War Without Peace

Generations of Winter

by Vassily Aksyonov, translated by John Glad, translated by Christopher Morris
Random House, 592 pp., $25.00

Vassily Aksyonov
Vassily Aksyonov; drawing by David Levine

In Generations of Winter Vassily Aksyonov has set out bravely, one might even say brazenly, to write a twentieth-century War and Peace, mingling fictional and historical characters in a great sprawling saga tracing the history of the Soviet Union. This first volume runs from 1925 to 1945; a second volume brings the story into the post-war era. The surprise is that he has succeeded to a remarkable degree. To predict at this point that his novel will prove as enduring as Tolstoy’s classic is, of course, impossible. There is a certain coarseness in Aksyonov’s literary manner which can be apt, certainly, for the task at hand—has there ever been a coarser place than Stalin’s Russia?—but the book’s sturdy, carpentered quality at times seems too clumsy to bear comparison with Tolstoy’s exquisitely balanced artistic effects. All the same, Aksyonov’s energy, inventiveness, and insouciance have resulted in what is surely a major document of our times, and one with lasting power.

Obviously any Russian author attempting to write a work on such a scale would find himself stumbling in Tolstoy’s shadow. Aksyonov’s solution to the problem is to turn on his heel and grin defiantly in his great predecessor’s face. He has not so much struck the father dead as given him a playful pat on the cheek. The text abounds in references to War and Peace whether in an epigraph, in offhand allusions to Tolstoy’s characters, or in passages such as this, from the preface to the second part of the book, which is called “War and Jail”:

Not long ago, we were reading War and Peace—for the first time since childhood, we must admit, and not at all in connection with the beginning of War and Jail but for pure reading pleasure—and came upon a number of Tolstoy’s thoughts on the riddles of history, which sometimes touch us joyfully by their similarities with our own thoughts but which at other times lead into a blind alley.

The plural pronoun suggests arch humor rather than even a small degree of modesty. Elsewhere Aksyonov plays a game with old-fashioned styles of narration, as in this passage from early in the book where we are first introduced to the heroine—or one of the heroines—of the book, Nina Gradov, who is destined to become a renowned poet, a sort of cross between Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva:

The front doors banged then, quick steps sounded, and Nina burst into the dining room. Her dark chestnut hair was disheveled, her bright blue eyes were shining, the collar of her overcoat was turned up, and she was carrying a briefcase under her arm, as well as a knapsack full of books.

“Hello, family!” she yelped. She rushed over to Veronika, kissed her on the lips and once on the stomach [Veronika is pregnant], then flopped down for a moment onto Nikita’s lap, shook the hand of…

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