“Gone Crazy”: Life and Fate’s Characters


Thesis: in Life and Fate there are only minor characters.

Yes, the family Shaposhnikova is at the center of the book. Yes, Viktor is modeled on Grossman and his fall from and return to political favour is compellingly detailed. Yet even the characters we might be tempted to call central feel secondary. Not because they’re imperfectly or casually developed. We know them well, get inside their heads, feel for them. Nor is it because the “hero” of the book is really some abstraction like the Soviet Union, or the Russian soul, or even the war effort.

Grossman learned from Chekhov how to draw us towards characters while also distancing us from them. (I’m thinking here of someone like Gurov in “The Lady with the Little Dog.”) Honestly, I’m talking through my hat here because I don’t know enough about Chekhov, but I do know Life and Fate reminded me of him. And that was even before one of the characters declaimed at length about Chekhov’s genius. (“Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness—with people of every estate, every class, every age…. He said—and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy—that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings!”)

This passage, in which some air force pilots who have been ordered to leave the village where they’ve been billeted decide to spend one last night on the town, as it were, reminded me of “The Kiss”:

Everything—the river, the fields, the forest—was so beautiful, so peaceful, that hatred, betrayal and old age seemed impossible; nothing could exist but love and happiness. The moon shone down though the grey mist that enveloped the earth. Few pilots spent the night in their bunkers. On the edge of the village you could glimpse white scarves and hear quiet laughter. Now and then a tree would shake, frightened by a bad dream; the water would mumble something and return to silence.

The uncertainty of who speaks the opening sentence, which gives way to the speculation that the narrator is ventriloquizing the collective sentiments of the pilots and thereby gently satirizing them (gently, gently, though: after all, so much suffering awaits them at the front: for most of them, old age really is impossible); the juxtaposition of the slumbering landscape and the sexual possibility of the evening’s entertainment, so reminiscent of the regiment’s nighttime walk from the country home past the brothel in “The Kiss”; that amazing and amazingly strange image of the tree “frightened by a bad dream”: all of this is pure Chekhov!

But I didn’t want to talk about Chekhov. I wanted to talk about minor characters. I said yesterday that Life and Fate contains dozens, even hundreds of characters. Some appear only once without serving any important narrative function. Yet Grossman makes them all vivid.

For example: In a scene just a few pages before the one I cited above, Lieutenant Viktorov is gathering his belongings in preparation for being deployed for active duty. The scene is ostensibly about the Lieutenant—whose lover is the daughter of one of the Shaposhnikova sisters—but he finds himself remembering the old woman he had been billeted with until just a few days ago, “a dreadful landlady, a woman with a high forehead and protuberant yellow eyes,” who filled her home with smoke in an attempt to get rid of her tenant:

He walked past the hut Yevdokiya Mikheevna had smoked him out of; he could see her expressionless face behind the dirty window-panes. No one ever talked to her when she stopped for a rest as she carried her two wooden buckets back from the well. She had no cows and no sheep; she didn’t even have any house-martins in the eaves. Golub [the Lieutenant’s friend] had asked questions about her, hoping to bring to light her kulak background [which would allow him to denounce her], but she turned out to be from a very poor family. The women in the village said she had gone crazy after her husband’s death: she had walked into a lake in cold autumn weather and sat there for days. But she had been taciturn even before that, even before her marriage.

That’s the first and last we ever hear of Yevdokiya Mikheevna. But don’t you want more? What could be more Russian than sitting in a freezing lake for days crazed with grief? What’s typical here is the way a character who had seemed entirely one-dimensional—she is mean, stubborn, possibly disloyal to or uninterested in the war effort—suddenly gains unexpected depth. I’m not even sure why Grossman thought to include her. We don’t need to see the Lieutenant chased out of a billet by a disagreeable landlady. (And in fact we don’t; we only hear about it in retrospect.) The only function this anecdote seems to serve is to reinforce what a good guy Viktorov is—he doesn’t report her to the authorities even though his friend Golub wants him to.

So what is she doing here? Is she supposed to remind us of the suffering of the Russian people? Or is the brief, intense glimpse of her life story intended to allow us to recognize the transience of any given moment? Especially in wartime, people brush past each other, coming into contact in ways they otherwise wouldn’t, though that contact doesn’t necessarily lead to anything.

Thinking about it some more, I suspect what Grossman really wants from this scene is to remind us that Yevdokiya Mikheevna is a human being, with a past, with value, with her own reasons for her actions even though his novel can’t pause to make more of them.


It seems important that for Grossman humanity is best expressed through fiction. To understand the thing that (for him, at any rate) is most real we need recourse to a thing that is fake. But what happens when that fiction is based on real life? And especially when it includes real historical figures? Life and Fate famously includes a number of such characters, including German and Soviet military leaders, like General Paulus of the 6th Army, who we may or may not know, as well as the Heads of State that we surely will. Yes, Stalin and Hitler get their own brief sections, scenes in which they aren’t just mentioned or pass by in the background, but which are narrated from their perspective.

In thinking about these scenes I was reminded of the bit in S/Z where Roland Barthes, citing Proust on Balzac’s weighting of fictional and historical characters (in the Comédie humaine Napoleon is much less important than Rastingnac, say), notes that realist fiction must introduce historical characters only in passing:

It is precisely this minor importance which gives the historical character its exact weight of reality: this minor is the measure of authenticity… for if the historical character were to assume its real importance [if the novel was about Napoleon, or in our case, Stalin or Hitler, that is, made them central to the text, tried to get inside their heads, etc] the discourse would be forced to yield it a role which would, paradoxically, make it less real (thus the characters in Balzac’s Catherine de Médicis, Alexandre Dumas’s novels, or Sacha Guitry’s plays: absurdly improbable): they would give themselves away.

I think this is a pretty sound critique of historical fiction, and one reason why something like Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Cromwell novels work precisely because they are about Cromwell (little known) rather than about Henry—imagine them from the King’s perspective: impossible.

At any rate, some critics, I gather, have indeed found the Hitler & Stalin sections of the novel (they’re very brief, only a few pages each) absurdly improbable. I think it’s telling, and a further sign that Barthes is on to something, that Grossman does better with Hitler than with Stalin, because he’s much more familiar with the latter. It’s easier for Grossman to imagine Hitler as fully fictional, Hitler has much less reality for him; for this reason, his depiction of Hitler taking a solitary walk in the forest of Görlitz, near the border with Lithuania, and falling prey to a sudden terror (“Without his body guards and aides, he felt like a little boy in a fairy tale lost in a dark, enchanted forest”) is quite convincing. The final thought he gives Hitler, however—“For the first time, he felt a sense of horror, human horror, at the thought of the crematoria in the camps”—is not. Not because Hitler wasn’t human, but because this sentiment isn’t prepared for by anything that comes before.

The Stalin section is similarly kitschy: the Great Leader imagines “all those he thought he had brought low, chastised and destroyed… climbing out of the tundra, breaking through the layer of permafrost that had closed over them, forcing their way through the entanglements of barbed wire.” But this rather Grand Guignol vision of Stalin’s victim’s coming back to assault him isn’t the real problem with this section. Instead, the Stalin section fails because Grossman turns it into a meditation on all the future glories (“jetplanes, intercontinental missiles, space rockets”) and horrors (the oppression of Eastern Europe, the show trials of various writers and artists) that were to come after the war.

Unlike the other characters—unlike Viktor Shtrum, unlike Lieutenant Viktorov, unlike Yevdokiya Mikheevna—neither Hitler nor, especially, Stalin are minor enough.

Next time: Grossman’s lists.


Short Fiction 2015 Week 2: Balzac, Chekhov, Kipling

I’m still uncertain what kind of a group I’m dealing with. A smaller one than last week, at any rate. Two students dropped—one had been a strong contributor to discussion and we’ll miss her—and now we’re reaching the point where the class won’t work if everyone doesn’t pitch in. It doesn’t help that there are almost no humanities students in the class. That can bring its own rewards, but it doesn’t help my department’s goal of using classes like this one as a way to generate majors. And although the students have been willing to work with me so far, I sense that they simply aren’t sold yet on the value of close textual analysis. I worry that if even a few of them decide to check out, our conversations will become strained and artificial.

What a shame that would be: the material is so interesting! I would say that of course, but I really don’t see how anyone could fail to be intrigued by the stories we studied this week: Balzac’s “Sarrasine” (1830), “Kipling’s “Mrs. Bathurst” (1904), and Chekhov’s “The Kiss” (1887). They happen to be the three oldest stories on the syllabus, as well as some of the longest. No doubt those things contributed to some of the students’ difficulties. But in general we persevered.

I wanted us to consider in particular these questions: What sorts of things should happen in a story, and how should they be told? To this end I introduced the distinction made by the Russian Formalists in the first decades of the twentieth century between fabula and syuzhet, or story and plot. Although readers sometimes use these terms as synonyms, narratologists make a useful distinction between them. Story is the chronological order of events; plot is the arrangement of those events into the order we experience them in our reading of the text.

In preparing for class I came across this example, which I put on the board. (I love the room we’re in because it still has a chalkboard.) What, I asked, is the difference between these narratives?

Tim got up in the morning. There wasn’t any cereal left, so he went out to get some. On his way to the store, he was hit by a car and died.

Tim couldn’t believe he was dying because of cereal. He should never have left the house.

Students were readily able to note to difference between a chronological ordering of material and an achronological one that begins with the end and will presumably flash back to earlier events in order to explain the cryptic sentence “Tim couldn’t believe he was dying because of cereal.” It took a little prodding, however, for them to say that the second of these admittedly not especially elegant examples is more interesting than the first—specifically, it is more suspenseful. I observed that some genres, crime fiction in particular, manipulate story more than others, largely in the service of suspense.

My main points were these: all narratives have plots, however minimal, and so all narratives manipulate the presentation of events. Story is what readers are continually creating, often unconsciously, from their experience of plot. Story is therefore a necessary fiction, an effect of plot. It’s not something that pre-exists plot.

I hope they got this counter-intuitive idea, but I don’t know (yet). I noticed that the students were happiest—and liveliest—when they were learning this vocabulary and applying it to the course texts. They liked it, in other words, when I was lecturing. But I’m not a particularly good lecturer, and I don’t do much of it in this course or any other. What I really do—what I really want them to learn—is how to pay close attention to literary texts; how to develop interpretations of the whole based on scrupulous attention to its parts.


I can’t talk about these stories without spoiling some of their surprises, so consider yourself warned. Each is wonderful, but this time around the one that really struck me was “Sarrasine.” I’ve only ever taught it in the context of Roland Barthes’s powerful reading of it in his brilliant book about realist fiction, S/Z. My take on the story is heavily indebted to Barthes, but I found it freeing to teach the story on its own terms. I think using Jordan Stump’s translation from this lovely new edition of Balzac stories helped too. It feels fresher and lighter than the one by Richard Howard I’m familiar with.

I had the students bring a one-page summary of the story to class, partly as a diagnostic exercise (so I could see what their writing was like) and partly to get them to practice accurate and concise description. I wanted to know what they chose to emphasize. (Interestingly, they almost all ignored the ending.) Here’s my crack at it:

“Sarrasine” begins at an opulent ball at the home of the mysterious de Lanty family. The narrator has brought a (married) woman to the party, Madame de Rochfide, whom he hopes to seduce. Like the rest of Parisian society, the young woman is both attracted and repelled by an old man who regularly appears at the de Lantys’ parties. Who is he and why is the family so solicitous but also so frightened of him? The narrator knows and agrees to explain all to his lover when they meet in her boudoir the following evening. There he launches into the story of one Earnest-Jean Sarrasine, a sculptor who rose from obscurity in provincial France to fame in Paris, leading him to win a prize to study in Rome. Sarrasine’s genius combines a fiery, unruly nature with a profound lack of worldliness. That naivety is apparent when, arriving in the Eternal City, he attends the opera and falls immediately in love with a singer known only as La Zambinella. La Zambinella rebuffs the sculptor’s professions of love, saying that if Sarrasine really knew her he would be horrified—a diagnosis that proves to be true when she turns out not to be a woman. Her unearthly voice is the result of castration. An enraged Sarrrasine is on the point of killing the poor creature, to use a word the text repeats several times, when he is himself murdered by ruffians hired by the singer’s protector, one of Rome’s most powerful Cardinals. The old man—the uncle of Madame de Lanty—is none other than La Zambinella; his musical career generated the fortune that has fueled the family’s rise to respectability. But when the mystery is revealed it casts a shadow, a kind of taint on its eager audience. Madame de Rochfide is so repelled by the story that she breaks off her relation with the narrator (and in classic Balzac fashion, threatens to retire from this monstrous world to a convent).

“Sarrasine” is a great story. And it’s great for teaching narrative structure, both because it’s filled with so many mysteries and because it’s so brilliantly manipulative in making us care about them. In other words, it’s very suspenseful, and we feel the suspense all the more powerfully because characters in the story do too, and they’re always cuing us to experience events in a certain way.

I began our discussion of the story by asking the class to identify the story’s key mysteries. They quickly said: Where does the de Lantys’ money come from? Who is the old man? Who is the subject of the portrait of Adonis that hangs in the de Lanty mansion? Who is La Zambinella? Will the narrator get together with Madame de Rochfide?

These all turn out to be versions of the same question. Even the last one hinges on the revelation of the others. I pointed out some of the ways the story answers these questions early on without really answering them. These pieces of incomplete information fit with the story’s depiction of concealment and revelation. Plots work by oscillating between revealing and concealing; Balzac is a master of literalizing these narrative metaphors. The story is full of secret passages, cloistered window-ledges, disguises, etc.

Here’s an example of the kind of half-answer I’m talking about. Already on the fourth page the narrator reveals “The beauty, the fortune, the wit, the grace and intelligence of these two children [the de Lantys’ son and daughter] came to them solely from their mother” (my emphasis). As Barthes points out, the sentence’s parataxis—the presentation of information serially, without any kind of subordination or hierarchy—sweeps us along, so that it’s almost impossible to notice that we’ve already been given the answer to one of the story’s burning questions. But the answer is only a partial answer, an answer we can’t yet fully understand. The de Lanty fortune comes from the maternal side. But we don’t yet know what that means.

The story’s clever plotting, especially the extended flashback to the time when the enigmatic old man was the diva La Zambinella, contributes to its sense of mystery. Where things get really interesting is when that mystery is resolved. At the end of the story, all our questions are answered, but the resolution isn’t satisfying, at least not to the character that has been our stand-in, Madame de Rochfide. (She is the one, like us, who hungers to know the truth behind the mysterious appearances.) Barthes famously described the story’s final scene as a metaphorical instance of castration, an echo of the literal castration that befalls the singer. Here, for example, is the narrator explaining the connection between the old man, La Zambinella, and the de Lanty fortune:

“Perhaps now you can understand Madame de Lanty’s interest in concealing the source of a fortune that comes from—”

“Enough!” she interrupted, with a commanding gesture.

We sat for a moment in the deepest silence.

The event at the heart of the story—Zambinella’s castration, that is, his becoming Zambinella—is so terrifying, even, it would seem, disgusting, that it cannot be spoken, and even the incomplete revelation of its truth is enough to kill desire in anyone who hears of it. (I mean both narrative desire and sexual desire.) The exchange the narrator and his lover have agreed upon—a story for sex—isn’t consummated. In this sense “Sarrasine” offers an allegory of the impossibility of any story to conclude satisfactorily—no solution is ever as satisfying as its enigma.

In other words, one of the things Balzac’s story is about is that what is hidden can never be fully revealed. To satisfy narrative desire is always to incite a kind of death. And that’s especially true in a story like this one, where a key connection between the story of the sculptor and the castrato and the story of the narrator and his lover is the former’s desire to shape the other to their own ends. What Madame de Rochfide says bitterly to the narrator—“Oh! You’re remaking me to suit your own tastes. A strange sort of tyranny that is! You want me to be something other than me”—could just as easily be said by La Zambinella to Sarrasine.


The same sort of solipsistic control is evident in more melancholic form in Chekhov’s “The Kiss.” A general who like fat women assumes his men must as well. A habitual cynic assumes his colleague must be lying. And an introvert assumes that others must share his disparagement of himself. In contrast to Balzac, and also to Kipling, with their dramatic, even melodramatic events, Chekhov operates in a more muted register. I don’t know if he invented the modern conception that short fiction centers on small epiphanies, but he’s certainly an important figure in the development and eventual triumph of that mode.

I began our discussion of the story by asking students to name the central event of the story. They immediately referred to the scene in which the protagonist Ryabovich, lost at a house party, wanders into a darkened room where he is embraced by a woman who has mistaken him for her lover. But a student immediately added that the real event seems to be the man’s reaction to the embrace. Thus the titular kiss becomes an allegory for our tendency to imagine that a story pre-exists its telling—its plot—when in reality it is only ever constructed from our ways of telling it. Here’s the passage we spent a lot of time on:

Ryabovich stopped, uncertain what to do… Just then he was astonished to hear hurried footsteps, the rustle of a dress and a female voice whispering breathlessly, ‘At last!’ Two soft, sweet-smelling arms (undoubtedly a woman’s) encircled his neck, a burning cheek pressed against his and at the same time there was the sound of a kiss. But immediately after the kiss the woman gave a faint cry and shrank backwards in disgust—that was how it seemed to Ryabovich.

It took a little prodding but eventually I was able to get students to see that this is really a very strange description. The loss of sight in the darkened room means that other senses are heightened—here we referenced a number of other passages that describe sounds and smells—but how trustworthy are those senses, or how are they being interpreted? Why does the text add that parenthetical “undoubtedly a woman’s”? Hasn’t the reference to a female voice made that clear? (Though “Sarrasine” ought to have made us suspicious about such essentialism.) I can’t trust that “undoubtedly”—I immediately hear the doubt hiding within the word. It’s not that I think the person was actually a man. It’s that the whole scenario seems so insubstantial. As one student pointed out, it’s only Ryabovich who is convinced the woman shrinks in disgust. (And because he decides never to return to the house, we never find out if he’s right.)

Further uncertainty comes from that strange phrasing, “there was the sound of a kiss.” Sound isn’t usually the first way we experience a kiss. Why then does Chekhov describe it this way? Again the effect is to render the whole event uncertain. But that very uncertainty is what enables Ryabovich to speculate extravagantly about it, to construct an ideal woman composed of all the most appealing parts of the different women at the party (he imagines the shoulders of one, the smile of another, etc).

We didn’t have time to consider the different registers of experience in the story—the way the habitual actions of the artillery battalion to which the protagonist belongs are succinctly described but derided by the text as boring, whereas the singular action of the kiss, if we can even talk about it in such terms, is developed at length to the point of distortion. But we did linger over the end of the story, over Ryabovich’s decision not to return with the others to the house where the kiss occurred, a decision that comes after he stands overlooking a river. The current that purls faintly and passes inexorably along leads Ryabovich to feel a sense of futility. Yet the story’s final irony is that in taking, at long last, a decisive action—in not returning to the house where, in a different kind of story, he would have re-encountered the woman from the darkened room—he resolutely chooses irresolution. But doing so allows him to maintain the power of fantasy, thereby asserting the inevitable quality of reconstruction that attends all the important moments of our lives. Yet in a way I still don’t fully understand the recognition of this inevitability is combined with a really ominous sense that things will go badly for poor Ryabovich. When the others go off to the party, he lies on his bed “in defiance of fate—as though he wanted to bring its wrath down on his own head.”


Speaking of ominous fate, what about “Mrs. Bathurst”? This post is already too long, so I won’t say much about it here other than that it is in fact the most enigmatic of these puzzling tales. In fact, it’s really hard to know what happens in it, and we spent much of the class period trying to sort that out. Like “Sarrasine” and “The Kiss,” “Mrs. Bathurst” is also a story about storytelling. Four men gather in a railway car near Cape Town to tell the story of a man who deserted from the Navy. But what exactly happens to him, and what led him to desert? A quick online search suggests that commentators can’t agree on the answers. I think the students found it hard—it worked less well than the last time I taught it—and it’s true that to make any sense of it at the most basic level we have to make much of enigmatic and offhand phrasing, as when the deserter tells the story-teller: “remember that I am not a murderer, because my lawful wife died in childbirth six weeks after I came out [i.e. away from England].” Why “lawful wife”? Isn’t that redundant? Well, maybe not if you have a second wife, an unlawful one. Not, in other words, if you’re a bigamist. Look here for an extraordinarily detailed, if sometimes pedantic to the point of obtuseness, analysis of much of the existing criticism of the story, where this suggestion among others is made. (The whole site has the layout and monomaniacal tone that so characterized the Internet in its early days.) Kipling doesn’t even attempt the resolution of narrative enigmas that proved so problematic in Balzac. He’s probably the least well respected of the three writers today, but in this sense at least he feels the most radical. We’ll return to the topic of uncertain or unknowable events when we read an early story by Nabokov next week.