I am always cautious when someone recommends a long novel. Will the commitment required to get through 900 pages be rewarded? My suspicion is that the person making the suggestion, is reluctant to admit that the time they invested wasn’t worth it.
I have been caught out a number of times by these semi-committed recommendations — most memorably with Hilary Mantel’s novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety.
But for years, one book has sat like a stone on my shelf, a permanent reminder of my failure to read it. I first heard of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate from the late Persian writer, Shusha Guppy. She had read everything, in many different languages.
She had an especially high literary bar when it came to novels, and a deep intolerance of those that ran over a few hundred pages (something she generally saw, correctly, as a demonstration of authorial ill-discipline). “There are only two truly great novels of the 20th century,” she once told me assuredly. “Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (obviously) and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate“. I had read Lampedusa and agreed, but it took me almost 15 years to get beyond the first few pages of Life and Fate.
Yet, in some way, great books wait for you, biding their time until the moment you are ready for them. And when I finally took up Grossman, late last year, I knew that I needed to commit a couple of weeks to finally climbing this literary mountain. It took a good deal longer.
Anyhow, I come down from the mountain with the unoriginal but urgent recommendation to every other reader that it is one very worth climbing. Though Grossman’s journalism (including his unforgettable first-hand account of the discovery of Treblinka) is a good place to start, Life and Fate is a narrative without equal. It is the story of the midnight of the 20th century. Rotating between the atrocities in the Nazi camps and the atrocities in the Soviet Gulag system, in the midst of all this, is the centrepiece standoff of the battle for Stalingrad: the axis on which the course of the world would turn.
So what is it that makes Life and Fate so deserving of the description “great”, a realisation of which more and more English readers — not least thanks to Robert Chandler’s translation — are becoming aware? There are a number of ways in which the term can be used of a novel; a key one is if the work appears to convey every aspect of the world which it describes.
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Though it might seem impossible to do that with the panorama Grossman surveys, he manages it: from the mother of a Russian soldier travelling to find the grave of her son, to the civilians and soldiers still eking out their lives in the rubble of the besieged city; from the minds of Hitler and Eichmann to those of Stalin and the NKVD, the novel is a vivid, living x-ray of the whole 20th-century nightmare.
The novel’s tricky publishing history is now well-known. Completed in 1960, it was confiscated by the KGB and only smuggled into the West in 1980. But you can see immediately why, even in the Khrushchev period, this novel could never have been allowed. One of the central, simple insights of the work is the way in which it innocently demonstrates how Nazism and Communism were mirrors of each other.
On one side, the Nazis would put people in camps because of their racial origin. On the other, Soviet, side people could be consigned to the camps because of a relative who had chosen to live abroad or who had the “wrong” job before the revolution. In both cases, the individual could be disappeared due to factors over which they had absolutely no control. As one of the more decent Russian characters of the novel reflects:
“To me, a distinction based on social origin seems legitimate and moral. But the Germans obviously consider a distinction based on nationality to be equally moral. One thing I am certain of: it’s terrible to kill someone simply because he’s a Jew. They’re people like any others — good, bad, gifted, stupid, stolid, cheerful, kind, sensitive, greedy… Hitler says none of that matters — all that matters is that they’re Jewish. And I protest with my whole being. But then we have the same principle: what matters is whether or not you’re the son of an aristocrat, the son of a merchant, the son of a kulak; and whether you’re good-natured, wicked, gifted, kind, stupid, happy is neither here nor there. And we’re not talking about the merchants, priests and aristocrats themselves — but about their children and grandchildren. Does noble blood run in one’s veins like Jewishness? Is one a priest or a merchant by heredity?”
Never over-laboured, the mirror keeps offering up reflections. The Germans had their crazed purges just as the Russians — before, and after, as well as during 1937 — had theirs. The Nazis had Rohm, the Russians had Bukharin. Stalin and Hitler are not just evil geniuses of their own creation, but clever students of each other.
A genius of Grossman’s narrative is not just that he explains the uniqueness and similarity of these evils, but that he causes the reader to get meshed up in this for themselves. As the chapters switch from one camp to another or one command control to another, it takes time — often not until the give-away of a surname — to work out which totalitarianism we are in. It is not always at first clear whether we are in the Gulag or Auschwitz, the Reich Chancellery or the Kremlin.
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They are so close, that at one breath-holding point Grossman has the two dictators communing. Immediately after the German defeat in the city that has taken his name, Stalin has a moment of “superstitious anxiety” which makes him put down his pencil at his desk. “At that moment he could feel very clearly that Hitler — conscious of Stalin’s thoughts — was thinking about him.”
Yet it is not the occasional appearances by the dictators themselves, or the high-ups in either system, which sustains most of the narrative. What sustains it is a huge cast of families and individuals — soldiers, children, scientists, widows and functionaries — who find themselves trying to survive and who discover, and show, the unbelievably multifarious means by which human beings both manage and fail to do so. People in the worst situations suddenly do the most saintly things. And people who are far from being in the worst situations do the worst things only then to console themselves with a reflection of what their fate might otherwise have been had they acted “better”.
Some people regard Russian novels as being pretty much the only novels worth reading. And there is a reason for that: it is hard to think of any other such high literary culture in which catastrophe has been piled upon catastrophe for entire populations without respite and without any discernible meaning. Certainly with no happy ending. The Soviet troops drink radiator water and suffer the intestinal indignities of Stalingrad, where they fight, kill and die their way to victory. It is a battle, as Grossman puts it at one point, not just for the destiny but for “the freedom, of Man”.
And yet the Soviet soldiers who win, do not themselves find freedom. They win the great war for freedom only to then continue to live in Stalin’s Russia, with all the lies and indignities that will entail. One man whose heroic actions in defying a Kremlin order at a crucial moment does more than anything to win the battle for Stalingrad does not only find himself celebrated for his actions. He finds the decision he made — the correct decision — to have also been an incorrect one: because he defied an order from the Kremlin itself, his defiance is raised as something that may yet be used against him.
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Such a vast — and, yes, great — work does not lend itself to summaries or easy conclusions. But one of the dozens of things which is still milling in my head, days after finally laying down this brick of a book, are the reflections of one of the women towards the end. It is a reflection on that thing which more than anything else united the Nazis and the Communists. The thing that they both had so little care for: the individual.
“In the depths of her soul she already knew the meaning of both her own life and the lives of her nearest and dearest, not realising that even though neither she herself nor any of them could tell what was in store, even though they all knew only too well that at times like these no man can forge his own happiness and that fate alone has the power to pardon and chastise, to raise up to glory and to plunge into need, to reduce a man to labour-camp dust, nevertheless neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State, nor the glory or infamy of battle has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings.
“No, whatever life holds in store – hard-won glory, poverty and despair, or death in a labour-camp – they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man’s eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be…”