Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman.
It is no surprise that a book with perhaps the most Russian title ever–Life and Fate–weighs in at 871 pages in its English translation. It lives up to its title and any expectations the reader may have of vast, gray novels from vast, gray Russia, and does so beautifully. Despite the harrowing story lines–of course there are multiple story lines, and dozens of characters, each of which has multiple nicknames in the Russian manner–it does not require a commitment to literary duty to read through. Grossman’s nuanced and sensitive writing carries you gracefully. I read the book in a few days, with no strain.
It’s an uneven book, but thoroughly engaging. I assume Grossman consciously echoed War and Peace, as the two tomes exhibit structural and thematic similarities, just as Hitler’s invasion of Russia echoed Napoleon’s. Life and Fate, however, is written in a world in which Hitler and Stalin existed (and in fact they are characters in the story though they don’t show up too often). Tolstoy’s great work focussed on the effects of war on the personal lives of the characters, and is fundamentally a psychological novel; “Life and Fate burrows deep into the feelings of its characters, but is also and inevitably a political novel as well. The The presence of the State lies like an all-encompassing fog over every scene on both sides of the front line. And the novel takes place on the front line, at Stalingrad, during the battle that turned the course of the war and ultimately defeated Hitler.
The main character is a Jewish nuclear physicist; almost every other character is related to him by blood, love, or work, including the figures actually facing Nazi guns at the front. The story does go over the lines now and then to explore the mirroring political psychology of the other side, but even then, the German characters eventually become prisoners of the Russian ones and so are connected by the collegiality of war to Grossman, by however tenuous a web. Grossman explores how bureaucracy, faith in the State, and anti-Semitism unite the souls of the two sides while forcing them into mutual murder. He makes no excuses for Naziism: Stalin, for all his cruelty (expressly mentioned as such) is preferable to Hitler. The subsequent history of Europe has borne this out. Still, it is no wonder that the book was heavily censored in the Soviet Union, and has appeared in full only recently.
Love, duty, loyalty, betrayal, bureaucracy, death, and hunger throughout, there’s no denying it. Sounds dreary, but it’s really worth reading. Grossman is, of course, a Jew, and as a Soviet citizen who lived through Stalin’s purges, and was a correspondent for the Red Army during WWII, when he witnessed the liberation of a Nazi death camp, he knew what it was like to be between the hammer and the anvil. Grossman always brings the focus on grand themes back down to their effect on individual lives, on the people who have to live their dictators’ dreams. And the book is full of love and tenderness as well as duplicity and stress. Far more than Orwell’s 1984, it shows you how it feels to live in a world where your feelings count for nothing.
A powerful, valuable book. Though it is infinitely depressing at times, it also bears some of the most affecting and exhilarating chapters I have ever read. A complex and deeply humanistic work. I recommend it.