by Vasily Grossman [translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler]
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 fiction. But 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.