Days and Nights

BY Konstantine Simonov
THIS story, ably translated by Joseph Barnes, concerns the siege of Stalingrad, but the action is confined largely to the heroic defense of three buildings by a handful of Red Army men. After more than four hundred pages, one has only a very hazy notion of the complicated operations of huge armies and of the tremendous significance of this great siege for the future course of the whole war. Such achievements may properly belong to history or to an historical novelist a generation hence. But an author contemporary with the event, and even a participant in it, has no right to leave his readers confused about these matters, however confusing they were themselves. Simonov’s overall picture of the siege is sucked as dry of significant detail as the aggravating war communiqués of the Soviet Information Bureau.
On the credit side, however, this is a stirring account of the efforts of the depleted battalion assigned the task of recapturing and holding the three houses against everything the Germans could send. Realizing that war can be made as dull for the reader as for the soldier, whose daily existence is circumscribed by the same wearisome duties, Simonov endeavors to inject human interest in the form of a love story and a spy story. But the spy element is absent-mindedly interwoven into the narrative, and its crudities never allow us to suspend our disbelief long enough to accept it as real.
The love story is a more integral part of the novel and is handled with delicacy and restraint, if not with much psychological insight. There is something appropriately elemental in this love in the midst of death between Saburov, the hero and commander of the battalion, and the frightened but brave Anya, a hospital assistant. It has nothing of the customary “eat, drink, and be merry" quality of the usual war romance in fiction. Passion does not try to race or cheat death. Their love is subordinated to the stern duty of war, and more specifically, to the passionate determination of all the defenders of Stalingrad that their city must not fall.
In truth, this is the motif that pervades the whole novel, that dominates all the action, and in a sense become the author’s chief character. Matveyev, the commanding general; Protsenko, head of the division; Saburov; Petya the orderly; Konyukov the old soldier; Anya-all are simply two-dimensional symbols of this will to victory. We learn from their deeds and terse, sparse conversation why it has become the most glorious title in Russia today to be known as one of the “ men of Stalingrad.”The artistic renascence of the human spirit that brought about the miracle of Stalingrad is the novel’s finest achievement.
But the means employed to accomplish this purpose weary the reader because of their sameness. Action is piled on action with hardly any variation, and emotional experiences become more than a twice-told tale. Despite Simonov’s unusual literary versatility, he seems unable to sustain an effort of this length with complete success. His peculiarly poetic talents do not appear to be divinely ordered for the novelist’s task. We gain a profounder understanding of the individual Russian’s reaction to the war from Simonov’s lyric, “Wait for Me.” than from his whole novel; and we feel more deeply the spiritual unity in the face of national catastrophe and the will to victory of the whole nation in his brief poem, “To Surkov.”