Review: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
In 1960, soon after Soviet writer Vasily Grossman had completed his epic novel Life and Fate, the KGB raided his apartment and seized all copies of the manuscript they could find, as well as notebooks and even typewriter ribbons. One of the Kremlin’s chief ideologists, Mikhail Suslov, would later tell Grossman that his novel could not be published for up to 300 years. An appeal sent by the author to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev produced no result.
Then in 1964 Grossman died, never having seen his book published. Ten years later a microfilmed copy of Life and Fate was smuggled to the West, where it was published in 1980. Just under a decade later, at the tail end of the Soviet era, it appeared in Russian for the first time in the author’s homeland.
Still interest decades on
Recent years have seen an upsurge of interest in Grossman and his works, particularly Life and Fate. A few years ago The New York Review of Books republished the book, and this year it also appeared under the Vintage Classics label. In what the Independent on Sunday described as “the most ambitious dramatisation in the history of BBC Radio”, during the course of one week BBC Radio 4 recently devoted several drama spots to a serial adaptation of Life and Fate, and there were documentaries and discussions about the author, as well as readings from his other writings.
Winners of the Orange Prize for Fiction were asked which books they would pass on to the next generation and why. British writer Linda Grant chose Life and Fate, commenting: “I have urged all my friends to read it… I want others to feel as I have done – that they are entering the heart of the twentieth century, touching its pulse.”
What is it about this book which so upset the Kremlin when it was written and which generates fascination today, half a century later?
Life and Fate is set during the Second World War. Many of the main scenes are located amidst the rubble of Stalingrad, which was besieged and bombarded by the Germans from July 1942 to February 1943. However, the different stories about the numerous characters are also played out elsewhere – in a German camp for Russian prisoners of war, in a Nazi extermination camp, in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, in a physics institute in the same city, or in Kuibyshev, where Soviet government organs were evacuated during the war.
The battle of Stalingrad was the great turning point of World War II. When the Soviets finally broke out and managed to encircle and force the surrender of German field-marshal Paulus and his 6th Army, it signalled the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. As a war reporter Grossman had been in Stalingrad and he had witnessed other battles, too – around Moscow, at Kursk and in Berlin. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this work has a very realistic, down-to-earth feel about wartime conditions. Yet it is not one-sided and certainly not over heroicised. We witness disputes between the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad and some surprising outturns in the sub-plots.
This is not a novel about the war in a military sense, rather the types of everyday circumstances, the hardships, the tragedies and the intense relationships in which people found themselves. The themes are wide-ranging and touch on many issues, including human solidarity and conflict, the tragedy of loss, identity (including Jewish identity – Grossman’s mother was a victim of the Holocaust), fear of authority, the absurdity of life (and death) but also the joys of life. The list can go on… no wonder Life and Fate has been called “the War and Peace of the twentieth century”.
Politics is never far from the story. Grossman has a great talent for describing through little cameos the pressures of Soviet life, and how the bureaucracy and/or political authorities could make or break a person’s career, and sometimes ruin their entire life. Ideas, too, are examined. Grossman is an unusual Soviet author in that he not only criticises Stalin (which was not unknown after Khrushchev’s denunciation of the Soviet dictator in early 1956), he also has his characters express reasoned criticism of Lenin and even Karl Marx.
In addition, at one point an intelligent SS officer in a prison camp tries to persuade a convinced Bolshevik prisoner of the similarities between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. For Grossman himself, the great enemy is the state, which stands in opposition to both social justice and freedom. Although he never uses the term, it’s a traditional anarchist point of view – not in the sense of the bomb-throwers but the political theorists and writers. All in all, it’s not surprising he couldn’t get his work published when it was written.
Buy the book
Life and Fate
By Vasily Grossman
Vintage Classics, 2011