Life and Fate

May 18, 2008

I feel comfortable calling this novel, Life and Fate, one of the greatest ever – certainly of all I’ve read.  For years, I had heard of this book, and finally I am reading it.  All 850 pages of it.  It is a monument to the disaster of the twentieth century, the century of mass murder, totalitarian rule, and ideological dementia.

That’s Vassily Grossman up there, the loyal communist who served as a war correspondent on the front lines with the Soviet Army and who wrote the first journalistic accounts – he was an eyewitness – of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.  He must have seen too much, learned too much.  His novel was written in secret, published outside of the USSR – he was hounded, his typwriter and its RIBBONS confiscated.  He died not knowing if his work would see the light of day.  When he wrote this book, he had come to believe that Nazism and Stalin’s Communism were different only in name – not an idea that you could hold comfortably if you were living in Russia.

He wrote of Stalingrad – the mind boggling six month battle that broke the German war machine and sent them reeling back to Berlin.  (Here in the USA, we think of D-Day as the “mother of all battles,” but on the eastern front, they had a D-Day practically every week.)  He wrote of the civilians on their way to the gas chambers.  He wrote of decent men and women trying to serve their country and rid it of the Nazi murderers, but having to always look over their shoulder in case the NKVD was listening in on them.  That joke you told…that song you were singing..was it in the Bolshevik spirit?  You say you held off thirty German attacks here?  Then why haven’t you filed your reports?  Are you taking care to inculcate the proper class-spirit with your men?… He wrote of intellectuals trying to deal with the horror of the purges of the 1930s and of the Ukranian famine – all directed by the Supremo, Comarade Stalin.  He wrote of the Gulag.  And he wrote of the disease of anti-semitism, in Germany and in the USSR.

The title of the book echoes Tolstoy’s War and Peace for obvious reasons.  Recently, I gave up reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read twice many years ago.  That book, similarly ambitious in scope, seems like a trivial joke next to Grossman’s work.  The same for Vollman’s Europe Central.  Grossman uses no clever tricks, no post-modern jive, no meta-ironies…none of that.  He has a style though.  He knows exactly what he is doing:  hitting you over the head with a gigantic brick so you will know a little bit of what he saw.