Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Grossman Matters

What You Need to Know about Life and Fate

For almost a year, my life has been suffused with the novel Life and Fate, having first read it, then having been involved in the recording of several of the Radio 4 plays, having drawn the family tree for the Radio 4 website, and finally having attended the two-day conference on the subject at St Peter’s College, Oxford (and I’m currently reading A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-45). Yet for many, their involvement with the novel has spanned years or decades. Yet for many more, the title conjures up a blank look.

Over this time I have picked up what I see as the kernels of essential knowledge which I present here in an attempt to explain to those who have heard me babbling about Life and Fate what it’s all about. It’s part of my wider, and ongoing, project to increase interest in radio drama.

• In 1905, a boy was born in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev to a pair of “second guild,” intellectual middle-class Jews. The Russified name he used all his life was Vasily Grossman.
• He wanted to study chemistry after the 1917 Revolution made equality among the “nations” at least for at time more than an ideal. The sciences were prestige careers, seen as the riding the crest of a Soviet future. He attended University but it took him six years to get through his course of study; writing held more interest for him than chemistry.
• He became a moderately successful writer of short stories and an unfinished patriotic novel in the 1930s; he towed the Party line. Contrary to popular myth, there is no evidence to suggest that Stalin himself blocked Grossman from winning the Stalin Prize for his novel Stepan Kol’chugin, but certainly Grossman’s abilities had made him enemies (1).
• He got married and had a daughter, Ekaterina, but was an absentee father and left her in Berdichev to be raised by his mother while he was in Moscow. His parents had separated and he, too, separated from his first wife, only to take another who persuaded him not to bring his mother to live with them- a decision that would haunt him the rest of his life.
• He did not intervene in the “Great Purges” of the 1930s when his cousin was taken away and he was sent for interrogation in the Lubyanka; however, he did rush to adopt his second wife’s children when she was under suspicion for her first husband’s “suspect” activities.
• Having eschewed national service by a tubercular (mis?)diagnosis, he still idolized the men at the front and was sent on assignment by the military paper Red Star from 1941-45 as their (eventual) leading correspondent. His articles were read avidly due to his ability to get the low-down from just about anybody, his courageous ability to tell the truth above and beyond mere propaganda, his bravery (and sheer luck) at being one step ahead of the Germans, and his eye for detail. He had incredible memory recall and didn’t take notes during his interviews, rewriting conversations during the night.
• His article on being among the first to enter Treblinka was used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials.
• His later fiction, including the novel For a Just Cause was not held in as high esteem in the USSR. We do not yet have access to much of his later work to translate it into English. His last novel, in fact, is translated under two different titles, depending on who you ask: Forever Flowing/Everything Flows.

Life and Fate
• The “sequel” to For a Just Cause was completed in the early 1960s and was based on Grossman’s experiences at the front, specifically the siege of Stalingrad. With the death of Stalin, Grossman ventured to send the Life and Fate out for publication. It was seized by the KGB; rather than arrest Grossman, they arrested the book. After writing a plea to Khrushchev, Grossman was answered that his book would not see publication for 250 years. He died a few years later.
• But he had been canny and had made sure that copies survived with friends. Two microfilm copies were smuggled to the West but the Russian ex-pat press were slow to print. Only in 1988 did it appear in English for the first time.
Life and Fate still remains relatively unknown in English, even among Russian-speakers, and is more or less ignored in Russia and the Ukraine.

Why Should We Care?- Why Should We Read the Book and Listen to the Radio Plays?
• As Laura Guillaume (Aberystwyth/Open University) (2) puts it, in Life and Fate, Grossman doesn’t offer a guide to judgement. In part he exonerates individuals and puts responsibility on the state— but that is not his only attitude. Time and time again, devotees, admirers and scholars of the work point to the fact that Grossman’s characters live their lives without moralizing authorial comment. Lieutenant Peter Bach, Comrade Stalin, Viktor Shtrum, SS Officer Liss, all are represented as complex human beings in shades of grey. Jonathan Myerson spoke of Grossman’s “documentary” style writing which is both accessible and can in some ways be more powerful than more “emotional” writing.
• One of the most chilling scenes in the book, and whose power in the plays I can attest to, having been there at the recording, is a late-night phone call to Viktor Shtrum from Stalin. I won’t spoil its content, but apparently Grossman was inspired to write this from the experience of his colleague Ilya Ehrenburg. Ehrenburg was another prominent Soviet Jewish writer who became adept at manipulating the system to his advantage; with Grossman, he collaborated on the Black Book project which challenged the official Soviet view of German wartime atrocities against Jews. The Stalin phone call scene is a perfect example of, as Joshua Rubenstein (Harvard) (3) put it, “How did one survive [the Soviet experience]? Only Stalin knows.”
• Often the comparison is made to War and Peace, Grossman’s favorite reading (it was the only thing he could read during the war and he read it twice). Like War and Peace, Grossman’s story is in many ways a family saga which centers on the Shaposhnikovs (mother Alexandra, siblings Dmitri, Marusya, Lyuda, and Zhenya, and their children and relatives). Lyuda’s second husband is the arguably central character, Viktor Shtrum, but her first husband, Abarchuk, is worth mentioning. He is the subject of a Woman’s Hour play. At the time of the novel, he is in a work camp where he has been incarcerated as a “political” even though he is a devoted communist and was taught by disciples of Lenin. Though Abarchuk- like many of his real-life counterparts- believes fervently that he is serving the Party by his imprisonment and would try to rejoin the Party upon his release, it’s clear from the events of the novel that it was not a viewpoint Grossman would, in the end, advocate.
• Though upon reading the book I preferred Zhenya’s lover, the young tankist Novikov, to her first husband, Krymov, Krymov’s story is utterly central to the book. As Jekaterina Shulga (UCL) (4) argues very persuasively, Krymov is a victim of time; he is tortured by time. In For a Just Cause, he was utterly relevant to the politics of the time; by Life and Fate, he is out of step with reality. I look forward to hearing him portrayed in the plays by David Tennant.
• Mike Walker’s admitted favorite character is Nadya, Lyuda and Viktor’s teenage daughter. On a BBC panel as writers and scholars discussed Grossman, it was noted that no one can ever really be sure what people in this time period were “really” thinking; what they said in interrogation may have been said for entirely different purposes than the truth. To me, at least in Ellie Kendrick’s performance in the plays, despite Nadya’s “modern” and teenage rebelliousness and play at anarchy, I don’t think you ever know what she is thinking.
Life and Fate has been adapted on radio before, in France, Germany, and Italy, and apparently at the moment is being depicted on Russian TV. But never before has it taken the shape the BBC is devoting: 13 drama slots over 8 days (18-25 September on Radio 4). Personally I feel they have covered most of the strands of the narrative well (admittedly, though, they have left out Darensky on the Steppes). Life and Fate also has the commitment of some of Britain’s finest actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Janet Suzman, Greta Scacci, John Sessions, Harriet Walter, and Kenneth Cranham (and the aforementioned David Tennant). And let’s not forget the extremely talented Rep actors who populate roles minor and major.
• As noted by Wendy Lower (Ludwig Maximilian University) (6), less than 2% of Ukrainian Jews survived German occupation (most were shot). Grossman highlights their plight in two strands that have been hauntingly dramatized in the plays. One is Viktor’s mother Anna, whose story mirrors that of the mother Grossman left behind in Berdichev. Grossman drew strength from his mother’s generous moral example, as does Viktor. Secondly, a family friend of the Shaposhnikovs, Dr Sofya Levinton, is in her fifties when she finds herself on the way to the gas chambers. Her act of “senseless kindness” is one of the most poignant episodes of the book.
• I’m not a scholar of Russian literature, but I know what I like. Style-wise, I prefer the novels of Bulgakov to Life and Fate, whereas Grossman eschewed language that was self-consciously poetic. Nevertheless, Grossman has a way with images that, in the words of Andrey Kurkov, make his writing about the terrible seem beautiful. Even reading A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-45 it’s impossible not to notice Grossman’s notes on every arresting scene, dialogue, or image.
• Because of the novel’s past, it is still relatively unknown in English- except in certain academic circles. In fact, though these circles hold onto Grossman with fierce loyalty, these scholarly elite are quite possessive and factionalized. The novel is not especially hot property in Russia at the moment, so if the radio adaptations and the patronage of “popular” novelists like Linda Grant bring new Grossman fans to the fold, I think it’s definitely a good thing.
• Argued very persuasively by Alex Danchev (University of Nottingham) (7) , Ikonnokov, the “holy fool” in the German labor camp is a moral witness and presents Grossman’s case for an ethics of small acts of human kindness. There are many examples of this in the novel which help it achieve a sense of morale-boosting. In this ethic, the beneficiary of the act of kindness need not be deserving, and the agent may not be comprehending. This is a wonderful thought and an uplifting way to look at the book, Grossman’s fate, and our own times.


[1] As put forth in Yury Bit-Yunan’s paper “Vasily Grossman’s Stepan Kol’chugin in the Historical and Literary Contexts of the Stalin Era.”
[2] Taken from her paper “It is a Terrible Thing to Condemn Even a Terrible Man: Vasily Grossman on Judging Perpetrators.”
[3] Taken from his paper “Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg: the Second World War, the Holocaust and Responses to German and Soviet Anti-Semitism.”
[4] Taken from her paper “The Freedom Within: Time, Temporality, and Trauma in For a Just Cause and Life and Fate.”
[5] Taken from her paper “Vasily Grossman’s Berdychiv and Soviet Knowledge of the Holocaust in Ukraine.”
[6] Taken from his paper “Vasily Grossman’s Ethics.”

Some Amusing/Useful Life and Fate Quotes from the Past Year

[during a recording session of one of the plays] “In principle, the only problem with that is the acting.” -Director Alison Hindell

[On the sound effects of Col. Novikov’s egg-eating] “Have I painted the picture the way you wanted it?” –Actor Don Gilet

“Have you read the book yet?”
“Well, if Kenneth Branagh can do it on the radio ...” –overheard conversation at first session on BBC Life and Fate Day in Oxford, St Peter’s College Chapel

“Culture can reveal a deeper truth about the present as well as the past.” -Gwyneth Williams, Controller of Radio 4

[to Greta Scacchi, playing his wife Lyuda] “You did wonderful slipper work, darling, it just lost something textually.” –Actor Kenneth Branagh

[The line was Viktor’s, “my skull is unstitching”] “My skill is unstitching.” -Kenneth Branagh

“We love them [the characters], we hate them, we fear them ... Grossman makes you care.” –Dramatist Mike Walker

“True evil comes when you ally atavistic hatred with science.” –Grossman Biographer Carol Garrard

“He never makes you judge them [the characters]. He leaves the reader to reach their own conclusions ... some characters are not brave when they should be, some are extremely brave when they needn’t be.” -Alison Hindell

I will, of course, write extensively on the radio plays once I hear them.


Essential links:

Read all about it on the Radio 4 website