Life and fate

For much of the last fortnight I've been working my way through a great doorstep (870 pages!) of a Russian novel, Vasily Grossman's very wonderful Life And Fate. Big it may be, but it's compelling and compulsive reading.

The easiest way to describe it is as the War and Peace of the twentieth century. It has much in common with Tolstoy's great novel. Both follow the lives of an extended family, and their friends and colleagues, against the backdrop of war and a turning point in world history, in the case of Life and fate the battle for Stalingrad in the Second World War.

Against this backdrop Grossman follows the lives of the Shaposhnikova sisters, their families and friends. As is de rigeur for any Russian novel there is an enormous cast list, it also covers a huge swathe of society from Stalin and committed communists to dissidents, former royalists and nazis. Everyone is here from the ordinary Russian soldier to the torturers of the Lubyanka, and from the man who mans the gas chambers to a young mother giving birth to her first child amid the ruins of Stalingrad. It also covers a huge area geographically from the wastes of Kazan and an odd other-worldly scientific station (a sort of early Soviet Manhattan project) to the ghettos of the Ukraine and the gas chambers of Poland to the streets and bunkers of Stalingrad itself.

This huge unwieldy novel is initially quite confusing, but the length of the book really helps with this as it gives plenty of time for characters to develop and for your understanding of them to develop too. Sometimes the sudden switch from one geographic area to another can be oddly disconcerting, although I think here, this was completely intentional. At one point there was a switch from a German labour camp to a Russian camp, and I became completely disorientated. I'm sure this was deliberate - it reminded me starkly of the moment at the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm when man and pig become the same creature. It is at moments like these that Grossman's disillusion with the Soviet system becomes very clear.

It's a stunning novel, often very brutal, it's also tender and poignant, even occasionally funny. Much of the novel deals with mans' inhumanity to man but, in an odd way, it is also a celebration of what it means to be human, as many of Grossman's characters remain defiantly human whatever is thrown at them.

There is a bit of a link in this novel back to my earlier read Child 44. Grossman, like Leo in Child 44 had been committed to Soviet style communism. During World War II he was a journalist and reported extensively from the Eastern Front - he was at Stalingrad, and this comes through in his writing - the sections where he's writing about the Red Army sometimes have an almost journalistic quality to them. He was also with the Red Army when they liberated Treblinka and Majdanek. Grossman was a non-observant Jew, he had never really thought of himself as Jewish until the war when his mother was murdered by the Nazis, and he later travelled on to the camps with the Red Army uncovering Nazi atrocities en route. His own struggle with his identity is reflected in one of the central characters of the novel, Viktor Shtrum, a dissident in the making.

Vasily Grossman in Stalingrad
By the end of the war Grossman was struggling not only with his own identity but also with his loyalties to Stalinism. There is a bitter edge to the reporting of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad - the Russians had fought for freedom, but had still ended up being enslaved, and the internal battles within characters that will continue long after the end of the book is a central theme.

This is just an astonishing read, I've been immersed in it for a fortnight (along with Shostakovich, which seemed appropriate listening). It's often very bleak, but utterly compelling. It's a long time since I've cared for characters as much as I have for those who peopled Life and fate. Highly recommended.


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