Thursday, May 16, 2013

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman - Initial Thoughts

For the past several weeks, I've been re-reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate.  The shortest review I could give is that you should read it, it's brilliant and beautiful and brings alive a world that most  people in the West can only imagine.  It is a masterpiece.

But if you want to hear something more, you can find my thoughts below.

I'll start by saying that Life and Fate is sprawling and rambling even by the standards of a Russian novel.  There are two ways in which it sprawls -- its vast array of characters and plot threads, and its many philosophical and lyrical digressions.  Both of these could be seen as flaws, but in fact both are integral to the novel's unique power.

First, Life and Fate has a lot of characters (who each have 3 names), which is kind of a given with a Russian novel, but it has more than most and the point of view is more evenly shared between them than it is in say, War and Peace (which Life and Fate is to some extent modeled on).  Making a wild guess, the closest thing we have to a main protagonist (Viktor Sturm) appears in at most of a third of the chapters.  Also, the threads connecting the characters are more in the past than they are present in the novel itself -- they have a shared history, but they are separated by hundreds if not thousands of miles, and the events of the novel bridge this gap only thematically (part of this may be because the novel is a sequel to For a Just Cause, Grossman's previous, more conventionally pro-Soviet novel).  This means that we do not get to know most of the characters well enough to see them develop -- Viktor Sturm and Commisar Krymov are among a handful that seem to grow as the novel progresses.

But the sheer number of characters and their various backgrounds actually points to one of the novel's greatest strengths.  This is the most historical novel I have ever read.  I do not mean that its history is well-researched.  I mean that the novel is itself a work of history, a depiction of an entire society at a certain time.  In this context it makes sense that most characters do not change that much -- this is more of a portrait than a narrative, and it is a brilliant and life-like portrait at that.  We meet old revolutionaries who are unable to confront the consequences of their ideals, we meet not-quite dissident intellectuals, we meet cold-blooded Stalinist functionaries, we meet generals and the common frontoviki, the whole of Soviet society.  We see how all bear the burden of unfreedom, and how it distorts the lives of all in varied ways.  Tellingly, we meet few true dissidents, even in the Gulags -- the USSR is a nation where vague discontent and doubt has replaced overt critique.  We do meet many true believers, including those who continue to believe even in the Gulag.  We see how for some old revolutionaries the entire USSR is a kind of sunk cost, a misguided project that they have put too much work into to admit that the results of their labors is monstrous.  Chillingly, we meet Stalinist functionaries for whom doubt is as alien as pity.  And we meet your average Soviet, in his various guises -- someone who knows that 'excesses' occurred in 1937 and that collectivization killed all too many, but who cannot let him(her)self admit the full truth.  When people speak out, it is in furtive outbursts, instantly regretted.

Moreover we meet the men and women, Russians, Ukraineans, Kalmyks, Germans and Jews - we see how the Great Patriotic war was not a Russian story, but a story for every people of the Soviet Union, many of which were erased from memory even as the war was raging.  Life and Fate reclaims their story.

We also meet the dead.  We meet Jews on the way to the gas chamber, doomed Red Army soldiers in a particularly famous house in Stalingrad, we meet men murdered in the Gulag and Jews about to be shot by the Einsatzgrupen.  Two of the most striking passages in the novel are from the point of view of Jews who are about to be murdered.  The first is a letter written by Viktor Sturm's mother to her son.  Viktor is based on Grossman, and his mother is based on Grossman's own mother, who was shot outside Berdichev in 1941.  In this letter Grossman is giving his own dead mother her voice back, allowing her to write a letter to himself that she never got to send.  The next is an extended series of chapters from the perspective of different 'passengers' on a cattle car headed for the gas chamber (we will follow them all the way in), talking about their lives before the war, and everything else they are leaving behind forever  Passages like these make the novel seem like a loving, obsessive memorial to those millions whose selves, bodies and names were immolated by Hitler and Stalin.  Grossman gives them back their names and their stories with his book.

The second way in which the novel sprawls is in its innumerable digressions.  Like Tolstoy, Grossman is not content to let his characters and plot do the talking, but interjects essays and encomiums and tirades into the pages of his book.  But these asides wild and passionate, and this is their saving grace.  Where Tolstoy's lectures on the nature of History in War and Peace are often delivered in an infuriatingly professorial, authoritative style, Grossman's asides are conversational, and very personal.  I said above that Grossman's characters often rebel against the constraints of Stalinism with mad, brief outbursts.  Grossman's rants are like an extended outburst, as though he is unburdening himself of everything he could not say or even think for 20 years and more.  His love-songs to freedom and individuality are not just paens to an ideal, they are Grossman's testimony to his own liberation.  They are priceless tributes to freedom indeed.

So this book is a beast, even, at times, an ungainly beast.  But it is well worth your time.  There is nothing else like it.

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