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Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

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Joined: June 2010

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Post by writerinthenorth » Fri March 23rd, 2012, 1:50 pm

Rating: ****

Prepare for a difficult read, in every sense of the word. Grossman’s novel, never published in his lifetime, is huge and sprawling, with a overloaded cast list (17 pages in my Kindle edition) of Russians and Germans with confusing, exchangable and sometimes maddeningly similar names, and a plot like an untidy ball of twine with strands appearing out of knots and disappearing into ravels. And searingly difficult on the emotions, tortured most in the hauntingly detailed death-camp scenes, but pricked at every turn as the chief characters in the story love, hurt, deceive and misunderstand each other while they scrabble or hunker down to survive the ravages of war amid the secrecy, paranoia and distorted values of Stalin’s Russia.

So why four stars? Because this is almost a great book, or rather the rough diamond of a great book, with certain characters and episodes that will lodge in your mind and live in your memory as they do in great books. I think Grossman must have had it in mind to write a War and Peace for his time (note the associative title) and if he does not quite achieve that in the round there is enough in the particular to give him a deserved place not so far below Tolstoy and Russia’s other truly outstanding writers.

I came to this novel through first listening to the BBC’s audio adaptation broadcast across a week in the autumn of 2011. Necessarily, the radio version cut out many of the characters and sub-plots of the novel, leaving the essence of Life and Fate, most memorably: the harrowing journey of Sofya Levinton and the boy David to the gas chamber; the betrayal, imprisonment and torture of the ‘Bolshevik’ commissar Nikolay Krymov; the tribulations of the Shaposhnikov family, especially the head of the household, physicist Viktor Shtrum.

It is important to remember that Grossman never had the opportunity to edit his book for publication. The manuscript was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 - even Grossman’s typewriter ribbon was confiscated along with his typescript. Though the author (who had shown himself in the past a good Party man) escaped jail, he was told his book would not be published in 200 years, and it may not have been but for the smuggling out of the country of a microfilm of his last draft, which was published in English in 1985. The excellent translation I read is by Robert Chandler.

So, buy the book and put plenty of time aside to read it with your fullest attention. Best of luck with the names - my head is still reeling, but it’s reeling too with the sheer power of this extraordinary novel.
Last edited by writerinthenorth on Fri March 23rd, 2012, 1:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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