Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Everything I said here about the greatness of the first half of Life and Fate holds true for the second. What strikes me most is how consistently he captures the contradictions of humanity, in situations both mundane and extreme. Some people are pitiless one moment and turn around and show great compassion the next; they feel exalted by events and then laid low by a chance phrase or an averted glance. This is not to say that his characters are random or that they behave with no apparent motivation; quite the contrary, Grossman shows their interior lives clearly enough that a reader can follow them to the highs and the lows, the betrayals that seem like the highest duty and the acts of mercy that they perform without a second thought, returning life when a much crueller fate might seem deserved.

Grossman’s canvas is as vast as the Soviet Union in the Second World War but most of his scenes are as intimate as a couple walking in the park, or a group of soldiers huddling in a cellar. Few chapters are more than four or five pages long, but together they add up to an epic of life and death during the war that’s as great as any on the subject. Part of Grossman’s brilliance is that he is content not to have all of the parts of his narrative connect, or connect only in the loosest fashion. He shows Soviet prisoners of war without needing to have them affected by their side’s advance, let alone having them rescued by other major characters, as a lesser writer might have done. He presents scenes within the headquarters of German General Paulus, humanizing the adversaries without lightening in the least what his army was fighting for. His sequence in a concentration camp and on the way to a gas chamber is connected only tenuously to the main characters — one of the people, Sofya Osipovna Levinton, is a friend of two women in the family at the center of the novel — but it is utterly heartbreaking without being pathetic or overwritten. Human to the very last, and the guards, the technicians, the attendants, the survivors taken out of the death line, all also recognizably human. The horror is compounded later in the novel when a character asks whether anyone has news of Sofya Osipovna, “she seems to have vanished into thin air.”

Death is not the only fate that awaits Grossman’s characters, but there is a lot of it. This is, after all, Ivan’s war, a war summed up in the book of that name by a veteran who managed to come out of the maelstrom: “They called us. They trained us. They killed us.”

One of the more heroic characters, a tank commander Col. Pyotr Pavlovich Novikov, holds off sending in his forces for four crucial minutes at the start of the Soviet counteroffensive despite pressure from the highest levels. The extra time allows artillery to finish clearing out German anti-tank positions, and his forces advance without taking any casualties. “He was a colonel and a true craftsman; he was in the grip of his passion for war. But Getmanov was pushing him on, he was afraid of his superiors, and his pride and ambition were at stake. … There was one right even more important than the [commander’s] right to send men to their death without thinking: the right to think twice before you send men to their death. Novikov carried out this responsibility to the full.” (p. 644) Discussing such choices, Novikov does not speak in terms of his men, that would be un-Soviet. Instead, he says what magnificent machines the T-34 tanks are and how difficult it would be to bring up more from the rear if the ones at the front were casually wasted.

With the size, subject, and title of his book, Grossman has entered into dialog with Tolstoy. About two-thirds of the way through, he makes some of his views explicit. “Tolstoy claimed that it was impossible fully to encircle an army. This claim was borne out by the experience of his time. The years 1941–1945 proved that it is indeed possible to encircle an entire army… Tolstoy’s claim was indisputably true for his time. But, like most of the thoughts of great men about war and politics, it was by no means an eternal truth.” (p. 656) War and Peace was being supplanted.

Grossman also makes the stakes explicit. “The victory of Stalingrad determined the outcome of the war, but the silent quarrel between the victorious people and the victorious State was not yet over. On the outcome of this quarrel depended the destiny, the freedom, of Man.” (p. 657) That quarrel was by no means over when he finished the book in 1960. It is possible to argue that it finished in 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but that, too, may not be the end of the story.

Nor is Grossman under the illusion that his views and conclusions are the last word. Nadya, the daughter of two major characters, has grown into a young woman during the war years and has begun to see a lieutenant, first secretly and then more openly, if still not with her parents’ complete consent. The young people who have grown up in war’s shadow will be very different.

Once Nadya said to Yevgenia:
“Why is it that the older generation always has to believe in something? Krymov believes in Lenin and Communism, Papa believes in freedom, Grandmother believes in the people and the workers … But to us, to the younger generation, all that just seems stupid. It’s stupid to believe in things. One should live without beliefs.”
“The lieutenant’s philosophy?” Yevgenia interrupted.
She was taken aback by Nadya’s answer:
“In three weeks he’ll be at the front. There’s philosophy for you: alive today, dead tomorrow.”
Talking to Nadya, Yevgenia often remembered Stalingrad. … What a difference between her view of the war then and her view of it now, in these days of victory. Nevertheless, the war went on, and what Nadya had said was still true: “Alive today, dead tomorrow.” What did the war care whether a lieutenant played the guitar and sang, whether he believed in the bright future of Communism and volunteered for work on the great construction sites, or whether he read the poetry of Annensky and had no faith whatsoever in the imaginary happiness of future generations?
(pp. 750–51)

Though the book’s narrative stops in early 1943, its action is already pointing toward lives and fates in the post-war period. Nadya’s generation is the most prominent aspect, as is a baby being raised by Nadya’s Grandmother and one of her other grandchildren in the ruins of Stalingrad, where the war has moved on and people are trying to re-establish life. Viktor Shtrum, the closest the book has to a protagonist, is working on nuclear fission, specifically on implications of splitting uranium isotopes. During the war, the crucial action concentrated on one city, one neighborhood near the Tractor Factory, perhaps entirely on fighting at House 6/1. Afterward, it expands again, first onto the steppes of the counterattack, and further into Moscow and the wider world. Life and Fate encompasses all of it.

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    • Al Singh on June 10, 2018 at 2:12 pm
    • Reply

    Doug, you really need to do this professionally. Your reviews are as potent and eloquent as anything I have ever read in a magazine.

  1. Thank you, Al!

    I am still not as good as Ursula K. Le Guin; there is room for improvement. (But I do think I am as good as people who are being nominated for fanzine Hugos, so I’m not claiming much modesty.)

    I also value the freedom to read whatever I want and write whatever I want, on whatever schedule and at whatever length, and Frumious allows me to indulge all of those. Reviewing professionally would involve aggravating things like assignments and deadlines. Plus, I would move it over to the income side of the ledger, where it would have to compete with corporate work in calculations of how I spend my time. I enjoy reviewing very much as a labor of love, a contribution to a larger conversation. I would probably not say no if a paying venue asked me to write the occasional review, but I am not at all sure I would like to make a habit of it.

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