So you want to read Vasily Grossman's Soviet Novel 'Life and Fate'?
I first picked up Grossman's novel casually just under a year ago, during the springtime. I read 50 pages then quit.
I was baffled by the dry reportage, the lack of stage direction, and the strange alternations of bare journalistic prose with broad modern novel prose. And I didn't understand what the hell the novel was about.
Of course we all know what it's about, don't we? It's about the battle of Stalingrad, It's about the Shaposnikova family, It's about the Second World War!
But lacking the same context on these subjects as Grossman, the need for such a novel is simply not evident to the common reader. Honestly, my first impression was that I was reading a ripoff of Tolstoy's "War and Peace". And indeed there are moments when we feel a sort of de ja vous from that other, more sunlit world of Tolstoy's Napoleonic Russia. But while the connections between this novel and that other great one are fruitful, this is a separate and stand-alone novel.
So why the need for "Life and Fate"?
Before I answer that question, let me just say that I like to read a Russian novel every winter here in Australia. Something about the heavy Russian soul makes me feel light and happy in the dark days of our tepid Australian cold season. I don't know why Russian literature cheers me up, but it does. Chekhov makes me feel smart and grateful to be alive. Dostoyevsky makes me laugh like a devil. Tolstoy makes me smile and feel astonished at the beauty of the world. And so on. They just help me. But this year I decided, "Why not go Soviet this winter? Why not read Grossman's 'Life and Fate'?"
The idea excited me. All the other Soviet literature had proven bad. Bulgakov's Master and Margarita novel had proven so disappointing, a kind of surreal Dostoyevsky time-travel pulp novel. Solzhenitsyn to be a poor man's Tolstoy, except where Tolstoy abdicated his genius to Christian cultism, Solzhenitsyn seems to have allowed politics to consume his art. And while Isaac Babel was a genius, he was as sad as a blood moon. Only Ivan Bunin had proven truly astonishing, and he was from the expat Russian crowd, less of a Soviet and more of a Russian democrat like Chekhov, and therefore of an earlier age. Of the lot of them, only Grossman remained unread. So I was naturally excited to read him.
But his novel seemed impenetrable.
I'd like, therefore, to present some short notes on reading Grossman's "Life and Fate", that enable the reader to gain entree to the novel most easily and quickly. Here they are:
Context. The Battle of Stalingrad is the biggest, baddest, and most horrible ground war in human history. And we know almost nothing about it here in the West. "Life and Fate" is about that.
Context, part two. The reality of the Eastern Front of World War Two is so alien to us here in the West, so impossible for us to imagine, that it needs in and of itself some indepth study. The single best summary and overview point is Dan Carlin's Hardcore History series. Anything else you read or see on the subject will seriously repeat the same points Dan makes here, less clearly and less effectively. It's that good. So I recommend you purchase Dan's talk on the subject, which is astonishing in almost every respect.
Context, part three. If you want pictures and a slower pace of absorption of the full horror of this historical event, you can check out this youtube playlist, or this one, or this one. The reality of the Battle of Stalingrad is the reason why this book is worth reading, first and foremost. This aint a walk in the park. The best way to prepare is to understand that Grossman was at the battle and saw it all, and so he can write with authority on this event which is almost totally unknown to us.
Structure. "Life and Fate" is a trilogy or a novel in three parts. Part one is 306 pages and 71 chapters. Part two is 289 pages and 63 chapters. Part three is 256 pages and 61 chapters. The book therefore has a total of 195 chapters.
Pace. If you read two chapters a night, you'll be reading roughly one percent of the book each day and will be done in 100 days. That will take you from the dead of winter to the end of springtime, when you should instead have been reading something French. That frankly is too long a time to spend on a novel. On the other hand, if you read five chapters a night, you'll be reading it in 39 days, just over a month. Also (let's be real here) too long a time for a single novel. No; if you want to read this novel, and not give up from boredom or simple moral and emotional exhustion, it must be done in two weeks. This means you must read 14 chapters a day, in order to get through the novel at an efficient pace. Any slower than that, tl;dr.
Pace, part two. Wanna read this novel fast? If you read 28 chapters a day, then you will finish it within 7 days. But consider reading the rest of these notes before you finish and having the character list bookmarked. Just for an idea of how much that is: the first 28 chapters take up 128 pages. Wanna go crazy-fast? Just read 65 chapters a day and you'll be done in three days. But it's gonna hurt!
Names. Every group of chapters hangs on a name, not on a plot point. Once you know whose name the chapter hangs on, then you know what the chapter means. Chapters don't exist to advance the plot (which after all is minimal; there's a lot of story, certainly, but the plot is mostly internal and limited to feelings and ideas); the characters' inner experiences in and of themselves are the plot. If you don't know the difference between story and plot check out E.M.Forster's short book on Aspects of the Novel.
Style. It would be a misrepresentation to label Grossman a mere reporter. What Russian novelist could settle for reportage after "War and Peace" anyway? But the obnoxious Tolstoyan grand essay, in the style of the Enlightenment French essayist, was already old and funky in Tolstoy's day, and no longer suits modern needs. So instead Grossman opts for an oddly Germanic style of reflection, which, however, has a subject matter which reminds me more of Proust than of Thomas Mann! The chapter I have in mind is chapter 11, where Krymov is contemplating the passing of time. Notice how clipped and precise the diction is here? There is nothing French about it, and everything reflects the stolid prose of the Germans. And yet it is about the flowing and subtle matter of time, a matter which we are accustomed to reading about in the French, but never in the Russian. Only Tolstoy evinces an interest in time, and then it is only in the light of the eternal. So Grossman's prose remains a Tolstoy in pieces, a shattered Tolstoy benighted in an apocalyptic Napoleonic War Part Two.
Theme. It would be too much to say that Grossman enters his character's heads. He doesn't. With the soldiers especially we feel ourselves hovering on their shoulders like an angel of reportage, or focused on what their hands and eyes are focused on. Naturally a soldier should be outward-looking I suppose. But the interiority of these characters is so remote, so strained and elusive, that we could almost be dealing with machines rather than men. Is this the homo sovieticus we heard so much about in the high days of the Cold War? A man without feelings, without ideas, without connection, except to the State above and alone and to the State's instruments of war and peace? If this is homo sovieticus, then it is as a nightmare Tolstoy, an inversion of the sunny Russian world of Leo Tolstoy. Soviet collectivism is a dark thing, to be sure; but there is that which is unsaid in this prose that is a good deal darker than anything we can say; things about the feeling and the heart and mind of men living in such a system, which (thankfully) no words exist to tell of.
Names, part two. We had said that each chapter is hung on a name like a coat is hung on a peg. Let's examine which names are used as pegs. Chapters 1 to 6 in the German concentration camp are hung on the peg of Mostovskoy, ending (like music) on the tone of "Let's give the Germans a run for their money!" The following war chapters are hung on four Russian officers' names, General Chukyok (7), General Krylov (8), Lieutenant-General Zakharov (8), and then a beautiful sequence of front-line chapters (10-12) hung on the note of Krymov. In chapter 13 Chukyov on the front is visited by an historical figure, Yeremenko, and the two men dance around the obvious question of "the meaning of Stalingrad", without ever saying what's really on their minds. Then we follow one Major Byerozkin into the actual warzone for an inspection of the troops inside the fighting in chapter 14. Only then, after 14 harrowing chapters which would have lost the reader unaware of the historical events, do we finally meet Lyudmila Shaposhnikova, who provides the hook for the two chapters, 15 and 16. Finally, her son Tolya takes centerstage (albeit through her consciousness as a reader) with his letter in chapter 17. Each chapter is hung on a name like a coat on a peg, yes. But we can see from this that each name is an emotional key, the key of a bit of music, and so the entire discordant mess of this book resembles nothing so much as a discordant musical quartet by Shostakovich.
That ought to be enough to get you started. These notes present my path to grasping the novel as fully as I can, as a Westerner. I wish you all the best in reading this great Soviet novel, one of the very few to have survived this terrible period of history.
UPDATE July 9th: I quit on this book just over half way.
All the historical and cultural interest cannot defeat the bleakness and hopelessness of the scenario of Nazis versus Soviets.
I have heard there is a virtue in not completing things that are of lower value. And this novel is definitely of lower value to me now.
And it's also true, I believe, that one cannot judge a novel unless one has read the whole thing, beginning, middle, and end, so I will refrain from passing judgment on this novel. But I will say that Grossman's novel is of lesser importance to me now, having read 418 pages of it. Never have I given up a novel which interested and involved me. But - you know - life's too short. I may write an appreciation of what I have read so far.