In Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s 1960 novel about the Battle of Stalingrad, dozens of characters are linked to one man, Viktor Pavlovich Strum, a high-ranking Jewish physicist. Early in this book of nearly 900 pages, Viktor’s mother, Anna Semyonova, writes to him from behind barbed wire in the Jewish ghetto where she awaits her death. The brief, passionate letter stands out like a single note amid the cacophony of war:
"When you were a child, you used to run to me for protection. Now, in moments of weakness, I want to hide my head on your knees; I want you to be strong and wise; I want you to protect and defend me. I’m not always strong in spirit, Vitya – I can be weak too. I often think about suicide, but something holds me back – some weakness, or strength, or irrational hope."
Anna’s letter was staged recently as a dramatic monologue in Paris and in New York and recorded on film by veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It’s a letter for the ages, and the massive narrative that surrounds it is equally stirring. The book’s recent reissue by Harvill Press is an important literary event, coming as it does at a time when the struggle for freedom in the midst of oppressive ideologies is evident worldwide.
Vasily Grossman was born in 1905 in Berdichev, Ukraine. He moved to Moscow in his twenties, where he became the protege of Maxim Gorky and began publishing novels and short stories. During the Second World War, Grossman worked for Red Star, the leading Soviet army newspaper, and in his role as reporter witnessed the siege of Stalingrad and the capture of Berlin. Grossman also reported on the Holocaust and its aftermath, and he became increasingly aware of his own Jewish roots.
Until 1955 Grossman’s status within the Soviet literary establishments appears to have been essentially secure, despite occasional political and anti-Semitic attacks. But the text of Life and Fate, completed in 1960, was considered blatantly anti-Soviet. The original manuscript was confiscated by KGB officers in 1961. Though it resurfaced in the West some twenty years later, smuggled out on microfilm, Grossman died in 1964 without having seen it published.
Life and Fate is a great novel of twentieth-century history, but it’s not a modern novel. With no apparent irony, Grossman wrote this exposé of the Soviet regime in a style faithful to the reigning literary fashion of Socialist realism. The outlook too is distinctly that of the nineteenth century: discrete human beings are firmly linked to each other by birth and circumstance, by their absolute values and actions or by the lack thereof; no one is isolated except in death. Personal ambiguity is not an option; people live or die by their beliefs.
Grossman portrays not only the sweeping effects of Nazism and Soviet Communism, but the ways in which these crushing ideologies daily affected individuals – fathers, mothers, children, lovers, friends. Structurally, the book shifts between several settings: the laboratories and institutes where Viktor works; a German prisoner-of-war camp; a Russian labor camp for dissidents; battalion headquarters; in a cattle car en route to the gas chambers; in the prison where political criminals are interrogated. All along the chaotic, bloody Russian front, the deployment of men and weapons, the deadliness of hunger and siege, and the cruelty, accident, and error that underlie military strategy take their horrifying toll.
In contrast, the novel’s desperate characters seek safety and solace in kitchens, overcrowded flats, and in the bombed-out cellars of the blasted countryside. Several subplots wind around the central story of Viktor, a senior member of the Soviet science community whose status becomes precarious because of rising anti-Semitism and because of his unpopular convictions about the future of Soviet research. He is an internationalist, a progressive rationalist, seeing science — and nuclear physics in particular — as a universal rather than a political endeavor.
Translated by Robert Chandler, review by Nancy Sherman