I recently finished reading Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s massive novel of the Eastern Front in World War II. Starting today and over the next few weeks, I will be posting about Grossman’s book on this blog. I hope to incite a discussion and at least encourage interest in this novel and perhaps in some of Grossman’s other writing. I believe that Life and Fate is a mostly neglected masterpiece, one of the great novels of the twentieth century, of our time, and of all time. In this short introductory post, I will make an argument for the novel’s claims to greatness and I will lay out some of the themes and subjects of Life and Fate that will be pursued in subsequent postings.
It has been said that a great novel is one that combines moral seriousness and great artistry. Life and Fate succeeds on both counts. Grossman’s main subject is the struggle to become and remain human under conditions of great adversity. He addresses this subject both directly and indirectly, and running through this theme are many intersecting narratives that support and give richness to his main idea. Grossman’s novel is a true “heteroglossia,” and he employs many voices and forms of language. His long novel has a long, diverse list of characters and settings. His writing is by turns novelistic, philosophical and poetic. He also engages in historical narrative and even literary criticism, but without cluttering the novel’s plot or structure. Paradoxically, the literary merits of the novel may have been enhanced by the fact that it was written under the threat of censorship. In the event, Grossman’s novel was suppressed in the Soviet Union as soon as it appeared in 1960. Writing under censorship may have forced Grossman to deal in metaphor and indirection where bald statements might have been clearer but not as rich or memorable. I will give examples of some of these passages in a later posting. The greatness of Life and Fate is upheld by the fact that it bears comparison to War and Peace, the other great work on Russia and a world at war on which it was based. In fact, I would argue that Life and Fate exceeds its model, at least in terms of contemporary relevance.
In Grossamn’s account, obstacles to humanity are posed by war and totalitarianism. Soviet and German is an even greater threat to humanity than war, both in its pervasiveness inherent wickedness. In Grossman’s work, war can actually develop one’s humanity. In fact, its effects are sometimes all too short-lived. Victors and vanquished often forget the hard-won lessons, the humility and courage that can thrive in war, almost before the guns are silenced. In the struggle to be human, some try hard (and often fail), some seem indifferent, and some suppress or are abashed by what humanity they have. Although, in even the most wicked (Hitler and Stalin both have speaking parts in the novel), an ember of humanity may be said to glow fitfully with the winds of fortune and setback. For Grossman, to be human requires a number of conditions. These unsurprisingly include a desire for freedom, an interest in the truth, and a capacity for love. For Grossman, it also involves an openness to doubt and complexity, which is a function of art.
The greatest enemies of human-ness in Life and Fate are the authoritarian ideologies and governmental operations seen in different forms on both sides of the conflict. Both regimes are manifestations of political evil, of evil come to roost in a political domain, where it is perhaps at its most virulent. Soviet Communism and Nazism both suppress freedom, truth, love and complexity. They punish the exercise of freedom, poison human relationships, and replace truth and complexity with solemn falsehood and banality.
Much of Life and Fate is organized around a single family and their connections. Two main characters are physicist Viktor Shtrum , a member of the family, and Army Colonel Pyotr Novikov, who is in love with Shtrum’s sister-in-law Yevgenia. The book appears to be making an analogy between science and war fighting, or between the professions of scientist and military officer. In the novel, both men must do their work under the close scrutiny and ignorant interference of political officers and commissars. One succeeds and prospers (at least at the time of the end of the novel), although at a cost. He is in effect seduced by his sudden rise, by “candies and cookies,” as he self-disparagingly puts it. The other appears to fall from favor and die, although we are never sure of the details, as many in the Soviet Union might never know the fate of their friends and family.
It is interesting that both men fall in love with women who are likely beyond reach. Their pursuit of honorable lives are possibly also hopeless, given the constraints and temptations under which they live.
Life and Fate is not only a great novel, it has enormous relevance for today. My own particular interest in the novel is as a text to educate military officers in the nature of armed conflict, the experience of war, and military decision-making. An even greater role of the novel may be in its insights into totalitarianism, given the events and trends of our time. The world depicted by Grossman is all too recognizable, and getting more so, not less, as the current century progresses.
To be continued.