Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate – A Review│ Ben Khamis

In Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism – a difficult book, but, it seems increasingly clear, the most important critical work of the last twenty years – Fredric Jameson observes that ‘the disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche.’ This thought-provoking assertion captures a truth about the shift from the modern to the postmodern: there is something pastiche-like about a great many contemporary writers, not least those who write in a personal voice which is in itself a variety of pastiche. Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate is fascinating for many reasons, and one of them is the way that it is both a pastiche and a personal statement; a conscious, cold-blooded attempt to sum up everything Grossman knew about the Great Patriotic War, and at the same time to rewrite War and Peace. Tolstoy’s novel was the only book Grossman read during the war, and he read it twice; War and Peace hangs over Grossman’s book as a template and a lodestar, and the measure of Grossman’s achievement is that a comparison between the two books is not grotesque.

Part of what Tolstoy’s example did for Grossman was to give him a place on which to stand, a vantage point. We can see this by considering what some English-language writers did with the war. The two British novelists who went off to the war in mid-career in their mid-thirties, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, both wrote books about what they had seen at first hand, Waugh’s war being more overtly interesting (the Commandos, Crete, parachute training, Yugoslavia) but Powell’s more typical (garrison duties, staff work, office politics). In America, the writers who went off to war were younger, apprentice meteors. Gore Vidal wrote a small, cool, personal book in Williwaw; Norman Mailer attempted in The Naked and the Dead to write the Big Novel about the war and ended up writing a kind of pastiche, a strange hybrid of modernist ambition and postmodernist decentredness – a fake, perhaps, but an interesting one.

As Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova’s superb book A Writer at War makes clear, Grossman saw more of the war than any of them; more than any other writer. He volunteered to fight but, tubby, short-sighted and unathletic as he was, was sent instead to cover the war for Krasnaya Zvezda, the army newspaper. In that capacity he was present at the initial collapse of the Russian army in response to Operation Barbarossa, and the rapidity of the German advance very nearly led on more than one occasion to his capture. He covered the counter-attacks of early 1942 and then went south later that year, providentially, so that he was ideally placed to cover the battle of Stalingrad. He repeatedly crossed the Volga to the west bank, home of the ‘Stalingrad Academy of Street Fighting’ and interviewed everyone from the famous sniper Chekhov to the commander Chuikov. His reports were vivid but also had a flintiness and a realism about death – much more so than in equivalent Anglo-American war writing – and were very popular with the troops. He was in Stalingrad for five months.

As the Russian army advanced westward Grossman travelled with them. He was present at Kursk, the greatest tank battle in history, and when he came to his birthplace of Berdichev in the Ukraine began to understand the full extent of what the Nazis had done. His writing about the Holocaust has a rare freshness, because he was writing at the same moment he was finding out what had happened. It is as if Grossman, an assimilated Jew, became more conscious of his own ethnicity through confronting evidence of the Holocaust.

“There are no Jews in the Ukraine. Nowhere – Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, Yagotin – in none of the cities, hundreds of towns, or thousands of villages will you see the black, tear-filled eyes of little girls; you will not hear the pained voice of an old woman; you will not see the dark face of a hungry baby. All is silence. Everything is still. A whole people has been brutally murdered.”

Krasnaya Zvezda would not publish that piece – a glimpse of trouble to come. Grossman began to assemble material for what would be the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee’s Black Book, detailing Nazi atrocities. ​ He arrived at Treblinka, and although the death camp had been demolished by the Nazis on Himmler’s direct order, he interviewed witnesses and survivors and published the first account of the camps in any language. His article was a remarkable piece of journalistic assiduity and was of sufficient weight as a piece of evidence to be quoted at the Nuremberg trials. He travelled through Warsaw and Lodz and followed the final assault on Berlin; he was in the city on the day of its capitulation, and on that very day, wandering around the Reich chancellery, went into Hitler’s office and took out a selection of his desk stamps – ‘The Führer has confirmed’, ‘The Führer has agreed’ and so on. It’s difficult to imagine a more definitive closeness to the action than that. Quite a few writers covered the war as journalists and covered it well – Liebling, Malaparte, Gellhorn – but no one got anywhere near Grossman for the amount of time he spent at the front and the historic centrality of the actions he witnessed. I’m not sure there has been a parallel in the writing on any other war.

To say that Grossman had a lot of material to work with, when he sat down to write his war novel, would be to understate. So much material; and so many different perspectives; and so many stories to bring to life. Grossman had already written several novels. It would be interesting to know if he considered adopting a fragmentary, impressionistic method for his war book; some of the journalism has a choppy, imagistic technique which is in some respects more modern in feeling than the novel he came to write. But in the event, it was Tolstoy he turned to as a model, as much for the sense of a stable moral perspective as for the fictional techniques: an omniscient third-person observer, a panoramic breadth of focus, a plot which uses a central family group as a way of organising a huge cast of characters. Faced with the greatest horrors of the 20th century, Grossman took up a position in the 19th century as a vantage point.

He did not get it right first time. His first big novel about the war, For a Just Cause, is regarded by those who have read it as a Socialist Mouthpiece, in which the characters, no more than ‘names with problems’, wander round spouting Stalinist clichés. I can’t comment directly because it hasn’t been translated, but there is something intriguing in the fact that Life and Fate is the sequel to this dud; as if cardboard characters – indeed, the same characters – were suddenly and magically to come to life. Grossman had had more time to digest his experiences, and his gradual disillusionment with the Soviet system led him to see the events of the war, and therefore the people who had taken part in it, more clearly.

When For a Just Cause came out it was first praised and then, apparently as part of the anti-Semitic turn of the times, denounced. Beevor and Vinogradova make the point that Stalin’s anti-Semitism was less a matter of racist ideology and more a kind of xenophobia. In any case, it bore down heavily on Grossman. Strangely, it might have been this anti-Semitism that made his artistic instincts come to life, and therefore made Life and Fate into the book it is. Grossman was never a Party member and several people close to him had spent time in prison for political offences – his cousin, his second wife – but he, to use the language of a different set of circumstances, made the choice to ‘work within the system’. He did not, however, manage to delude himself in the way that his friend Ilya Ehrenburg did, and became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet system. The growing anti-Semitism of Stalin’s later years was a big part of this. In 1952, Grossman was forced to sign a petition condemning the Jewish doctors involved in the notorious non-existent plot; in the novel he assigns a similar humiliation to the scientist and alter ego Viktor Shtrum. In doing so he antedated the anti-Semitic campaigns of Stalin’s last years and brought them forward into the period of the war. This transposition hints that it may have been his encounters with anti-Semitisms that galvanised Grossman into seeing through the pieties of For a Just Cause, and turned Life and Fate into a great novel.


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