Saturday, October 01, 2016

`In the Presence of This Mystery'

“It’s Sunday. Where can you go? To the zoo? To Sokolniki Park? No, the cemetery’s more enjoyable. You can do a little leisurely work, and you can get some fresh air at the same time.”

The original is in Russian but everyone recognizes the sentiment. The other public space a cemetery most resembles is a park, often a well-tended landscape of grass and trees, a place that invites contemplation and an unhurried pace. No one visits a cemetery to run laps. The writer is Vasily Grossman, author of one of the last century’s great novels, Life and Fate. The passage quoted above is from “Eternal Rest,” collected in The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays (trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Olga Mukovnikova, NYRB, 2010). Written around 1958, the essay describes a visit to Vagankovo Cemetery in Moscow, the final resting place of the lexicographer Vladimir Ivanovich Dahl (much admired by Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn) and the poet Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin. Also of Grossman’s father, Solomon Iosifovich, who changed his name to Semyon Osipovich.

The novelist and his wife, Olga Mikhailovna, lived in an apartment across the street from the cemetery. Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, and his widow hoped to bury his ashes in Vagankovom, but her request was denied. Then she sought a plot in Moscow’s best-known cemetery, Novodevichy, where Grossman’s beloved Chekhov is buried. That too was denied. He was finally interred in Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, on the western edge of Moscow. Grossman writes in “Eternal Rest”:

“Life is powerful. It bursts through the fence around the cemetery. And the cemetery surrenders; it becomes a part of life.”

In Hebrew, a Jewish cemetery is called beit chaim, “house of life,” or beit olam, “house of eternal life.” As a correspondent for Red Star, the Red Army newspaper, Grossman covered the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the defense of Moscow and the fall of Berlin. He reported on Babi Yar and the slaughter of some 30,000 Jews, including his mother, at his birthplace, Berdichev. He wrote some of the earliest reports on the Treblinka and Majdanek death camps. After all this death, Grossman finds respite in the cemetery, sometimes of a mutedly comic sort:

“So here we are—a mound of earth over a grave, and a woman planting forget-me-nots. No, her husband won’t be seeing any more of his other women now. Everything is so peaceful. Her only anxiety now is whether or not she should have planted pansies instead. She has forgiven him, and this forgiveness ennobles her.”

Like a fiction writer, Grossman enters the lives of cemetery visitors and their dead, animating them with stories. Widows mourn and lovers arrange trysts. “The cemetery lives an intense, passion-filled life,” he writes. Where others see death, Grossman celebrates life. He contrasts human worth with worldly pomp: “The sanctity of the soul’s holy mystery makes everything else seem contemptible. The drums and brass trumpets of the State, the wisdom of history, the stone of monuments, howls of loss, prayers of remembrance—all these seem as nothing in the presence of this mystery.” The lines recall Thomas Gray’s meditation in a cemetery:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,       
  And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:
  The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

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