I’ve finished Konstantin Simonov‘s famous WWII novel Живые и мёртвые [The living and the dead], first published in 1959 and available online (along with its two sequels) here, at the amazing Военная литература site (to which, like the novel, I was alerted by Sashura), so I thought I’d say something about it. It’s a tremendously powerful and convincing evocation of what the last six months of 1941 were like for well-educated true believers in the Red Army (see Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 for a more comprehensive factual account of an army that was three-quarters peasant and wretchedly ill-prepared for war). As a novel, it starts out strong but eventually dissipates its energy somewhat; it begins with its central character, journalist-turned-officer Sintsov, and his wife Masha learning of the German attack as they have just arrived in the Crimea for a vacation having left their infant daughter back home in Grodno—now occupied by the Germans—with Masha’s mother, and [warning: spoilers ahead] after a quick return to Moscow Sintsov heads west to join his newspaper at the front and try to find out what has happened to his family. In the chaos of the invasion he is soon turned into a political officer attached to a division that is trying to fight its way out of encirclement, with no way to get a message to his wife, and the first half of the book is filled with the tension of wondering what will happen to him and what has happened to his wife. About halfway through, after harrowing adventures (which involve losing his documents), he makes it back to Moscow and has a quick reunion with his wife before heading off to the front again (now frighteningly near the capital) to try to prove himself as a simple foot soldier and earn reacceptance into the Party. From this point on, the novel takes us through the defense of Moscow and the Soviet counterattack of early December; there are many good scenes, but the basic narrative drive is dissipated unless you care a lot more than I can make myself care about the restoration of his precious Party card. To find out what happens to his wife (and the daughter who is barely mentioned again after the first chapter), you have to read the sequels, which I will probably do eventually.
A point of linguistic interest is Simonov’s careful attention to forms of address, particularly the use of formal and informal pronouns. In Chapter 10, Efremov says “Get up!” using the informal pronoun to the sleeping Sintsov, then switches to the formal when Sintsov wakes up:
Вставай, ну, вставай же! — тормошил его Ефремов, не считая нужным обращаться на “вы” к еще не проснувшемуся человеку. — Вставайте! — сразу перешел он на “вы”, как только Синцов спустил с лавки ноги. — Комбат вас к себе требует!
And later in the same chapter, it is explained that Sintsov and Lyusin use the informal with each other, despite not knowing each other long, because the pressures of war have produced instant intimacy.
One scene that struck me was when a badly wounded character is transported away from the front and realizes that he is being removed from the intense life he has been living and the company of the men he has been fighting with and will soon be in an entirely different world. It’s a situation and an emotion that to my mind was explored most memorably by David I. Masson, among whose few brilliant stories from the 1960s was the unforgettable “Traveller’s Rest,” which if the Force is with you you can read at the last link on this page.