I spent the first part of June reading Vasily Grossman’s extraordinary WWII epic Life and Fate and ever since I’ve been in a reading slump. It’s hard to match Grossman’s accomplishment, especially his way of combining big picture and small details.
Before this I’d only read Grossman’s essay “The Hell of Treblinka,” which I teach regularly. It’s a fascinating, impassioned, and beautiful text. But Life and Fate is of a different order of magnitude. By any measure, it must be reckoned one of the great books of the twentieth century.
That we even have this book at all is amazing. As translator Robert Chandler writes in his informative introduction, Grossman spent much of the late 1950s writing Life and Fate, eventually submitting it for publication in October 1960. Friends had warned him not to, fearing its critique of the Soviet system was too challenging to authorities. But Grossman thought it would find favour in the changed political climate after Stalin’s death. He was wrong. The KGB came to Grossman’s apartment to confiscate the manuscript and anything related to it, including typewriter ribbons. Fortunately, Grossman had already given copies to various friends, including one who had no connections to the Soviet literary scene. Eventually, in the early 1970s, one of these copies was smuggled to the West, where it was eventually published, in France, about a decade later. It took even longer for it to appear in Russian. Sadly, Grossman didn’t live to see any of these editions. He died of stomach cancer in 1964.
So the story of the book’s creation is almost as epic as the story it tells. Set during the pivotal months of late 1942 and early 1943, Life and Fate is centered on the Battle of Stalingrad. The Soviet point of view predominates, but we sometimes see events from the German viewpoint. Indeed, the worst aspects of both regimes—their totalitarian tendencies instantiated in their respective systems of labour and concentration camps—are depicted in detail.
Although the book has dozens of marvelous and vivid scenes—scenes set in a power station at Stalingrad; in an otherwise abandoned factory building in Stalingrad where a group of Russian soldiers hold out against the German onslaught in the deep cellars; in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow; in Kazan, Tartarstan, where whole laboratories of scientists are evacuated as the Germans close in on the capital; and even on the Kalymlk steppe—its real accomplishment lies in putting the scenes together, in giving us the big picture. In doing so, it makes its main ideological point (surely the most contentious things about the book at the time it was written): that Nazism and Stalinism were, if not identical, then not so different.
I’ve been struggling with how to write about Life and Fate. It’s so big that a lot of it escaped me on a first reading. And I’m not sure how to organize the things that did strike me. My plan is to write a series of haphazard posts touching on the aspects that most impressed me. Today, a few words about structure and warmth.
Life and Fate models itself on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Not having read the Tolstoy, I can’t say anything useful about the comparison, though I bet knowing the earlier book would have made reading the Grossman an even richer experience. If you’ve read them both, feel free to elaborate.
Life and Fate puts a single family, the Shaposhnikovs, at its center, but it’s anything but a domestic story. Rather, it’s a story that expands the idea of domesticity or familial life, showing these things to be inseparable from their opposites, history and politics. Sometimes we are zooming in and sometimes we are zooming out. Yet this cinematic metaphor doesn’t seem quite right. I’m not sure what a better one would be. Of a carpet, where the disparate strands weave together to form a whole? Or maybe physics gives us a clue. Viktor Shtrum, who might be said to be the main character and who is apparently modeled on Grossman himself, is a particle physicist. Early in the novel he considers how physics has changed in the new century. He imagines 19th century physicists as “men in suits… crowded around a billiard table.” Whereas the older physics “measured speeds and accelerations and determined the masses of the resilient spheres which filled a universe of green cloth,” modern quantum physics thinks about probability, “the laws of a special statistics that rejected the concept of an individual entity and acknowledged only aggregates.”
Could this comparison help us read the novel? As we’ll see there are plenty of individuals in Life and Fate. And I don’t think they are meaningless in themselves. That is, I don’t think Grossman only cares about “aggregates.” (Indeed, aggregates might be what socialist realism cares about, with its interest in types and classes.) But at the same time, Grossman also doesn’t believe that individuals are simply in control of their own destiny. Rather, they’re buffeted by forces much larger and more powerful than themselves. Shtrum notes that physics considers the very smallest units of meaning (subatomic particles, for example) as a way to explain the very largest (the structure of the universe). Just as physicists explain the very big by the very small, and vice versa, so too Grossman oscillates among these differing registers.
Take, for example, a scene in which a commander of a tank unit looks over his men who are preparing to depart for the front. They’re all the same—the system they live in has made them that way, and the war they’re being sent to fight is about to reduce them even further. And yet they’re all different, even if the differences are quotidian, even banal. But the commander can’t see this difference. Only readers can, thanks to the text’s shifts in narrative point of view:
My God… What a lot of them there were, all wearing black overalls with wide belts. They had been chosen for their broad shoulders and short stature—so they could climb through the hatches and move about inside the tanks. How similar the answers on their forms had been—to questions about their fathers and mothers, their date of birth, the number of years they had completed at school, their experience as tractor drivers. The shiny green T-34s, hatches open, tarpulins strapped to their armour-plating, seemed to blend into one.
One soldier was singing; another, his eyes half-closed, was full of dire forebodings; a third was thinking about home; a fourth was chewing some bread and sausage and thinking about the sausage; a fifth, his mouth wide open, was trying to identify a bird on a tree; a sixth was worrying about whether he’d offended his mate by searing at him the previous night; a seventh, still furious, was dreaming of giving his enemy—the commander of the tank in front—a good punch on the jaw; an eighth was composing a farewell poem to the autumn forest; a ninth was thinking about a girl’s breasts; a tenth was thinking about his dog—sensing that she was about to be abandoned among the bunkers, she had jumped up onto the armour-plating, pathetically wagging her tail in an attempt to win him over; an eleventh was thinking how good it would be to live alone in a hut in the forest, drinking spring-water, eating berries and going about barefoot; a twelfth was wondering whether to feign sickness and have a rest in the hospital; a thirteenth was remembering a fairy-tale he had heard as a child; a fourteenth was remembering the last time he had talked to his girl—he felt glad they had now separated for ever; a fifteenth was thinking about the future—after the war he would like to run a canteen.
Notice how complicated these different registers are here. We move from exterior to interior, from undifferentiated mass, where the men are nothing more than updated canon-fodder, to individuated specificity, and yet although we know something important, if not necessarily surprising or striking about each of these men, we don’t really know them as individuals. They never re-appear in the novel as such, are never further developed. The individual revolves into something like its opposite—or maybe it would be better to say that we have a paradoxical epic of individuality here.
Considering that we met fifteen characters in a single passage, you can only imagine how many there are in the novel as a whole. The Shaposhnikovs have some connection, however tangential, to most of the subplots. But even though we keep coming back to a single family, Grossman also wants to give an overview of Soviet society. Which means lots of characters. Eight pages worth, in the list at the back. (The tank soldiers don’t make the list.) It’s not always easy to keep everyone straight. But even though I had to keep flipping to the list to keep track of who was who, not always successfully, it didn’t matter.
I soon learned it was okay to be disoriented; it didn’t matter if I’d forgotten who someone was or how they were related to everyone else. I just had to immerse myself in the book and let myself plunge into its stream.
What Life and Fate has in spades is flow, momentum, energy. It has life. I found it a real page-turner, even though it’s not really suspenseful: we know how the battle will turn out, we know the tide is turning against the Nazis, we know the Red Army will win a great yet terribly costly victory that it would use as justification for the superiority of its system. Yet something about seeing these events play out is riveting.
Grossman’s style contributes to that sense of pace and movement. Edwin Frank, the editor of the New York Review of Books Classics series, which has published Life and Fate in the US, has said, “Vasily Grossman is not a writer of particularly brilliant sentences. They are pretty flat and functional sentences.” (He adds: “He’s a writer, though, with an incredible empathy for human beings and an incredible troubled sense of history.”) On the whole I think this is true, though it’s worth looking at some of these sentences in more detail. (Subject for another post.) For now, suffice it to say that the straightforwardness of the syntax keeps us moving along.
But we aren’t simply shunted along, like the railway cars approaching a German concentration camp with which the novel begins. We aren’t forced marched to our destination, as if in the corridor of some vast prison. If we were we would be succumbing to fate rather than holding fast to life. As one character, a former apparatchik who finds his life turned upside down when he is denounced as a traitor to the cause, notes on being interned in the very prison to which he once blithely condemned people: “Life itself was so confusing—with all its winding paths, its bogs, streams and ravines, its dust-covered steppes, its unharvested corn… You squeezed your way through or made long detours—but fate ran straight as an arrow. Just corridors and corridors and doors in corridors.”
In squeezing our way or making long detours through the winding paths of this novel we find ourselves drawn to the characters we encounter.Grossman’s style might be plain, even simple, but its emotional power is tremendous. It’s a tremendously warm book.
A few hundred pages into the novel, I started to notice how often Grossman uses the term “warmth.” Sometimes this is literal—it’s winter, the notorious winter of 1942-43 in which so many of the soldiers at Stalingrad froze to death—but more often it’s metaphorical. Warmth is connected to life, to being human, to everything that’s important in this book. Ordinary people, says an Old Tolstoyan, imprisoned by the Germans, “prefer the warmth of the hearth to a bonfire in the public square.”
Here are two scenes where the emotional warmth I’m talking about is important. These are anything but important scenes, almost throwaways. (On the other hand, Grossman is a genius with throwaway scenes; they end up making the novel what it is. I’ll try to mention a few such moments in another post.)
In the first scene, a man finds his lover after they’ve been separated:
He rang; the door opened and he felt the closeness inside. Then, in a corridor littered with trunks and broken baskets, he caught sight of Yvgenia Nikolaevna. He saw her, but he didn’t see her black dress or the white scarf round her head, he didn’t even see her eyes and face, her hands and her shoulders. It was as though he saw her not with his eyes but with his heart. … He walked towards her, his eyes closed. He felt happy; at the same time he felt ready to die then and there. He sensed the warmth of her body.
Warmth eventually becomes literal in this passage, but I think it’s more importantly figurative, a quality that the prose itself generates. Grossman is a genius of emotion. I love how the man enacts what his (or the narrator’s) reflections have already suggested: he closes his eyes, after realizing that he has already had them closed in some important way (when he has seen Yvgenia with his heart). I also love the detail of the trunks and broken baskets—amidst signs of impermanence, one glance at (which is to say, one intuition of) his lover is all it takes to assure him of the permanence and certainty of his feelings.
In the second scene, the Shaposhnikovs, prompted by news of the fate of a family member who’s been held in a labour camp, turn on each in a series of increasingly painful recriminations that mix politics with personal foibles. As the narrator puts it: “Everything that lies half-buried in almost every family, stirring up now and then only to be smoothed over by love and trust, had now come to the surface.”
Suddenly, Alexandra Vladimirovna, the family matriarch, collapses with her head in hands. The whole feeling in the room changes:
Viktor looked at his wife’s somber face. He went over to Alexandra Vladimirovna, took her hands and kissed them. Then he bent down to stroke [his daughter’s] head.
To an outsider it would seem as though nothing had changed in those few moments; the same people were in the same room, oppressed by the same grief and led by the same destiny. Only they knew what an extraordinary warmth had suddenly filled their embittered hearts….
Over and over in this extraordinary novel, Grossman makes us feel this extraordinary warmth.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about lists. Or maybe about minor characters. Two more ways that Grossman’s warmth comes through.