A book judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the state, Life and Fate is an epic tale of World War II and a profound reckoning with the dark forces that dominated the twentieth century. Interweaving an account of the battle of Stalingrad with the story of a single middle-class family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered by fortune from Germany to Siberia, Vasily Grossman fashions an immense, intricately detailed tapestry depicting a time of almost unimaginable horror and even stranger hope. Life and Fate juxtaposes bedrooms and snipers' nests, scientific laboratories and the Gulag, taking us deep into the hearts and minds of characters ranging from a boy on his way to the gas chambers to Hitler and Stalin themselves. This novel of unsparing realism and visionary moral intensity is one of the supreme achievements of modern Russian literature.
Never have I seen the war from the viewpoint of the average Russian, at Stalingrad, in the Ukraine, in Moscow and in the death camps. Most jarring is the repressive shadow of Communism and the fear constantly felt by even the most patriotic and loyal party member. Most heart breaking is the astonishing story of Sofya Levinton, her journey to the gas chamber and her "adoption" of the frail, young orphan.
It has been said that a death is a shame, a thousand deaths is a tragedy, but twenty million deaths is a statistic (or something to that effect) and it is true. Until we see an event from the perspective of an individual, we cannot grasp the horror and the emotions involved in an historical event with the scale of a Stalingrad or Treblinka. We cannot grasp the fear and trepidation created by a party apparatus such as the 20th century Communist Party.
This classic work brings all those emotions and human reactions to bear through the eyes of a typical Russian extended family. Though it is a translation, it flows smoothly and seamlessly. While the plethora of Russian names and nicknames is sometimes confusing, an index of characters in the back of the book assists immeasurably. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.
The tale is unrelentingly grim. Nearly every character dies, is betrayed to the Soviet authorities, or simply suffers - and no ordinary suffering, but genuine Slavic deprivation. With a few temporary exceptions, universal hunger and material deprivation prevail. Hunger ranges from ever-present to starvation. Political betrayal runs rampant across every class of Stalinist Soviet society with mind-boggling inefficiency. Grossman also describes the very beginnings of the Nazi Holocaust at Treblinka and other extermination camps, including a blood-chilling scene with Eichmann having dinner at the camp to celebrate its opening.
Life and Fate is not an easy book to read on several levels. It is long - some 871 pages. It is ceaselessly grim and gritty. Keeping track of the characters and various plot lines is a challenge (The book contains a handy listing of the main characters in an 8-page appendix. For the Western reader, the Russian surnames are hard to keep straight. I recommend keeping an extra bookmark in place at the Appendix). Grossman's characters engage in lengthy intellectual dialogue.
For some of these same reasons, the book is also vastly rewarding. As the excellent introduction to the New York Review of Books edition puts it, Life and Fate is "almost an encyclopedia of the complexities of life under totalitarianism" and the pressures brought to bear on the individual. Absolutely the highest recommendation. Five stars don't do it justice.
My main criticism is that, although the proletariat populate the edges of this book, the story is that of the bourgeoisie. I would love to know what the ordinary bloke in the street felt about the war and the rise of Lenin. I suppose that the position of writer automatically means that one gravitates to the chattering classes and that one can, therefore, never get that perspective and Mr Grossman is far from the only writer guilty of this sin.
Grossman paints a picture of a Russian people who are desperate to do all they can to remove the threat of Fascism but, are pessimistic about the form of Communism that Stalin is bringing to their own country. Time after time, good party members are arrested on the word of some sycophantic popinjay. I am sure that there were examples of this - just as one can find situations where people receive false justice in the West, because of their wealth or power. I find it difficultto believe that however large the country, any state could become as powerful as Russia, were it to be so incompetent.
This book is totally grey. Nobody is allowed to escape the black hole that is the State. Viktor is a scientist who stands up to the machine. He voices his displeasure at the disappearance of free thinkers whose only crime seems to be an odd, often oblique, criticism of state procedure. This leads to him losing his post at the Academy and being on the brink of a one way trip to the Gulags. Fortunately for Viktor, he has made a scientific breakthrough and Stalin calls him, personally, to "check that Viktor has all that he needs to continue his great work" (Stalin cannot apologise because, like a deity, he cannot be in error).
Viktor is re-instated and fawned upon by the very people who had denounced him. So, one person who wins, one happy ending? No. Viktor is asked to sign a letter refuting the claims of Western forces, who say that Russian dissidents are mistreated. Tired of fighting, Viktor capitulates, immediately recognises his error and finds himself lost to both friends and the state - more misery.
The problem with such unremitting bleakness, is that one becomes inured: a little lightening of the mood would contrast the horror which Grossman wants to represent and make it all the more graphic.
Vasily Grossman was a Ukranian Jew who studied to be a chemical engineer but turned to writing as a professional career. As he traveled with the Red Army from Stalingrad to Berlin, he was present as the Russians over ran Treblinka. He was one of the first outsiders to investigate the extermination camps of the Germans, gathering stories from the survivors and documenting the attrocities. Horrified by what he learned, and trying to deal with the execution of his own mother by the Germans, he and his fellow Jewish writers worked to document the extermination of the Russian Jewry by the Nazis during the war only to have the publication of their work blocked by the Soviet regime.
Life and Fate is a sprawling novel documenting the the lives of Russian citizens at the turning point of Word War II. The novel is filled with sketches of heroic soldiers fighting desperately to hold off the Germans at Stalingrad while the army rebuilds behind them for a counter attack. But heroism and military competence isn't necessarily rewarded in a totalitarian state. The soldiers and officers have as much to fear from the political wing of the military as they do from the Germans. Ideological purity is more important than mere competence. The petty ambitions of political bureaucrats have more influence on the execution of the war than the military judgment of a seasoned tank commander on the scene. Whether he is delaying the start of an offensive to deal with an artillery unit which threatens his tanks or attempting to give his exhausted soldiers a ten hour rest after days of nonstop fighting, he must first fight (and often lose) a political battle with the Party's Commissar.
Meanwhile, behind the lines, a nuclear physicist, Victor Schrum, fights his own political battles against the Communist Party when his new theoretical model of nuclear reactions and fission is deemed to be contrary to socialist principles. His situation is made worse by his own arrogance, but the absurdity of his dilemma is all too apparent. The idea that physical science must be ideologically pure is a surrealist nightmare worthy of Kafka. Of course his real problem is that he is Jewish with a German surname at the height of the war. Grossman paints a vivid picture of a man and his family trapped in a tightening net of political persecution and social isolation as friends abandon them for fear of being labeled as enemies of the state. Schrum and his family wait nervously for his inevitable arrest.
Perhaps the most gripping parts of the novel deal with the fate of those caught behind the German lines. The wholesale slaughter of Russian Jews at the hands of the Nazis is portrayed in a stark and frank fashion. He follows the work of Jewish prisoners digging up bodies from mass graves to destroy the evidence of genocide by the Nazis. But the most moving portion of the novel is a sequence of chapters following the fate of a train load of Jewish prisoners across the Ukraine to a concentration camp and into the gas chamber itself.
Life and Fate is a relentlessly grim, but mesmerizing, portrait of ordinary people ground between the machinery of two totalitarian states at war. It is easy to see why Grossman's novel was "arrested" by the Soviet government (to use his own description). Grossman uses the war to hold up a mirror to Stalinist Russia and shows us a red star reflected back as a swastika.
So why four stars? Because this is almost a great book, or rather the rough diamond of a great book, with certain characters and episodes that will lodge in your mind and live in your memory as they do in great books. I think Grossman must have had it in mind to write a War and Peace for his time (note the associative title) and if he does not quite achieve that in the round there is enough in the particular to give him a deserved place not so far below Tolstoy and Russia’s other truly outstanding writers.
I came to this novel through first listening to the BBC’s audio adaptation broadcast across a week in the autumn of 2011. Necessarily, the radio version cut out many of the characters and sub-plots of the novel, leaving the essence of Life and Fate, most memorably: the harrowing journey of Sofya Levinton and the boy David to the gas chamber; the betrayal, imprisonment and torture of the ‘Bolshevik’ commissar Nikolay Krymov; the tribulations of the Shaposhnikov family, especially the head of the household, physicist Viktor Shtrum.
It is important to remember that Grossman never had the opportunity to edit his book for publication. The manuscript was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 - even Grossman’s typewriter ribbon was confiscated along with his typescript. Though the author (who had shown himself in the past a good Party man) escaped jail, he was told his book would not be published in 200 years, and it may not have been but for the smuggling out of the country of a microfilm of his last draft, which was published in English in 1985. The excellent translation I read is by Robert Chandler.
So, buy the book and put plenty of time aside to read it with your fullest attention. Best of luck with the names - my head is still reeling, but it’s reeling too with the sheer power of this extraordinary novel.
Fortunately I have consumed one or two mammoth tomes before – three (I won’t parade my egotism by naming names) rate as my all-time literary favourites. Alright: I shall name one, because it prepared me and inspired me to keep going with Life and Fate. The Brothers Karamazov is as inspirational a read as I have even encountered. And, while it appears Grossman was deliberately emulating that other great Russian tome War and Peace, on which I cannot comment, I can say that the experience of reading Karamazov and indeed of reading Crime and Punishment a few times prepared me for the sheer enormity of scratching around the Russian nomenclature. Russian patronymics, given names and surnames congeal in a bewildering cobweb of syllables, and I have long learned that it is best simply to allow the identity of the character slowly and imperfectly to dawn on this reader’s consciousness.
So, armed with the memory of conquering a few Russian tomes, I journeyed on. I’m glad I did. The fog was at times intense, and the List of Chief Characters at the back of the book is woefully inadequate (page references would have redeemed it), but as I journeyed I was taken into the depths of human vulnerability. The death of a child in a Nazi gas oven is as chilling, yet haunting beautiful a piece of writing as I have encountered. The dreadful carnage and the equally dreadful ennui of fields of battle, the desperate sexual encounters, the ghastly dehumanizing bastardry of war should all be compulsory reading for every thinking human being, pacifist or militarist, left or right or in between. The brutal yet understated irony that the evil of soviet oppression and the evil of Nazi oppression bend to become just two more superimposable chapters of human inhumanity should not be lost (Grossman never lived to see Life and Fate published, much less to read Alan Bullock’s monumental Hitler and Stalin, but it makes a similar point). The ability of the totalitarian State eventually to bend human wills to uncharacteristic compromise should not be lost on any of us who believe we are advocates of some Herculean cause: there is a Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum lurking in most of us. Coincidentally I have been reading Nineteen Eighty-Four during the same period that I was reading Grossman, and the same point is lurking in those shorter pages, albeit less forcefully. Totalitarianism sucks.
I doubt I will ever read Life and Fate again – I may not have a spare eight months. I will however never regret reading it, and I suspect Grossman’s instinctive and lonely wisdom will permeate my thoughts until I stop thinking. Grossman had of course no editor to tidy up the flaws in his work, but he cannot be blamed for that: this is a magisterial work that I will never forget or regret reading. If only the editor of this edition had improved that List of Chief Characters.
Warning - it's long. Helpful - the chapters are short. Warning - you won't always know where you are at the start of a chapter, but somehow, that is appropriate to the story.
The book is 871 pages long in my Kindle Edition, and it has the rough edges and occasional repetitions of a book that never got the authors final polish that it deserved.
And the Russian names – nicknames – pet names and patronymics – will drive you crazy.
But I don’t care. I loved it.
Grossman’s story is about the siege of Stalingrad – 1941-1942 – and the Russian soldiers (and German soldiers) who fought it and the Russian civilians who endured it. The hunger, the bombardments, the bureaucracy, the isolation, the madness of combat are all detailed with heart stopping depth and intimacy.
Along the way he shows us how the Russian people adjusted to life in a Communist State -- where purity and devotion to the Ideals of Stalin-ism were the most important things – and deviation from the Communist "norm" is the ultimate sin. (Army units go into battle with a commander and a “political commissar”). And Russian paranoia leads to Russian paralysis.
Grossman was a Jew and he was very observant to treatment of Jews – both in the Soviet Union and in Germany. (He was one of the first of any nationality to report on the horrors of the German death camps). He follows one of his characters right up into the death chamber – and makes us as witnesses walk along with her step by chilling step. .
And on the other hand he can show a Jewish Mathematician with a car and a dacha who works on atomic theory who is hounded for his Jewishness (His brilliant new theorem is criticized for its “Talmudic” bent)
He shows us Stalin and Hitler, generals and privates, rich people and poor people – and in the midst of horror and war and suffering gives us moments of surprising generosity and kindness and humanity.
It’s a grim book with flashes of Russian humor – Stalin wishes aloud he had not had all his best generals shot in 1937 so they could fight for him again at Stalingrad.
Stalin’s grim visage floats over the book like the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg in “The Great Gatsby” – everything done is done in Comrade Stalin’s name and in the hopes that Comrade Stalin would approve. And occasionally Stalin reaches down from his mountaintop and does something godlike and arbitrary. (or someone does it in his name)
And in the end, the outnumbered, surrounded, starving Russians encircled the German Panzers and forced them to surrender. It was the turning point of the war. When you have two armies BOTH ordered by their commanders not to retreat.
(“Not one step backwards” from Stalin: "Stand or Die" from Hitler) something has got to give. And General Winter always fights on the side of the Russians.
And in the last few pages spring comes to Stalingrad and the flowers push up through the rocks and the stones, and you know, Life Goes On. That's not ironic and it's not meant to be.
An amazing book that I had never heard of before someone suggested it for my Book Group. Writing so clear and beautiful that it breaks your heart. Characters human and real - even the bad guys.
Very highly recommended.
Grossman seems indirectly to be making the point that while a German victory at Stalingrad would have been an unthinkable catastrophe, as ultimate Soviet victory became more certain the previous doubt of the outcome and the need to generate popular support for the war effort had moderated the excesses of the Stalin regime.
That aside this is a powerful novel that really drags you into Russian mindset, the hopes, the fears, the contradictions of life in Stalin's Russia in 1942-3. This contrasts with the German characters, who seem wooden and one-dimensional in contrast. Although I think Grossman was trying to bring out the similarities, it fails due to the lack of depth in Germans he portrays.
The ending leaves many things unresolved for the characters, e.g. what happens to Krymov, which is frustrating and leaves you wondering if Grossman intended a sequel. Overall though, nothing can detract from the majesty of the book, for which there are some truly moving passages, e.g. Viktor's mother's last letter from the ghetto or the death of Sophia in the gas chamber. I don't think I'll forget either passage.
Life and Fate is engaging and thoroughly thought-provoking. The subtle intricacies and comparisons between variations on Socialism, Communism and Fascism were enlightening and could only have been properly treated by someone like Grossman, who was there and really one of them (Soviet Jew). This is not your standard WWII book that we often read in the West. This is the story of the Eastern Front, which is often overlooked in Western Literature. As a child of the Cold War, I now have a much better understanding of how that era came into existence and some insight into the Soviet mindset. It is a worthy read, if you are willing to put in the time and effort to absorb all it has to offer. I imagine I'll be digesting and mulling it over for some time to come. 5 stars
Being a true war correspondent, Grossman describes war scenes with sober objectivity, like from an aside sometimes, some lines read like newspaper print at times. But when it comes to his characters, he changes and is more involved, much more "there" with them.
As I was reading the book, one of the first thoughts was - too many characters! Hard to keep up with all of them! I still think that - even though I read the book in Russian. But it becomes understandable along the way - Grossman wanted to cram all he knows, all his own experiences, the momentous importance of Stalingrad in deciding the war, the Holocaust, and so much more in this giant of a book. Shtrum's story (autobiographical) can be a book in itself - the torture of his life under Soviet regime is palpable, as probably was Grossman's own life at times.
I am still dazed after the experience of reading this novel. Especially when I think that Vasily Grossman was writing it while I was still a carefree youngster growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, with no idea that such an important (in its substance) work of literature was being created. But if you want a really fine review of it (an amazingly comprehensive one!) read the review by "gbill" right here on Librarything.
I generally find descriptions of actual battle scenes fairly tedious to read, but they are there as they should be and due attention is paid to the significance of Stalingrad as the turning point in leading to the defeat of Nazism.
From the Soviet regime's point of view it is hardly surprising Suslov told Grossman it could not be published for 200 years as it goes well beyond criticism of Stalin and destroys the whole raison d'etre of the Soviet regime. In this respect it goes beyond the much better known Doktor Zhivago, an excellent novel but probably more famous in the West very largely because of the superb David Lean film. For me, Life and Fate tops Pasternak's novel as the best Russian novel of the Soviet era.
Is it like War and Peace? Yes. Is it a rehash of War and Peace? No. Life and Fate has a closer relationship to 19th century Russian novels sharing the selfsame job of delicately handling Stalin and the regime by other authors of that day, and touching on topics of denunciations, allocated living spaces, arrests, Lubyanka, work camps, the Jewish issue, and more. Many Russian novels have many characters with interlocking plots moving back and forth, and to bucket it with Tolstoy doesn't take into account the broader spectrum of a rich mix of authors and eras that make it more nuanced to compare books written more than 50 years apart.
Grossman is mostly compared to Tolstoy and Chekhov. I would say that is fair. There is a bit of short episodes for some of the characters and there is the huge overview of an entire country. Though the book was long, I never became bogged down or lost interest. I found myself ready to read a few pages most days. It deserves the kudos and appreciation it has received from many quarters. It's powerful, haunting, and illuminative.