thing as French or Chinese cuisine ... Like travel, great literature should help us escape the prison house of our island in time, place, class and culture. Otherwise, for all that one can learn, one might as well stay home and watch the telly.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... delightful, if sometimes nauseating ... As Mr. Pollock’s book demonstrates, believers have conversions in churches, atheists in banyas.
Vasily Grossman, Trans. by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksFirst published when Stalin was still alive, Stalingrad is considerably less explicit than Life and Fate about its ethical and political themes. Even so, it was, by Soviet standards, remarkably bold ... No version, published or unpublished, fully accords with Grossman’s conception, and some manuscripts include splendid passages that have never been published. The editors of this English translation therefore chose to include as much fascinating material as possible, carefully indicating in an afterword the versions to which particular passages belong. The result is the most complete, most interesting, and artistically finest version of Stalingrad in any language ... In Stalingrad, Grossman relies on the technique Russians call \'Aesopian language,\' which hints at (or allegorizes, like Aesop’s fables) the unsayable. Life and Fate and Grossman’s last novel, Everything Flows, insist explicitly that Communism and Nazism are mirror images of each other, but Stalingrad could not. Instead it criticizes the Nazis for faults that readers would recognize as equally characteristic of the Soviets.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Boeck’s biography tries to explain how Sholokhov lost the conscience he once had ... Since Stalin’s Scribe is a \'political biography,\' not a literary one, we get no detailed analyses of the literary works, which may puzzle readers who expect the biography of a writer to discuss his writing. In his afterword, Mr. Boeck observes insightfully that faking one’s accomplishments and constructing a false identity were hardly offenses unique to Sholokhov.