The past year has been one of reading long books. Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, War and Peace, and, on the back of the latter Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’m still digesting. Is Life and Fate the greatest Russian novel of the past century? I don’t know, and it seems like an invidious question. But great it certainly is. Not so much for the writing — at least in translation Grossman’s prose is, well, prosaic — but for it breadth of vision, its humanism, its psychological insight and for Grossman’s courage in facing up to inconvenient facts about human beings and his own society. Grossman, Soviet war correspondent alongside his rival Ilya Ehrenberg, one-time favoured Soviet writer, seems to have imagined the book might have managed to get published under Khruschev, as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was. What an absurd hope to have had. Life and Fate, was “arrested”, the typescript seized by the KGB. But Grossman had made copies which were smuggled to the West, and the book was finally published in 1980.
At the heart of the novel is Stalingrad, briefly, as he puts it, capital of the world, the focus of a great struggle between two totalitarian powers. Alongside this, and interwoven with it, are the travails of nuclear physicist Victor Shtrum and his extended family, their dealings with a capricious state, their moral dilemmas and psychological adaptations in the face of its cruelties. In the background lurks the memory of the year 1937, knocks on the door in the night and sentences of ten years “without right of correspondence”, meaning, in actuality, a bullet in the head. Right in front is the destruction of European Jews, massacres and deportations by the invading Germans and the imminence of death. And all the time the question occurs, made vivid by Grossman cutting between Soviet POWs in Germany and zeks in Siberia of whether there is any moral difference between these two regimes. [click to continue...]