Samuel Beckett once declined an interview because, he said, he had “no views to inter.” On the other hand, Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II is made up of conversations with women who have waited their entire lives to speak.
This book is an outpouring, a deluge. Roughly a million Soviet women fought in World War II.
Dozens of them, in this volume, gather around Alexievich as if she were a sentient campfire.
When the war ended, few in Russia
wanted to acknowledge these women’s experience. That they were sent into battle, mostly as reinforcements after the slaughter of so many men, was more an occasion for national shame.
“There was no one I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion,” one woman deposes. “Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you? We were silent as fish.”
Alexievich is the Belarussian journalist who became, in 2015, the first person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for what are, essentially, interviews — for what the Swedish Academy called her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Her many books include Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2006) and Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2016).
The Unwomanly Face of War was her first book. The Russian-language edition, published in 1985, has sold more than two million copies worldwide. It was first issued in English in 1988, in a poor and heavily censored version sponsored by the Soviet Union. The book has been published now in its first full English translation, undertaken by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the celebrated translators of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky and others.
The book relates the stories of women on the front lines and on the home front; some were snipers, others nurses, others tank drivers. They were so young. One tells Alexievich, “We went to die for life, without knowing what life was.”
The Unwomanly Face of War is the product of thousands of hours of interviews. The author unearths a mostly buried aspect of Russian history. There’s a great deal that’s moving and memorable about the hardships described.
But it’s possible to read this book and have reservations about it. Because so much praise has already been heaped on Alexievich and on this volume, I’m going to place my own reservations first.
Many of the author’s interviews, in this book and others, are repetitive in their facts and their tone. An original voice is rare. Is Alexievich a gifted, probing interviewer? It’s hard to say. Her own questions are rarely included.
You consume this lumpy raw material and wonder how a pricklier historian and journalist, a Masha Gessen or an Anne Applebaum, might process and deploy it.
Alexievich provides little context for her narratives. You only occasionally know where and why events are happening. This is by design. “I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings,” she says in an introduction. “I am a historian of the soul.”
(Her introduction is filled with self-aggrandising sentences of that sort. “I don’t simply record,” she says of her interviews. “I collect, I track down the human spirit.” This sort of talk would have gotten Studs Terkel bounced from his local Chicago bar.) Surely a desire, even in an oral history, for modest factual scaffolding doesn’t make one unwomanly?
Alexievich has called her books “novels in voices,” and they appear to reside in a gray zone between fiction and journalism. She doesn’t pause to explain, except in the broadest terms, her methods. Every interviewer must edit and condense. Few humans speak in complete sentences. As Janet Malcolm has observed, an interview transcript is “a kind of rough draft of expression.” Beyond editing and condensation, though, what’s allowable?
In an article last year in The New Republic, Sophie Pinkham, the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine (2016), accused Alexievich of going too far, of reworking her interviews to suit “her own artistic and political project”.
She cited an article by one of Alexievich’s French translators, Galia Ackerman, in which Ackerman and her co-translator found that Alexievich had moved quotations around in her revisions. They “found phrases,” Pinkham writes, “that had migrated from one person’s testimony to another’s, or from Alexievich’s reflections to those of an interview subject.”
Pinkham’s article is worth attending to. In her opinion, Alexievich’s work is too heavy-handed to be considered great literature (with this I essentially agree), and too imprecise to be taken seriously as journalism.
© 2017 The New York Times