Life and Fate
In my previous post I wrote about a book I was reading when I was nineteen. It was a wonderful time in my reading life, when I read voraciously: WAR AND PEACE, ANNA KARENINA, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, quite apart from the books that I was required to read for my English degree.I used to be so moved by them, so caught up, touched, amazed, shocked. It’s been a long time since I was swept away like that by a novel but it happened this summer, when I read Vasily Grossman’s LIFE AND FATE and was moved to tears. It has to be one of greatest novels of the twentieth century. Completed in 1960, it was confiscated by the KGB, only the second time a book was ‘arrested.’ The other book was The Gulag Archipelago. Grossman died in 1964. The novel was smuggled into the West and published in 1980. Set around the time of the Battle of Stalingrad, it is a panoramic novel, describing the lives of one particular family, but spreading out far beyond it to encompass many viewpoints, not just in a Russian labour camp, but also German concentration camp, and takes us behind both the Russian and the German front lines. Grossman drew on his own experiences both as a war correspondent and on a more personal level. Victor, one of the central characters, is riven with guilt over the death of his mother, whom he failed to get evacuated before the German invasion. This was Grossman’s own experience as was an episode when a grenade lands between a soldier’s feet and fails to detonate. It sounds like a sombre read, and it is, but there are flashes of humour, comedy even, some of it is bitterly ironic. Grossman brilliantly describes the psychology of those caught up in the workings of a totalitarian state, the convoluted thought processes through which the betrayal of friends and ideals can be justified. And the novel is also deeply moving, most of all in the section on the journey and arrival at a German death camp of a childess woman doctor and a solitary six year old boy. She turns down a chance to save herself when doctors are taken out of the line, so that David won’t go alone into the gas chamber. LIFE AND FATE is a truly wonderful novel, a genuine masterpiece.