Life and Fate: War and Art


                In my first post on Life and Fate, I argued for the novel’s neglected greatness. In this entry, I will make a case for the significance of Life and Fate in the canon of instructive war literature. Life and Fate belongsamong the literary works that should be read by all military officers and others engaged with the practice of armed conflict, a list that would include the Iliad and War and Peace.

                Life and Fate explores the nature of armed conflict from different directions and in different voices. Even more than War and Peace, Life and Fate ranges across the enormous Russian landscape and a multitude of vocations, cultures, and circumstances. About half of all of the characters are Soviet and German soldiers. Grossman’s depicts and conveys the language of soldiers from the rank of private through the top levels of military command and up to the political leadership, in the persons of Stalin and Hitler. He depicts infantrymen involved in grinding, close-quarters combat, aviators flying missions, officers leading and planning. All of these scenes can enhance an officer-reader’s appreciation of war, perhaps especially of war at it’s most costly and dire.  America has never experienced a war like that fought on the Eastern Front. Its geographical scale, the numbers of combatants and swept-up civilians, and the brutality of the fighting set it apart. In the background was the Soviet state’s attempt to survive, a cause for which it was willing to sacrifice millions of people, exerting draconian discipline across all of society, devouring itself for the sake of an idea and an uncertain future. An even darker backdrop is the Nazi effort to put their final solution into practice. The machinery of genocide followed close behind the German Army, and the Wehrmacht lost whatever honor it had left be being a participant in the killing of millions of innocent people.          

               For all of its uniqueness, the war in the Eastern Front as depicted by Grossman has knowledge to impart about the enduring nature of war, of military command, of the pursuit of victory and the enduring and (sometimes) overcoming of defeat. Grossman reflects on the sudden transitions in warfare, the rapid shifts from triumph to disaster that take place in the mind, impelled by a shifting sense for the unity and effectiveness of our own forces and those of the enemy. “Often,” Grossman writes, “it is the understanding of these transitions that gives warfare the right to be called an art.  This alternating sense of singularity and plurality is a key not only to the success of night-attacks by companies and battalions, but to the military success and failure of entire armies and peoples.”[i]  A short time later in the narrative, following a conversation between senior and subordinate commanders that is mostly concerned with details of tactics and reinforcements, the narrator reflects, “Another moment and it seemed that they might begin the one conversation that really mattered–about the meaning of Stalingrad.”[ii] This reflection on the meaning of the battle also places warfare in the category of art in the sense that it is the subject both of creation and interpretation. Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace for the Russian empire, Grossman’s account will come to define the Russian and Soviet people and state, perhaps by cementing their characteristic mutual inseparability. The historical significance of Stalingrad and World War II are, like works of art, subject to interpretation and re-interpretation.  Along with the memorials, the literature and art that they inspire, wars and battles themselves are in this sense works of arts, vortices through which different forms of meaning are continually rushing: aesthetic, moral, historical, infinite.                     

                I had a personal encounter once that gave me an idea of the different forms the memory of Stalingrad could take. On a cool New York morning in the nineteen-eighties I was home on leave, staying at my mother’s apartment house in Manhattan. I left the building to go running, and the doorman, a large individual with a heavy accent, pointed to the letters on my sweatshirt. “USMC, United States Marine Corps!” I asked how he knew this, thinking that as a foreigner, perhaps a recent immigrant, knowledge of the initials of the smallest military branch in the Defense Department had probably not been part of his upbringing. He was a soldier too, he said. He had been a member of a 155mm artillery battery in the Soviet Army in World War II. I had recently read a book on Stalingrad, and I impetuously asked him if he had been in the Battle of Stalingrad.  I still remember his response. With a kindly, patient expression, he waved a finger at me. “No, no” he said “if was at Stalingrad then, would not be here now.” His division, it turned out, had been pulled from the Stalingrad sector about a month before the battle began.  He believed that if they had stayed, and been there from the beginning of the epic fight, it is most unlikely that he would have survived. I’ve forgotten what book it was I read on Stalingrad, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that brief conversation.   

[i] Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Robert Chandler, trans. (New York: New York Review Books, 1985), p. 48.

[ii] Ibid, 56.

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