Monday, October 1, 2007

Book Review: "Life & Fate"

Book Review: "Life and Fate" by Vassily Grossman, 1960

This book has been looked at as the Soviet version of "War & Peace," Tolstoy's masterpiece of imperial Russia and the Napoleonic wars, i.e. the 'great Russian novel." And it succeeds, perhaps better than it's predecessor. One of Grossman’s characters even makes a point of saying, as a humorous aside, that Tolstoy never lived at the same time as the battle of Borodino or the Napoleonic invasion. The obvious hint is that the novel you are reading WAS written by someone involved in the events.

Grossman was a Jewish supporter of the Russian revolution, first discovered as a writer by Maxim Gorky. His first short story, “In the Town of Berdichev,” became a famous Soviet film, “Commissar.” Grossman wrote several novels during Stalinist times, when he became a member of the Writers Union. He reported during WWII for Red Star, the Soviet miltary paper. He covered Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin, and was the first journalist to write about a German death camp, Treblinka. He worked with Ilya Ehrenburg on the "Black Book", a log of Nazi crimes against the Jewish people of Russia, a book that is still unpublished in Russia. His mother died when the Nazi's annihilated the Jewish population of his home town Berdichev – 20,000-30,000 people, similar to what they did at Baba Yar but on a lesser scale. His attitude towards the bureaucracy began to change during and after the war. Just prior to Stalin's death in 1952, Grossman was most likely on a list to be imprisoned. When Grossman asked Krushchev to publish Life and Fate in 1960, the KGB confiscated all copies. It was finally published in the West after being smuggled out in the early 1980s by Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Voinovich.

This novel is 871 pages, and is not for the faint of heart. Like War and Peace, it is a panoramic 1942-1943 portrait of the U.S.S.R. during the battle of Stalingrad. Grossman traces a large Russian family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered across this vast country during war time. Scenes from the book include the ruined factories and power station on the front line at Stalingrad, and across the Volga in the command areas; a science lab removed from Moscow to Kazan, and then returned to Moscow once more; imprisoned Soviet soliders in German concentration camps and imprisoned Communists and others in Soviet labour camps, including the Lubyanka; hospitals full of dying soldiers and the evacuated women waiting for them in various eastern towns; a Jewish ghetto in Berdichev surrounded by the fascists and a Nazi death camp itself; Nazi's like Eichmann, Hitler and Von Paulus; Soviet airfields and the mobile Soviet tank troops on the steppe, preparing to encircle Von Paulus’ army at Stalingrad. All add up to a series of intimate miniatures of a nation at war. Over it all is the oppressive rule of the Soviet bureaucracy, which seeps into every aspect of the novel. Some of the characters have a very difficult time handling the pressure of this state. You can see the intimate internal battles as they rage, especially in the character Victor Shtrum, who deals with the moral pressures of denunciations and confessions. Constant references to the purges of 1937 and the collapse of the Soviet armies in 1941 due to Stalin's trust of Hitler are a prelude to the action.

Like many other observers of the war years, Grossman notes that the war actually weakened the bureaucracy. The war mobilized the Soviet people, who relied on their own initiatives. The prior purges in the military and Party, the forced collectivization and the gross military errors of 1941 showed them that the rulers were not all powerful, no matter their propaganda machine or bloody hand. Trotskyists also noticed a revival of the Soviet working class during and after the war, as they became more confident of their own strengths. Many observers think this is what helped lead to the revelations in the 1950s by Khruschev, who was a general at Stalingrad.

Special reference is made to the encircled 'House 6/1'on the front line at Stalingrad, where the Soviet commander no longer sends reports back to headquarters, and the men live in the style of a commune, not a latter-day Soviet military unit. A commissar sent to dismiss the commander is 'winged' while he sleeps and must be sent back to a hospital, probably the first instance of 'fragging' in a novel on WWII. The whole house and everyone in it is then destroyed by a massive Nazi assault. Of course the 'fragging' also saved the commissar's life. The famous machine-gunning of retreating Soviet soldiers by NKVD units, made public in the film "Enemy at the Gates" is bemoaned as a military mistake by some officers. Even Ziatsev, the sniper from that film, makes an appearance, as do many other Soviet and German officers, some with their real names and some without. Grossman lived with and observed people from every grouping in Soviet society for many years from the inside. His depiction of the characters in each group is one of the great strengths of the novel.

Grossman had a life-long interest in science, and the improbable lead character Shtrum is a somewhat self-involved but creative nuclear scientist, who is dismissed for a time by the Central Committee science 'commissar" for not being "Lysenkoist" enough, or perhaps being too Jewish. In a twist of fate, Stalin himself calls Shtrum and rehabilites him, as Shtrum is involved in the valuable field of nuclear research. He has been likened to Grossman himself, or a real Soviet scientist, Lev Landau. The ties and names of the main Shaposhnikov family in the book are somewhat confusing, and hard to link to each other, but as you read you 'kind' of understand who's who. The last letter from a fictional Jewish mother in Berdichev's Jewish ghetto is based on Grossman's mother, and is heart-rending. The scenes from the death camps have become familiar to western readers and film goers, and so it must be remembered you are reading some of the first literature to describe it, if not the first.

Grossman gradually was repelled by Stalinism to the point where he equated it with fascism. Like other honest observers - Orwell and Solzhenitzyn come to mind - he developed slowly in the direction of a kind of social humanism, angry at the use or misuse of Marxism in the name of slaughter and totalitarianism. This novel stands as a great monument to the Soviet people, and to a great writer's search for 'truth'. Relatively unknown in the west, as are most Soviet writers and painters, Grossman may one day rank as the best literary product of that era, even standing above Babel, Solzhenitzyn, Gorky, Serge, Sholokhov, Rybakov and Ehrenburg.

- By Red Frog, 10/1/2007 – and I might have bought it at May Day books!

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