miércoles, 27 de febrero de 2013

Life and Fate: Part Three

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

How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife's hand for the last time?  How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face?  Yes, and how can a man live with the merciless memory of how, during the silence of parting, he blinked for a moment to hide the crude joy he felt at having managed to save his life?  How can he ever bury the memory of his wife handing him a packet containing her wedding ring, a rusk and some sugar-lumps?  How can he continue to exist, seeing the glow in the sky flaring up with renewed strength?  Now the hands he had kissed must be burning, now the eyes that had admired him, now the hair whose smell he could recognize in the darkness, now his children, his wife, his mother.  How can he ask for a place in the barracks nearer the stove?  How can he hold out his bowl for a litre of grey swill?  How can he repair the torn sole of his boot?  How can he wield a crowbar?  How can he drink?  How can he breathe?  With the screams of his mother and children in his ears?
(Life and Fate, 540-541)

One of the testaments to the monumentality of Life and Fate as a novel and to the vitality of Vasily Grossman's moral compass as a novelist is that Part Three of the work doesn't exactly end on a happy note with the eventual Russian victory at Stalingrad.  There's no victory lap for the survivors. Instead, Grossman spends much of the final third of his excellent but truly unsettling epic making pointed moral equivalencies between the state terror sponsored by the Third Reich and the state terror sponsored by the Stalinist Soviet Union.  To this end, he's so effective at highlighting the pressure put on individuals to bow to forces beyond their control that horrifying passages like the excerpt from Part Two above--just one of many powerful scenes from Life and Fate where the novelist confronts the Shoah head on--eerily foreshadow the homegrown attempts by the victorious Soviet state to crush the spirit and snuff out the lives of their own citizens on trumped-up charges of collaboration and "defeatist" or anti-Soviet thinking.  Colonel Pyotr Pavlovich Novikov, the commander of a tank corps in large part responsible for the defeat of the German General Friedrich Paulus' 6th army, is relieved from his command shortly after his outfit's heroic efforts in the so-called Great Patriotic War.  His alleged crime against the state?  To prevent unnecessary casualties to his men, he had delayed his otherwise miraculously successful advance for a few minutes despite instructions to the contrary from his superiors to permit the Soviet artillery to clear out remaining pockets of German resistance prior to issuing orders for the attack.  Nikolay Grigorevich Krymov, a relatively upstanding party commisar who had also risked his life at Stalingrad, winds up in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison being beaten to a pulp and resuscitated by drugs so he can sustain more beatings from thuggish lackeys until he will confess to a "crime" of which he is innocent.  Could his ex-wife, with whom he is still in love, really be the one who denounced him?  Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, the celebrated atomic physicist, is twice asked to make false statements that will save his career and livelihood at the expense of condemning the lives of others.  With whisperers everywhere, it's impossible to overstate the claustrophobic and paranoiac tension in the narrative when the character receives a phone call from Stalin himself: "Good day, comrade Shtrum" (762). Is this what victory is supposed to look like?  Grossman, who in a historian-like mode near the end posits that "the outcome of this battle was to determine the map of the post-war world, to determine the greatness of Stalin or the terrible power of Adolph Hitler" and that "Stalingrad was to determine future social systems and philosophies of history" (860), offers up an old-fashioned humanist's vision of victory--its meaning and its attainability, as packaged with the survivor's guilt that comes with it--in the ensuing passage in which the 70-something Alexandra Vladimirovna Shaposhnikova first returns to what's left of her bombed-out house in the city after the war (861-862):

And here she was, an old woman now, living and hoping, keeping faith, afraid of evil, full of anxiety for the living and an equal concern for the dead; here she was, looking at the ruins of her home, admiring the spring sky without knowing that she was admiring it, wondering why the future of those she loved was so obscure and the past so full of mistakes, not realizing that this very obscurity and unhappiness concealed a strange hope and clarity, not realizing that in the depths of her soul she already knew the meaning of both her own life and the lives of her nearest and dearest, not realizing that even though neither she herself nor any of them could tell what was in store, even though they all knew only too well that at times like these no man can forge his own happiness and that fate alone has the power to pardon and chastise, to raise up to glory and to plunge into need, to reduce a man to labour-camp dust, nevertheless neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State, nor the glory or infamy of battle has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings.  No, whatever life holds in store--hard-won glory, poverty and despair, or death in a labour camp--they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man's eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that have ever been or will be...

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964)

I think I have one or maybe two more posts on Life and Fate left in me before finally saying goodbye to this book for the time being.  Hope to talk about Robert Chandler's introduction and the BBC radio adaptation of the novel.  Also intend to link to fellow bloggers' posts on the work since they, like the many inspirational ones contributed by Dwight of A Common Reader that I've been eagerly devouring this month, are sure to touch on important things I ran out of time for here or just otherwise missed.  Great, great book.

11 comentarios:

  1. The first passage the you quoted was so powerful. Grossman seems to be an extraordinary writer. What a bleak subject this is especially in light of the fact that victory over Hitler's forces only brought Stalinist repression.

    I look forward to more of your posts on this book!

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Thanks for your kind words about the posts, Brian. I have to say that Life and Fate has been almost a fun book to write about despite the bleakness of the Hitler and Stalin subject matter because Grossman was so committed to what he was doing. For me, that first passage is a signature example of what Grossman's mission was all about in the novel: looking Evil squarely in the eye without flinching as it were. Very powerful stuff throughout.

      Eliminar
  2. Typo alert: Shoah missing last h.

    And on other matters, the answer for Grossman to that first paragraph is that one can't! Well, actually Elie Wiesel could, in spite of his father giving him his bread so that he, Elie, could live. But many couldn't (consider, for example, the suicide of the great Primo Levi, or read testimony of survivors in the wonderful book I've probably pushed here before: "New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America" by Dorothy Rabinowitz.

    And finally: I've checked two library systems so far: no Life and Fate. Probably not enough shelf room for such a big book! ha ha

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Thanks again for pointing out the typo, Jill, and sorry to hear about your troubles finding a library copy of Life and Fate. It's such a compelling work. Interesting to hear about the examples you shared. I haven't done much reading on the Holocaust for quite some time, so some supplementary reading is probably in order to help me understand what we're capable of understanding of those terrible years. The Rabinowitz book should provide a good start, and others have spoken highly of the recent history work Bloodlands which focuses on the killing fields between the USSR and Germany during some of the same time period in which Life and Fate takes place.

      Eliminar
  3. p.s. typo alert for rhapsodyinbooks: left off final parenthesis mark. Nice echo of leaving off final h.

    ResponderEliminar
  4. Great, great book indeed. Looking forward to the additional posts!

    ResponderEliminar
  5. Thanks, Dwight, but I just declared defeat! I.e. one more post for Chandler's intro + links and one more post for the BBC adaptation.

    ResponderEliminar
  6. Yet more reasons to read this. If you're interested in a film that takes the Stalinist purges head on you should try to get a copy of Aleksandr Rogozhkin's monumentally bleak The Checka Man / The Checkist.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Thanks for that much appreciated film rec, Séamus; a former Checkist actually plays an interesting role in some of the NKVD prison scenes. Will look into the movie after I get to the BBC audio adaptations of Grossman's novel.

      Eliminar
  7. It's just stunning to me that almost anywhere one turns in Life and Fate one finds a passage like the two you include here of such searing clarity and honesty. Despite it's being a novel, Life and Fate comes across as a solid fact, an irrefutable act of witness. The intertwining of the twin catastrophes of Nazism and Stalinist totalitarianism also makes Life and Fate a completely invaluable document focused on the Russian experience, a perspective I found to be among the most riveting and revealing of anything I've read about the war.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Scott, I of course think that you're absolutely right about the "searing clarity and honesty"--the agony for the person posting on Life and Fate is deciding what to leave out and not what to include given how much fine writing there is to pick over. Ironically, it seems the point you make about Grossman's persuasive power regarding "the intertwining of the twin catastrophes" of Nazism and Stalinism got the Yale history professor who wrote Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin in some hot water from people who thought his own comparison of the two evils somehow cheapened the view of the Holocaust as a singular evil. Grossman, I'm sure you'll agree, makes clear that there was more than enough evil to go around, and his mentioning of both in tandem only magnifies the horrors to be understood by his readers and doesn't lessen them. Quite the contrary, no?

      Eliminar