viernes, 15 de febrero de 2013

Life and Fate: Part One

Life and Fate [Zhizn' i sud'ba] (NYRB Classics, 2006)
by Vasily Grossman [translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler]
USSR, 1960

I don't see how Vasily Grossman could possibly keep up this sort of a punishing pace over the course of 871 pages, but Part One of his posthumous epic centered on the siege of Stalingrad but thoroughly consumed with what he calls "the tragedy of the twentieth century" (33)--completed in 1960, confiscated in 1961, but never published in his lifetime due to its ideologically incorrect critique of Stalinist excesses--casts him in the role of a heavyweight prize fighter swinging devastating haymakers right from the sound of the opening bell.  Even when his opponent, the reader, knows what's coming next, Grossman keeps relentlessly cutting off the ring and raining down murderous verbal punches one after another.  You have no choice in the matter but to absorb the beating or to stop reading.  Of course, the brutal "beauty" of Grossman's approach lies in its utter conviction and in its appalling honesty; he doesn't seem to be holding back at all, to be saving anything for the last round.  And why should he?  "Before the war this camp had been known as a camp for political criminals," he writes about a German concentration camp.  "National Socialism had created a new type of political criminal: criminals who had not committed a crime" (21).  "On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed--women, children and old men," says one former preacher of the Gospel.  "That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist" (28).  Viktor Shtrum, a Russian physicist who before the war had never thought about the fact that he and his mother were both Jews, is forced to ponder the inherent irony of the situation when a farewell letter from his mother arrives announcing her imminent death after having been trapped behind German lines and placed in a Jewish ghetto cut off from the outside world by barbed wire: "The century of Einstein and Planck was also the century of Hitler.  The Gestapo and the scientific renaissance were children of the same age.  How humane the nineteenth century seemed, that century of naïve physics, when compared with the twentieth century, the century that had killed his mother" (94).  Naum Rozenberg, an accountant on his way to the gas chamber, for his part inspires an anecdote about the cremation methodologies used in his new occupation until there are no bodies left for him to desecrate but his own: "First they laid dry wood over the ventilation-ditches, then a layer of oak logs--they burned well--then women who'd been killed, then more wood, then the bits of human bodies that were left over, then a can of petrol, and then right in the middle, an incendiary bomb.  Then the Scharführer gave the order; the guards were already smiling as the brenners shouted out; 'It's alight!'  Finally, the ash was shoveled back into the grave.  And it was quiet again.  It had been quiet before and it was quiet again" (201-202).  Given the depressing nature of many of these vignettes, some may wonder whether Grossman is worth reading at all.  Others may merely wonder what the novel format can offer in lieu of non-fiction testimony regarding these horrific truths.  To try to answer the first question in the affirmative while trying to buy more time for the second question until I have a chance to get further into the narrative, for now I'll merely note that Grossman's characters are often so "human" that they're easy to relate to even when their circumstances aren't; this scene, set in House 6/1 at Stalingrad where a beleaguered group of Russian soldiers seems to be the only thing keeping the remainder of the Russian forces from being pushed into the Volga by the superior firepower of the Germans, made me laugh unexpectedly: "Far from terrifying the inmates of the building, the German attacks only succeeded in arousing a certain condescending irony: 'Hm, the Fritzes really are having a go at it today!'  'Look what those maniacs are doing now!'  'The fool--where does he think he's dropping his bombs?'"  (258).  Also, there's no shortage of War and Peace-like attempts by Grossman to understand the complicity of those involved as participant witnesses to the wholesale slaughter.  In Chapter 50, for example, he draws a parallel between the slaughter of infected cattle and the extermination of the Jews by the Germans and of the kulaks and the Trotskyists by Stalin.  How was the large-scale social buy-in achieved?  Without pulling any punches yet again, Grossman, a Ukrainian Jew himself, explains it as follows:

Experience showed that such campaigns make the majority of the population obey every order of the authorities as though hypnotized.  There is a particular minority which actively helps to create the atmosphere of these campaigns: ideological fanatics; people who take a bloodthirsty delight in the misfortunes of others; and people who want to settle personal scores, to steal a man's belongings or take over his flat or job.  Most people, however, are horrified at mass murder, but they hide this not only from their families, but even from themselves.  These are the people who filled the meeting-halls during the campaigns of destruction; however vast these halls or frequent these meetings, very few of them ever disturbed the quiet unanimity of the voting.  Still fewer, of course, rather than turning away from the beseeching gaze of a  dog suspected of rabies, dared to take the dog in and allow it to live in their houses.  Nevertheless, this did happen (213-214).

Taken out of context, the final line above seems to provide a hint of relief.  Grossman, however, keeps probing, jabbing at the ethical scab until it bleedsMore on the remainder of the pugilistic Life and Fate over the next couple of weeks.

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) in his war correspondent days

14 comentarios:

  1. Oh, ack, you have made me hate that I haven't read this book! Actually I always wanted to read Vasily Grossman but I keep getting distracted by angel-teenage romances and so on. But in response to Question Two, which, hmmm, you never answered, there is a wonderful short book on this very subject; really more of a long essay, actually. It is called "Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death." Friedlander makes the point that factual accounts neutralize the discussion and absorb the emotional impact, whereas fiction can overcome the limitations of language "by reevoking an atmosphere, an aesthetic, a desire; by playing on all the facets of horror." [He also talks about the traps of fiction, such as going too far and shifting the *attention* to the aesthetic elements, or worse yet normalizing the terror (something you have discussed before). ] But what I appreciate most about his little book is his discussion of the ironic power of words, for example: both as used *by* Hitler, and as used (later) against him. [One must add this was alluded to as well in The Book Thief if you read that, ironically (again) through the medium of fiction.] Reflections of Nazism is a very good essay/book, less than 100 pages, and highly recommended for someone who reads so much fiction that evokes the terror and horror of not-very-nice regimes.

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    1. Jill, I didn't want to pronounce a verdict on that second question until I've had a chance to finish Life and Fate. However, I do find I'm more and more interested these days in why somebody would choose to "novelize" a historical matter like this novel's rather than to treat it as straight non-fiction. Obviously, there are all sorts of reasons for such a choice, good and bad. The points you cite from Friedlander, whom I believe you've mentioned to me before, are all interesting in that light, and you've persuaded me to check out that volume from the library at long last. Anyway, thanks for the tip and the discussion--naturally, I'd love to hear what you make of this novel should you ever find the time for it in between your other reading obligations!

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  2. Pugilistic...I like it. It does take its toll, doesn't it? But it's oh so worth it. Glad to see your thoughts on it so far!

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    1. Thanks, Dwight. I guess for me the pugilistic aspects have everything to do with Grossman's insistence on hitting you in the face with all these unpleasant truths and his refusal to pussyfoot or dance around the matters at all. And even though I found this approach "heroic" in many respects, I was still taken aback by how early and how insistently Grossman took off the gloves so to speak and just let fly (Scott's comment below and a review you linked to over on your blog about Grossman's "unflinching" nature are right on the money in my opinion). "Oh, so worth it" indeed, but I still felt like a punching bag at times.

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  3. Richard - a great start to your explorations of Life and Fate. It amazes me that I recognize all of those lines out of an 871 page book full of lines like that, and indeed Grossman keeps up this steady pace from beginning to end (I finished the book a little over two weeks ago). Of your two questions, the first I'd answer affirmatively - resoundingly so - because what he writes about is so important and because as you point out he's a humanist rather than a polemicist and is really interested in getting inside of the human experience of what he describes. There's even a good deal of humor in the book amid all of the horrors. I hadn't thought of the book as "pugilistic," but it's true that he's so unflinching that I had to put the book down on several occasions and go take a walk around the block. The second question is a curious one in this case since Grossman was such an immediate witness to so much of what he writes about, such that the novel is less fiction than a fictionated (I need some word other than "fictionalized" here) journalism. I found it fascinating to read this after reading Curzio Malaparte's similar blend of fiction and journalism, where in the latter Malaparte creates real fictions - extended fantasies even - to convey the horrors of what he's witnessed. Grossman is more of a quiet witness, but I found one of the more fascinating things about Life and Fate to be the occasional self-interrogation - via discussions of other writes (chiefly Tolstoy and Chekhov) - of what Grossman is attempting to do. It's a kind of in your face contextualizing of what he's doing literarily, but I think it's also an ingenious way to keep the reader focused on the testimony and not, as rhapsodyinbooks notes above, on the aesthetic elements, a way of pre-empting whatever the reader might be tempted to think about the book's literary qualities.

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    1. Thanks, Scott, and I'm glad you mentioned the occasional humor and the writerly self-examination in Life and Fate here since those things do coexist with the litanies of horrors that I chose to focus on in this first post. Grossman's status as a witness and the fact that he was a novelist even before he became a war correspondent if I remember correctly make him an unusually complex and interesting test case for my second question; and although I don't think there's anything wrong with a fiction or a nonfiction approach per se, of course, I suppose I am interested in the reasons for the genre decision more than some might be because I tend to look down down on "historical fiction" in general because of its costume drama qualities. Tolstoy's hybrid fiction/history approach in War and Peace was apparently one of if not the key models for Grossman, but somebody else mentioned Malaparte in relation to Grossman recently as well. I guess you and Jill from Rhapsody in Books are creating quite the secondary reading syllabus for me! Anyway, suffice it to say that I look forward to hearing more of what you thought about the book when you get around to your own post or posts about it and I look forward to starting Part Two of Life and Fate for myself later today. Cheers!

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  4. Great post, Richard which reminded me that i have this on my shelves, inviting me to throw a couple of right hooks at it. It's a big one though and by the sound of it, one that hits back.

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    1. Thanks, Séamus--you have a treat to look to forward to there. A treat with hands of stone but a treat nonetheless. Very powerful stuff.

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  5. Outstanding commentary Richard.

    The quote you posted towards the end is very much in tune with a book that I am reading. Steven Pinker in "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" looks at how mass murderous and oppressive behavior spreads through an entire societies. Pinker's explanation exactly parallels this quote. I wonder if Pinker has read this book.

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    1. Thanks, Brian--it's kind of an easy novel to write about, though, given all the heavy lifting done by Grossman. Will have to look into the Pinker book as the themes he and Grossman bring up don't look like they're in any danger of real decline in the world anytime soon.

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  6. maybe should pull ,y copy down ,I think he uses loads characters to keep the reader interested ,all the best stu

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  7. You're not kidding about the loads of characters, Stu, and Grossman is particularly impressive in that regard now that you mention it. Tolstoy would have been proud!

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  8. Excellent commentary, Richard! You make me want to read the novel.

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  9. Thanks, Miguel. It's tough to read in spots because of the nature of the material, but I think it's a great work in part precisely because of how Grossman doesn't shy away from confronting the nature of evil itself. Pretty ambitious for a novel, you know?

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