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.

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.

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

martes, 5 de febrero de 2013

February Movie Review Links

Maya Deren's 1985 Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
Although I'd love to tell you that nothing comes between me and my blogging Calvin Kleins, the truth is that a lowly germ has wreaked havoc on my immune system to such an extent this week that I hardly have the energy to sleep much less come up with original material requiring non-dated jokes and references.  That being said, here's a placeholder for February movie reviews if any of y'all would care to join Dwight, Guy Savage and/or me for film talk later in the month.
February Movie Reviews