Grossman spent the entire war in the hottest of the hot zones. On several occasions he was within a hair's breadth of being encircled by the German advance. Purely as a record of events, "A Writer at War" has value. Grossman's journals, for example, contradict the usual accounts of the fall of Orel in the first week of October 1941, which portray a city taken completely by surprise, with streetcars still running. Grossman, by contrast, describes a scene of mounting panic, with citizens already packing up and leaving, well aware that the enemy is at the gates.
Brief jottings suggest the magnitude of Russian suffering and the ferocity of combat waged against a technologically superior enemy. The seriously wounded, in the early days of rapid retreat, get a piece of herring and 50 grams of vodka to keep them going. During the fiercest fighting in Stalingrad, a tank driver, out of ammunition, jumps out of his tank and begins throwing bricks at the Germans and cursing. "This war in villages is a bandit war," one lieutenant tells Grossman, adding that his men sometimes strangle Germans with their bare hands. Even more shocking is the admission of a peasant soldier who tells Grossman, "As for hardships, life is harder in the village."
Not a word about Grossman's Life and Fate, an unforgettable book.
Shortly before leaving Moscow, I bought a volume of Grossman's short stories and non-fiction, in Russian. One text in it was about the extermination of Berdichev Jews. My grandmother had seen a tiny bit of that unspeakable horror and was delirious for a week afterwards. Maybe one day I'll be able to write about it.
A Writer at War came out in Britain first, and the Guardian had a review by Andrei Kurkov back in November 2005 - Not About Heroes. Kurkov does mention Life and Fate:
The battle of Stalingrad has a central place in the book, just as the battle was pivotal in the history of the war. Grossman's picture of it is quite different from the apocalypse traditionally described by military historians. The stories he tells, either overheard or told directly to him, are all carefully recorded, and sometimes completely untrue. Occasionally he admits as much in his notes, but, none the less, Grossman the writer is fascinated by all of them. If, having read this book, you read Grossman's most famous novel, Life and Fate, you will recognise a great many of the characters and events.
Life and Fate is one of the most honest books about the second world war. As soon as Grossman tried to publish it, KGB officers raided his apartment and confiscated every copy they could find. One copy, which Grossman had given to a friend for safe-keeping, survived, and eventually, after the author's death, a microfilm copy was smuggled out of the USSR.