by Vasily Grossman [translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler]
Life and Fate, like many other winning books I've read since taking up the loser's hobby that is blogging, is just too big and too overwhelming an opponent for me to adequately deal with in a limited number of posts. I surrender. As part of my exit strategy for the novel, though, I'd like to say a few final words about the work here now before returning for one last post on translator Robert Chandler's introduction and some links to other bloggers' reviews of this book later. To begin with, one of the things I feel I haven't emphasized about the novel is that it makes for surprisingly quick reading despite its massive size and the traumatic nature of much of its subject matter. Part of this has to do with Grossman's "journalistic" style. He isn't difficult to read in the manner of a Joyce or a Proust, for example. Part of this has to do with Grossman's ability to peer into the abyss without looking away--his passages on the Shoah, while emotionally taxing, are nonetheless riveting. And yet another part has to do with the occasionally bookish, often dramatic conversations his characters engage in. Here in a scene from Part One, set in Kazan during the heart of the war, is an acquaintance of Viktor Shtrum's, the historian Leonid Sergeyevich Madyarov, going off on a drunken rant about Chekhovian humanism after the small circle of friends gathered at his brother-in-law's house has been debating the virtues of "reactionary" literature vs. the state-sanctioned Social Realism:
Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness--with people of every estate, every class, every age... More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all these people--as a Russian democrat. He said--and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy--that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! He said something no one in Russia had ever said. He said that first of all we are human beings--and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers. Do you understand? Instead of saying that people are good or bad because they are bishops or workers, Tartars or Ukrainians, instead of this he said that people are equal because they are human beings. At one time people blinded by Party dogma saw Chekhov as a witness to the fin de siècle. No. Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history--the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man. Our Russian humanism has always been cruel, intolerant, sectarian. From Avvakum to Lenin our conception of humanity and freedom has always been partisan and fanatical. It has always mercilessly sacrificed the individual to some abstract idea of humanity. Even Tolstoy, with his doctrine of non-resistance to Evil, is intolerant--and his point of departure is not man but God. He wants the idea of goodness to triumph. True believers always want to bring God to man by force; and in Russia they stop at nothing--even murder--to achieve this (283).
For those new to Life and Fate, Madyarov's monologue may seem interesting as far as these things go but perhaps politically out of step with the era given the level of repression that was known to have existed. For those following the novel more closely, it will come as no surprise that almost every character present at the gathering will later live in fear that at least one of those present--including even Madyarov himself--might in fact have been an informer for the NKVD secret police.
In addition to the penetrating psychology and the talky dialogue on display above, another arresting weapon in Grossman's style arsenal is the way he authoritatively moves from one abbreviated chapter to the next, arranging and rearranging jigsaw pieces for the reader to make sense of, hand grenading the text as he toggles back and forth between narrator and lecturer functions. Here, for example, are several soundbites lifted from Part Two, Chapter 31: a disquieting three-page digression on anti-Semitism sandwiched in between two narrative chapters on Eichmann's visit to a concentration camp and the Soviet army's preparations for a stealth attack on the German forces massed at the Volga:
"Anti-Semitism can take many forms--from a mocking, contemptuous ill-will to murderous pogroms."
"Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved. It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems. Tell me what you accuse the Jews of--I'll tell you what you're guilty of."
"Anti-Semitism is also an expression of a lack of talent, an inability to win a contest on equal terms--in science or in commerce, in craftsmanship or in painting. States look to the imaginary intrigues of World Jewry for explorations of their own failure."
"When the Renaissance broke in upon the Catholic Middle Ages, the forces of darkness lit the bonfires of the Inquisition. These flames, however, not only expressed the power of evil, they also lit up the spectacle of its destruction.
In the twentieth century, an ill-fated nationalist regime lit the bonfires of Auschwitz, the gas ovens of Lyublinsk and Treblinka. These flames not only lit up Fascism's brief triumph, but also foretold its doom. Historical epochs, unsuccessful and reactionary governments, and individuals hoping to better their lot all turn to anti-Semitism as a last resort, in an attempt to escape an inevitable doom."
These pronouncements, taken from pages 484-486, punctuate the narrative sections of the text and amplify the bracing qualities of the novel as a whole. In a novel that describes the horrors of two competing political systems at war, it's worth repeating that Grossman rarely demonizes the foreign enemy without also castigating the enemy at home.
To provide one last example of the satisfyingly rich complexity which which Grossman operates as a novelist, I'd like to turn to a dialogue in Part Three where the increasingly depressed and guilt-ridden scientist Viktor Shtrum meets with the former director of his institute, Dmitry Petrovich Chepyzhin, who has been forced into early retirement for political reasons. Chepyzhin, who as a matter of conscience chose not to pursue any research relating to nuclear fission because of his concerns about how the research would be used, has tried to cheer Viktor up with an idealistic speech about how one day science and reason will permit man "to solve the problems that were beyond God." Viktor, a man who is being squeezed by the state to sacrifice his ideals in order to pursue his love of science, wants no part of this pep talk from his former colleague and close friend (691-692):
'Dmitry Petrovich,' he said, 'when you began, I was thinking that I might be arrested any day and that I wasn't in the mood for philosophy. Suddenly I quite forgot about Kovchenko, Shishakov and comrade Beria; I forgot that I might be thrown out of my laboratory tomorrow and into prison on the following day. But what I felt as I listened to you was not joy, but utter despair. We think we're so wise--to us Hercules seems like a child with rickets. And yet on this very day the Germans are slaughtering Jewish children and old women as though they were mad dogs. And we ourselves have endured 1937 and the horrors of collectivization--famine, cannibalism and the deportation of millions of unfortunate peasants... Once, everything seemed simple and clear. But these terrible losses and tragedies have confused everything. You say man will be able to look down on God--but what if he also becomes able to look down on the Devil? What if he eventually surpasses him? You say life is freedom. Is that what people in the camps think? What if the life expanding through the universe should use its power to create a slavery still more terrible than your slavery of inanimate matter? Do you think this man of the future will surpass Christ in his goodness? That's the real question. How will the power of this omnipresent and omniscient being benefit the world if he is still endowed with our own fatuous self-assurance and animal egotism? Our class egotism, our race egotism, our State egotism and our personal egotism? What if he transforms the whole world into a galactic concentration camp? What I want to know is--do you believe in the evolution of kindness, morality, mercy? Is man capable of evolving in that way?
A moment later, Viktor apologizes to Chepyzhin for browbeating him with this "abstract" tirade. A few pages later, he leaves his friend's house in tears--overwhelmed and possibly a broken man. What does all this have to do with Stalingrad in 1942-1943? A hundred pages later, Grossman provides an ambiguous but decidedly unheroic answer in this coda to the armed confrontation between two state terror systems and an uncertain future in which millions of people could suddenly cease to exist while the world looked on: "Every epoch has its own capital city, a city that embodies its will and soul. For several months of the Second World War this city was Stalingrad" (796).
Red Army soldiers from the "Stalingrad Academy of Street-Fighting"
(December 1942, photographer unknown)
(December 1942, photographer unknown)