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Fated to live
Life and Fate - Vasily Grossman
Member Name: duncantorr
Life and Fate - Vasily Grossman
Advantages: Compelling narrative, political and philosophical insight
Disadvantages: Vast cast, complexity, loose ends
These words might have seemed, around 1950, to have no application at all to Vasily Grossman, who wrote them. Then he would have appeared to be very much a direct and cherished child of his time, however monstrous that time might have been and however ill-fated its children. Grossman had made his way up the Soviet literary ladder by adhering to the party line. He had been a war correspondent for the newspaper Red Star from the defence of Moscow in the winter of 1941 right through to the fall of Berlin in 1945, a role in which no hint of deviation from the official version of the 'truth' would have been tolerated. The battle for Moscow had formed the backdrop for a novel with the exemplarily Marxist title The People Immortal, while another In a Just Cause, based on his experiences at Stalingrad, was about to be published. In his work he seemed ready to defend, or at least overlook, even the grossest excesses, incompetence and cruelty of Stalin's regime.
But all was not quite as it seemed in the political and literary outlook of Vasily Grossman. Unbeknownst to its readers, In a Just Cause had to be extensively revised to satisfy the censors before it was allowed to appear. In 1960, after a long period of gestation, Life and Fate, a sequel to In a Just Cause on a much more ambitious scale and from a much less orthodox viewpoint, was finally submitted by him for publication. Stalin was by then dead and the grip of Soviet censorship not quite as stifling as it had been - which is a far cry from saying it was ready to tolerate Life and Fate. All known copies of the manuscript were seized, together with the carbon paper and even typewriter ribbons used in its writing. Suslov, the Kremlin's chief ideologist, told the author that there was no prospect of its appearing in print for at least 200 years. A less well-established writer might have found himself in much deeper trouble. Although Grossman had taken the precaution of entrusting a secret copy to a close friend, he died in 1964 not knowing whether his masterpiece would ever see the light of day. The novel was almost lost to posterity, but it was fated to survive, and eventually a microfilmed copy was smuggled out of Russia and published in the west, where it was at first overlooked in favour of the work of other, more overtly dissident, writers such as Solzhenitsyn. Gradually, though, its merit has become recognised, and its reputation has grown so that today it is widely regarded as one of the great novels of the 20th century.
* Stalingrad revisited *
Plot is perhaps the wrong word to use for the narrative of Life and Fate, since it is not a unified story. Instead, it intertwines numerous stories, some of them closely connected, others barely connected at all. The 'List of Chief Characters' at the rear of the book tabulates over 150 names, about a dozen of them historical personages, the rest fictional. The protagonist, in so far as a single protagonist can be identified, is Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, a distinguished physicist. Many - though by no means all - of the other main characters have some connection with him through extended family or acquaintance, but the salient events in their lives do not always interact with those in his, and there is no clear conclusion. Loose ends abound, as in real life.
The action all takes place in 1942-3, and its main focus is the siege of Stalingrad by the German 6th Army, which was in turn besieged and eventually destroyed by encircling Russian forces as winter closed in. Most of the non-fictional characters are senior officers - on both sides - in that conflict, but Grossman is not only, or even primarily, interested in the upper echelons. The scene shifts as easily between the makeshift headquarters and the broken buildings through which hand-to-hand fighting ebbs and flows as does the cast between generals and privates, commissars and civilians, politicians and peasants, prison guards and prisoners. Beyond Stalingrad, we are taken to Moscow, to Kazan, to Kuibyshev, to outposts in the Kalmyk steppe, to army encampments and airfields, to villages in the Ukraine, to a Russian gulag and to German concentration and extermination camps, right into the gas chambers. Grossman, who was present at the liberation of the camp at Treblinka, knew whereof he wrote, in the last as in the other settings for his story.
As our attention is directed first to one, then to another, corner of this vast canvas, we gradually become acquainted with the characters: Shtrum himself, whose work, however brilliant, will only receive recognition relative to the strength of his political connections; his wife, Lyudmila, whose son by a previous marriage is missing in combat; her former husband Arbachuk, now in a forced labour camp; her sister Zhenya, and Zhenya's former husband Krymov, a commissar (political officer) with the Red Army in Stalingrad, who ironically ends up as a prisoner in the Lubyanka secret police headquarters despite his slavish adherence to party policy; her current lover Novikov, commander of a tank regiment; Spiridinov, widower husband of a third sister and director of the Stalingrad power station. Separate tales are told involving each of these, each in turn with its own cast of associated characters. Meanwhile, in German camps are Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik now a prisoner of war together with other inmates; Liss, their wily SS interrogator; Dr Sonya Levinton and fellow Jews on their final one way journey.
I have to admit that I soon abandoned my initial practice of referring to the list of characters to re-orient myself every time a new name appeared, and just accepted that I wouldn't be able to remember the exact relationships between all of them. Remiss of me, perhaps, but ultimately I don't believe it matters. The characters of importance are memorable, and the impact of events on their development critical to our understanding of the author's purpose, but the minutiae of all their extended interactions are not.
* Grappling with tyranny *
What then, is the author's purpose? Superficially, to re-tell the stirring story of the turn of the tide in the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War, as it is still known in Russia) through the intimate experiences of some of those involved in it. In this he succeeds admirably, and the narrative engages the reader throughout. But if this were his sole purpose, and its fulfilment the sole outcome, it could have been achieved without political controversy, and the book would doubtless have been published with acclaim by the Soviet authorities as was his earlier work. Life and Fate, for the first time, dug a lot deeper, raised many more fundamental questions and began to find its way towards answers incompatible with the Communist view of history and the individual's role in it. Throughout the book the reader has a sense of Grossman grappling with the faith in the system that had previous sustained him and increasingly finding it wanting.
For a start, in places the dialogue between the characters and their inner reflections pick over the scabs of the unhealed wounds of Soviet history: the systematic starvation of the kulaks, and the purges and show-trials of loyal but out-of-favour old Bolsheviks. These are not overtly condemned, but instead of simply parroting the approved version, or even offering a dialectical rationalisation of ends justifying means, Grossman leaves the doubts unresolved. Then there is a critique of totalitarianism, that at the outset is directed solely against 'Fascism' but progressively becomes more and more evidently applicable to the Soviet brand too.
For example, early on we find: "A man who has placed his soul in the service of Fascism declares an evil and dangerous slavery to be the only true good. Rather than overtly renouncing human feelings, he declares the crimes committed by Fascism to be the highest form of humanitarianism; he agrees to divide people up into the pure and worthy and the impure and unworthy." Of course, we understand this to mean the division of people by race, but it could also mean by class, as is increasingly made clear, and the statement that "There is a dreadful similarity between the principles of Fascism and those of contemporary Physics. Fascism has rejected the concept of a separate individual, the concept of 'a man', and operates only with vast aggregates. Contemporary physics speaks of the greater or lesser probability of occurrences within this or that aggregate of individual particles. And are not the terrible mechanics of Fascism founded on the principle of quantum politics, of political probability?" is surely at least as true of Communism, especially under Stalin with his callous liquidation of whole categories of 'class enemy'.
By the end, Grossman is close to outright revolt. There is no contradiction of the character who declares " 'No one has the right to lead people like sheep. That's something even Lenin failed to understand. The purpose of a revolution is to free people. But Lenin just said: "In the past you were led badly, I'm going to lead you well." Philosophically, we find him questioning the future of the state, and placing no faith in the Marxist idea of its eventual 'withering away': "Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? ... If human nature does change, then the eternal and world-wide triumph of the dictatorial state is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian state is doomed." If this is to be the choice, he leaves no doubt that his preference is not on the side of the state: "The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities."
He finds himself praising, as no orthodox Soviet writer would, one of his characters, a woman who out of simple compassion helps a wounded German soldier even as his fellows are shooting civilian hostages: "This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most human in a human being. It's what sets mankind apart, the highest achievement of his soul." Such then, seems be the outcome of Grossman's philosophical self-inquisition: a faith in the positive side of human instinct and in its ability to overcome the dehumanising aspects of political self-delusion. Kindness rules OK - or something like it. Not a very grandiose or sophisticated message, but maybe that in itself is part of the message: that it is the grandiose and sophisticated messages that divorce men from their better natures and beguile humans into inhumanity.
* Doing it with style *
It is always hard to comment on the style of a book read only in translation, but in the English edition translated by Robert Chandler, Life and Fate is highly readable, despite the occasional political or philosophical musings. Mostly the action moves forward briskly, related in straightforward language though it is not without the occasional graphic, even poetical flourish. These are sometimes very telling. For example:
" 'A-a-a-a-a-h!' There was something terrible, but also something sad and melancholy, in this long cry uttered by the Russian infantry as they staged an attack. As it crossed the cold water, it lost its fervour. Instead of valour or gallantry, you could hear the sadness of a soul parting with everything..." Or:
"She would never have thought blood could be so strikingly red. When there was a momentary silence amid the shooting, screaming and groaning, she heard the murmur of flowing blood; it was like a stream, flowing over white bodies instead of white stones."
I have no way of knowing how literally translated these and similar passages are, but to me they read extremely well and I think Chandler deserves congratulation for them.
* First among sequels *
In commenting on the structure of the book, I have said above that loose ends abound as in real life. Alternatively, one could say as in the middle work of any trilogy. Life and Fate not only follows on from In a Just Cause, but itself has a sequel, Everything Flows, though it is a sequel only in the broadest sense. Hardly any of the characters from Life and Fate reapper, and few of the stray strands are re-ravelled there. Fortunately Life and Fate can be read and appreciated on its own despite the loose ends, and is the most impressive of the three works. Everything Flows is a less ambitious work in literary terms, but is much more overtly dissident and has a polemic power of its own. I shall be reviewing it here in due course.
* Routine detail *
Life and Fate, translated by and with an illuminating introduction by Robert Chandler, is published in paperback in the UK by the Vintage Books imprint of Random House, cover price £9.99 for the 864 pages, though it can of course be found more cheaply. Also recommended as supplementary reading is A Writer at War, in which Antony Beevor chronicles Grossman's progress through the war, drawing extensively on his diaries, notes and published writing. This is more exciting than it may sound: a 'hands-on' war reporter, Grossman spent most of his time at the front and was frequently in mortal danger, but was fated to live and eventually produce his masterpiece. And, for completeness, one should read the other two works in the trilogy.
* Recommendation *
Life and Fate may sound a daunting read, but in fact it is quite manageable and well worth the effort. For anyone interested in the history of the Soviet Union, Communism in general or the Second World War it is essential reading. But it also has a wider human relevance than that, just as War and Peace (with which it has been compared) has a wider human relevance than just chronicling Napoleon's invasion of Russia. We live in a world that is very much the outcome of the struggle between the dominant political philosophies of the 20th century, and in which they are still relevant. Grossman contributes his own insights into the nature of that struggle, insights made all the more telling by his own internal revolt against his earlier Communist conformity. This remains the case despite one feeling a certain resentment against such late converts to resistance to tyranny, whose earlier complicity helped the tyrants exercise their power. But it is as a work of art, rather than as a treatise on his own conversion, that Life and Fate must be judged, and from that perspective the art is given edge by the friction of his internal debate. It is also a very readable, if challengingly complex, story.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012
Summary: A powerful novel about Russia in World War Two and the nature of totalitarianism