viernes, 22 de febrero de 2013

Life and Fate: Part Two

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

In my previous post on Part One of Life and Fate, I was wondering aloud what Vasily Grossman--an eyewitness to much of the Stalingrad siege of 1942-1943 and later the fall of Berlin in 1945 in his capacity as a war correspondent embedded with the Red Army--might have hoped to achieve with his novel that he couldn't have achieved in a work more closely aligned with a nonfiction format.  Having now completed two of the novel's three parts, I think I have a slightly better handle on some of the reasons for Grossman's choice of genre.  One of the obvious motivating factors seems to have been the scale of the challenge the novelist set for himself.  Part One of the nearly 900 page long novel, for example, ends with the betrayal of the "old Bolshevik" Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy in a German concentration camp.  Part Two ends with the death of a young Soviet pilot, Lieutenant Viktorov, in combat near Stalingrad during the desperate winter counterattack that will eventually lead to the Russian encirclement of the German 6th Army besieging the city.  In between and all along up to this point in the novel, in fact, Grossman makes use of a single family, the Shtrum/Shaposhnikovas, and their acquaintances in combination with the war at Stalingrad as the dual focal points for a narrative which touches on an entire country at war and freely mixes the use of fictional and historical characters.  A nonfiction approach, while perhaps more authentic on paper to the history purist, would have made the sweep of Life and Fate more difficult for Grossman to realize.  In addition, Grossman's novelization of this material--the war, the Holocaust, the constant, almost paranoid fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person in the Stalinist Soviet Union of the time, the references to the repression experienced by the Soviet people during the collectivization efforts of the 1930s--also often achieves an emotional immediacy that a strictly nonfiction approach wouldn't have permitted in quite the same way.  For someone who tends to be dismissive of mass market historical fiction for its costume drama tendencies, it kind of irks me to admit this.  However, Grossman's so-called historical fiction, as informed by his war reporting, is thankfully far, far different from the norm I read about elsewhere.  The chapters where he writes about Eichmann enjoying a repast of hors-d'oeuvres and wine in the middle of a gas chamber or walks you into the gas chamber and describes how a kindly character now "had no future, only a past" (543) are just devastating despite only being fictionBut why take my word for it?  Here's a single extended example from Part Two where Grossman, who elsewhere has evoked "the remorseless cunning of History" (488) in asides about civilians and soldiers trapped in an especially unforgiving experiment in total war, effectively employs the tools of fiction in the service of a larger historical truth.  Doctor Sofya Levinton, a Soviet Jew, in the gas chamber with a six year old boy she has sought to comfort to the end (553-554):

Her eyes--which had read Homer, Izvestia, Huckleberry Finn and Mayne Reid, that had looked at good people and bad people, that had seen the geese in the green meadows of Kursk, the stars above the observatory at Pulkovo, the glitter of surgical steel, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, tomatoes and turnips in the bins at market, the blue water of Issyk-Kul--her eyes were no longer of any use to her.  If someone had blinded her, she would have felt no sense of loss.
She was still breathing, but breathing was hard work and she was running out of strength.  The bells ringing in her head became deafening; she wanted to concentrate on one last thought, but was unable to articulate this thought.  She stood there--mute, blind, her eyes still open.
The boy's movements filled her with pity.  Her feelings towards him were so simple that she no longer needed words and eyes.  The half-dead boy was still breathing, but the air he took in only drove life away.  His head was turning from side to side; he still wanted to see.  He could see people settling onto the ground; he could see mouths that were toothless and mouths with white teeth and gold teeth; he could see a thin stream of blood flowing from a nostril.  He could see eyes peering through the glass; Roze's inquisitive eyes had momentarily met David's.  He still needed his voice--he would have asked Aunt Sonya about those wolf-like eyes.  He still even needed thought.  He had taken only a few steps in the world.  He had seen the prints of children's bare heels on hot, dusty earth, his mother lived in Moscow, the moon looked down and people's eyes looked up at it from below, a teapot was boiling on the gas-ring...  This world, where a chicken could run without its head, where there was milk in the morning and frogs he could get to dance by holding their front feet--this world still preoccupied him.
All this time David was being clasped by strong warm hands.  He didn't feel his eyes go dark, his heart become empty, his mind grow dull and blind.  He had been killed; he no longer existed.
Sofya Levinton felt the boy's body subside in her arms.  Once again she had fallen behind him.  In mine-shafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the birds and mice, that die first.  This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.
'I've become a mother,' she thought.
That was her last thought.
Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea.  She pressed David, now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.

16 comentarios:

  1. Well, crud. You included SPOILERS. Now I don't know if I can read it! (ha ha). And by the way, I am so happy that "Grossman's so-called historical fiction, as informed by his war reporting, is thankfully far, far different from the norm I read about elsewhere." That's a far, far better thing than the inverse. (And why does saying that make me want to start knitting?)

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    1. Jill, yep, sorry, but I consciously and unapologetically disclosed the fate of three of Grossman's million-character cast to highlight his writing aims and power. My bad? In other news, nice try trying to bait me into taking a swipe at the powerful knitting lobby right after I took a swipe at the historical fiction blogging community--I won't fall for that trap this time, though, no, not me!

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    2. No, no! Not that I doubt you would love to take a swipe at the craft lobby, but knitting = Tale of Two Cities = it is a far far better thing....

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  2. Does this count as historical fiction? My definition of the term refers to work written about a period prior to the life of the author, the author's parents, possible also the author's grandparents. Consider The Red Badge of Courage, written by Stephen Crane about The Civil War which we was too young to have been a part of. It's not quite historical fiction.

    In any case. I need to read this book.

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    1. I was using the term historical fiction rather loosely here, James, insofar as Grossman's fiction is about historical events that took place in his lifetime--many of which he witnessed firsthand. For whatever it's worth, I usually use a formal definition more like the one you mention. However, I do hope you read Life and Fate at some point; it's quite powerful, intense, and affecting.

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  3. Now you have me wanting to reread this. Thanks. I think.

    A quote I pulled from Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands" seems appropriate for your post: "People were perhaps alike in dying and in death, but each of them was different until that final moment, each had different preoccupations and presentiments until all was clear and then all was black.”

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    1. Dwight, I've been thumbing through Bloodlands in the bookstore and hope to get to that work later in the year along with some more of Grossman's stuff. How ironic to see the novelist with the journalist's sensibility (Grossman) and the historian with the novelists's sensibility (Snyder, w/a novelist's sensibility here at least) say much the same thing about state terror. Chilling.

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  4. The description of Doctor Sofya Levinton is amazing, and the whole excerpt is heartbreaking.

    Incidentally, I've awarded you the Blog of the Year award:

    http://storberose.blogspot.pt/2013/02/blog-of-year-2012-award.html

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  5. Thanks for the award, Miguel. It was nice to be included among such great blogging company. Also, I'm really glad you appreciated the Grossman excerpt. He has several scenes like that sprinkled throughout the work; I think he was quite brave and also tremendously empathetic as a writer.

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  6. I too am at times suspicious of the popular mass market historical fiction books that seem so popular these days. This book does indeed seem very different. One lesson here I think is that there is good fiction and that there is bad fiction and that it applies to many genres.

    Your commentary on why this works so well as fiction is enlightening. Indeed the everyday personal experiences that you describe could not be conveyed as effectively in a history book.

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    1. Brian, very glad to see you weigh in on the fiction vs. nonfiction question as it applies to Life and Fate. I wasn't sure how many people would even care about that angle, but it's produced some interesting responses in the comments on the two posts that have helped clarify my own thinking on the matter. Unfortunately, I forgot to mention one of the main reasons Grossman probably chose to novelize the material: he had already written a book's worth of journalistic responses to what he'd seen during wartime, recently collated by Antony Beevor in the Grossman-penned A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945. Also, I agree with your point about good fiction and bad fiction applying to many if not all genres. Di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Marguerite Yourcenar's Mémoires d'Hadrien, three novels that I'd recommend to anyone and everyone, can all be classified as historical fiction despite my usual prejudices against the same!

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  7. "The chapters where he writes about Eichmann enjoying a repast of hors-d'oeuvres ..."

    I sometimes wonder if it was Tolstoy, roaming around with Napoleon in War and Peace (unless I'm misremembering this), that gave Grossman the encouragement, or the permission, or even the feeling of professional obligation, to roam around inside the Germans; I'm thinking in particular of that scene with Hitler.

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    1. Umbagollah, I think the Hitler scene is definitely descended from Tolstoy's Napoleon scenes in W&P. "Professional obligation" sounds just about right--good call.

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  8. Richard - I'm embarrassed to be so late to your subsequent posts on Life and Fate (not to mention having yet to post about it myself) but travel and lack of Internet access have me catching up only now.

    I had something of the same train of thought as you when questioning Grossman's fictional approach, with the same bristling feeling when i considered the term historical fiction, but it occurred to me that Life and Fate really isn't historical fiction as I tend to think of it. Grossman experienced Stalingrad - a witness, not a researcher at an abstract distance. I agree that the decision not simply to transmit his observations via non-fictional journalism probably had to do with the sheer scale of what he hoped to communicate, which required him - to use Umbagollah's term - to roam around inside the heads of so many diverse figures drawn not just from his immediate experience but also from his imagined experience. A strictly journalistic approach (I'm not even quite sure what I mean by that) would likely have been far too confining for the testament he accomplishes in Life and Fate.

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    1. Scott, I would have been late to my own posts if I had had the chance to visit France recently myself--no worries! The fiction vs. nonfiction thing increasingly interests me these days (i.e why choose one approach over another when writing about historical events?), but in addition to all the savvy things you and others have mentioned, I think there's also a really simple explanation: Grossman was a novelist at heart. Certainly, the imaginative freedom afforded a novelist as opposed to a journalist passed the ultimate test: his witness-informed novel is great, powerful reading no matter the precise percentage split of fiction to nonfiction material presented. Anyway, thanks for making up for your "late" response with all these great comments--hope we get to see a post from you on Grossman sometime soon!

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