Life, fate and irony

by niamh on June 6, 2012

Not long before I read Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, I happened to read Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (prompted by BBC Radio 4’s excellent 13-part dramatization), so I was very struck by the parallels in scale and approach between the two works. Both are conceived on a vast scale; both draw the reader into the lives of a large number of characters at all strata of society. In both books, real historical people mingle with fictional characters. The long shadow of Tolstoy is apparent in both. Grossman had a real advantage over Spufford in that he’d lived through the siege of Stalingrad which features so centrally in his novel, and he’d had exceptional freedom as a war reporter to talk to people from many different backgrounds. Of course Tolstoy had to recreate Napoleon’s invasion of Russia from research and imagination, but he too was immersed in his own society and culture, and was able to avail of first-hand encounters with veterans of the campaign. Spufford has had to re-imagine the world of Khrushchev’s Soviet Union much more thoroughly, through extensive engagement with scholarly literature, memoirs and other sources, in this vivid and beautifully written book.

But it’s the contrasts between Grossman’s and Spufford’s books that are perhaps more striking.

Grossman’s storylines explore the interwoven lives of the relatives and friends of the Shaposhnikov family, and they also weave to and fro across the battle-lines dividing the Russian and German sides. An ordinary German soldier reflects on the allure of Nazi ideology, and a Nazi interrogator confronts a Soviet prisoner with the many parallels between their respective totalizing worldviews. In a chilling vignette, Eichmann stops for an impromptu picnic in the middle of inspecting a new crematorium; we are taken right into this terrible place with another character. The war perverts and destroys everyone’s lives. But it’s the corrupting effect of political oppression that stands out most clearly. Ambitious apparatchiks subvert military logic just by doing their job. Career progression in the physics lab depends on political conformity. Everyone knows about the night-time disappearances, but self-preservation cauterizes their willingness to understand what they have seen. Soviet anti-semitism exactly mirrors Nazi ideology in its effects if not on its scale. The moral core of the book is Viktor Shtrum, a flawed and uneasy man. He longs, above all, for the freedom to make his own choices, for tolerance of the many oddities and peculiarities of human nature, for the space to think without restraint. In Shtrum and in others, Grossman plays out the recurring theme that the deepest human values are not found in world-changing great ideals, but in ordinary human empathy and in everyday small kindnesses.

Red Plenty is also animated by a deeply humane sensibility. But its core themes don’t emerge implicitly from the inner life of its characters. Rather, the book could be said to be the biography of an idea: it’s about the moment of optimism in the USSR when real material wealth in a non-market setting seemed achievable, and about the first concerted efforts to overturn the crushing inertia of centralized planning. The central characters who frame the arc of the storyline are two real historical individuals, whose stories both open and close the book. The first person we meet is the brilliant young mathematician and economist Leonid Vitalevich, suffering everyday hardships on a packed Moscow tram, while he develops the algorithms that should transform the irrationalities of the planned economy. By the end of the book, he is politically marginalized despite his eminence, and his intellectual and moral courage has taken a huge toll on him. He is a man ever driven to test the ‘wobbling plank’ of what might be possible, and as he shared a light, ‘his fingers were trembling’. Similarly confident at the book’s beginning, Khrushchev’s brash challenge to the USA seems to mark a new direction for the USSR. By the book’s last pages, he is a failure, stripped of power, living in isolation.

Between these bookending stories, we are drawn into a whole host of people’s lives, vividly evoked and enormously diverse. Some of the characters recur at intervals, but others have more or less self-contained stories of their own. The groups of stories are framed by commentary on the part of the omniscient author. But this narrative voice is not inside the novel, it is rather the voice of a very well-informed, quite opinionated and unusually sprightly historian; the pleasures of these sections are very like the pleasures of good fiction.

Two things strike me about the effects Spufford can achieve with this unusual mix of techniques. One is the pervasive presence of irony. The other is, perhaps surprisingly (because irony is the product of completed knowledge), the open-endedness of the characters’ experiences as we witness them.

The effects of irony are not found in the tone of the narrative itself. Rather, they come from the tension between the big story, which is the drive to make the planned economy more responsive to people’s needs, and the experiences of the individuals who have to live in the world as it is. Spufford has made the most of the opportunities to show us how people’s lives were moulded and maimed by the constraints of the system that Stalin had built. It’s hard to forget some of the people we encounter along the way, and it’s a tribute to the writing that we remember them as characters and not as morality tales. Emil, for example, as he trudges across the dusty trackless fields to the village near Moscow, travelling back in time with each step. Galich the writer, who is all too aware of his artistic and personal compromises, and who shows us the advantages of party connections. Galina, whose orthodox Soviet ambition is derailed by a vision of Tupperware, but who also has the spirit to provoke her black American interlocutor; she reappears later in a memorably awful labour ward. Chekuskin the fixer, who plugs the supply gaps with his elaborate barter system, who has to negotiate with the real hard-core criminals to make everything work. Volodya the career party man (and Galina’s ex), who is traumatized by the brutal suppression of a food riot caused by the attempted price reform.

Notwithstanding the horror of this latter event, the most dramatic depiction for me of the stupidity and cruelty of the planned economy is the story about the viscose spinning plant. Here, the victims of the system are the plant managers themselves. Facing unrealizable production targets, they attempt a perfect crime in order to get permission to build a new and better production line. But their plans are foiled in a plot twist that is almost slapstick in nature. The perversities of Soviet pricing policy could hardly be illustrated more clearly or to funnier effect. They follow directly from the attempt to find what Spufford has elsewhere called ‘software solutions to hardware difficulties’.

But the characters’ stories never descend to the merely formulaic. Spufford does them the credit of giving them an open-ended story, something that is shared by the good historian and the good novelist alike. We know it ends for them; while it is still unfolding, they do not. Spufford construes Marx as making exactly this point: human beings make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. At the very end of the book, both Viktor Leonodivich and Khrushchev are brought to reflect ruefully on – well, on life and fate I suppose. And so, having seen all that we have seen, even as the author brings the well-crafted arc of his story to a close, the final thoughts of both men take the form of a plangent and now heavily ironic question, ‘can it be otherwise?’



Neville Morley 06.06.12 at 4:37 pm

Apologies if this is slightly tangential, but it was inspired by your comparison of Spufford with Grossman: does the existing Soviet system get an excessively raw deal in the former’s presentation? I’m not for a moment suggesting that it should be defended, but rather more effort might have been put into explaining its origins and dynamics; instead, it’s simply there, as a thoroughly obstructive force of nature frustrating the heroic efforts of the sympathetic characters, and its agents and defenders appear to be motivated solely by self-interest and/or stupidity.

The obvious contrast is with the passage you refer to in Grossman where he explores the genuine attractions of Nazism, explaining its rise without endorsing it; and in the book I’m reading at the moment, Monika Maron’s Flugasche, supporters of the system in the DDR are given the opportunity to express, quite eloquently, the basis for their belief in its essential rightness despite obvious problems, even as the dynamic of the plot is to argue that the problems are such as to undermine any faith in the rightness of the system.

But for Spufford’s fairy tale, the system has to be painted as black as possible in order to win our sympathy for those trying to reform it, and it feels a little too easy – whether or not this was the intention – to read Vitalevich et al as trying to introduce proper capitalism in a disguised form to fool the evil system, rather than as trying genuinely to reform the system along alternative, non-capitalist lines because of their commitment to its essential values.


carl caldwell 06.06.12 at 5:40 pm

Neville: I had the feeling some years ago when I was starting to work on the planning system in East Germany that one should give it its due, that one should avoid the Cold War criticisms. When I started the actual research, however, I saw all of the criticisms from the West arising already in the East in the 1950s. I found this aspect of Red Plenty convincing: the technical experts in fact came to similar (but better founded) conclusions as they asked critical questions about economics or law. Spufford doesn’t, it seem to me, paint the system “as black as possible,” but seeks to bring the actual facts of the economy and the actual criticisms of the intellectuals into the story.

Grossman certainly was able to describe the allure of Nazism, as Niamh notes, but hardly in the sense that he does it “justice”: his own standpoint is clear. Spufford by contrast does suggest reasons, good reasons, why someone smart like Kantorovich could believe in the system. This makes the ultimate criticism that much harsher.

In a way, finally, Grossman’s criticism of the Soviet Union is far, far deeper than Spufford’s, which is one point I tried to make in my own contribution. Grossman shows the utter betrayal of ideals, the utter brutality of a regime; evil drips from the gears of the system. I didn’t feel this in Red Plenty at all.

But of course, this may be a matter of different readings or different readers!


Neville Morley 06.06.12 at 6:18 pm

It’s probably just a result of the fact that I happen to be reading Maron at the moment; I can’t shake the feeling that the representatives of the system in Spufford are too stupid and venal – and Kantorovich is presented as naive, so his belief in the system could be easily dismissed as unworldliness – in comparison to her representation of the genuine conviction and seductive rhetoric of party loyalists. On the other hand, you’re absolutely right that Kantorovich’s belief that he’s dealing with reasonable people heightens the sense of betrayal and dramatic irony. And I should stress that my comments are entirely historiographical-rhetorical, given that my knowledge of the period is entirely second-hand and mostly from Spufford…


mclaren 06.06.12 at 10:48 pm

Intriguing how Red Plenty works equally well as a narrative of the death of c(r)apitalism when you make small changes to the vocabulary:

“The period I’m writing about… – America in the 1950s and 1960s – has effectively been crushed flat by hindsight. It’s part of a story we think we know already, about how twentieth-century capitalism moved from utopian hope, through totalitarian menace [of laws like the AUMF and warrantless wiretapping and the repression of the Occupy movement and Bush’s kidnappings and tortures and Obama’s drone murders of U.S. citizens], to senile decay and collapse. What’s more, it’s a part that doesn’t matter very much in the story as we now tell it. It’s an interlude, a brief period of delusory American confidence and reformist false dawn, in between the much more important dramas of Act Two (FDR) and Act Three (Bush II/Obama Collapse). If many American citizens thought at the time [during the 1950s and 1960s] that they were living in a moment of vindication, when previous sufferings paid off and something good was just beginning, well, they were just flat wrong, weren’t they?”

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