“Life and Fate”
War, Peace and Love: Vasily Grossman’s Epic Novel Is Transformed for the Radio
The Economist, 10 September 2011
Few novels have the foes and fans of “Life and Fate”, Vasily Grossman’s vast book about the Nazis and Soviets at war. The Soviet Communist Party’s ideology chief said it would be more damaging even than Boris Pasternak’s “Dr Zhivago”. That was a high accolade. Another was that the book itself was arrested. In 1961 the KGB confiscated the typescript and even, for good measure, the typewriter ribbon. Grossman, once a loyal party man and an acclaimed war correspondent, was spared jail. But he died four years later, fearing that his sprawling work would never be published (the authorities had said mockingly that it might happen in 200 years). Many years later Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet dissident, helped smuggle a microfilm copy to the West, where it was eventually published in English in 1985.
The book was not an immediate success. For some years it was overshadowed by the better known work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and by the excitement of reform and then collapse in the Soviet Union. It is also intimidatingly long, with a swirling cast of scores of confusingly named characters. Hundreds of pages sometimes separate their appearances. The sweep of Grossman’s pen can exhaust the reader. True to its title, “Life and Fate” mixes gritty battlefield descriptions with acute psychological insights, wrenching dilemmas and deep philosophical reflections about the nature of good and evil. It is at once funny, gruesome, tragic, informative, romantic and disconcerting. The central message of horror jars with the simplistic but widely held notion that the war was a black- and-white struggle between beastly Nazis and their valiant adversaries.
For Grossman, the Nazi and Soviet systems and ideologies had far more similarities than differences. Both were directed at crushing the ultimate qualities of kindness and individuality. Though he yearned for the defeat of the fascist invaders, he makes German soldiers out to be not monsters, but like their Soviet counterparts—humans consigned to an inhuman mincing machine. The zealots, bigots and creeps on both sides come across with equal clarity. His portrait of the state-sponsored anti-Semitism directed against the Soviet physicist, Viktor Shtrum, is especially chilling, set against the jovially run gas chambers on the other side of the front-line.
Eventually the book took off and “Life and Fate” is now considered one of the most important Russian novels of the last century. Some see it as a counterpart to Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (though it is more readable). Its greatest devotees praise it even more extravagantly.
Now Radio 4, an important BBC domestic station, has taken the bold decision to dramatise the book and broadcast it over the course of a week, using every drama slot in the schedules and a cast of stars. Shtrum is played by Kenneth Branagh, his wife Lyuda by Greta Scacchi and his mother Anna by Janet Suzman. One highlight is when Anna reads, in a single 15-minute segment, a letter—in effect a lament for all east European Jewry—written while she is close to death in the ghetto in Berdichev, in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.
Radio drama has its limitations. The grittiness of Grossman’s dialogue becomes a little bland in the well-modulated voices of the British actors. Sound effects and grumpy asides do not fully convey the lice and foul food of the ruin in Stalingrad, where a bunch of exhausted Russian soldiers resist an implacable German assault, while commissars fret about their lack of discipline.
It is not only descriptive passages that have suffered in the editing. Some of the characters and subplots have disappeared altogether. Purists will object to that. But a bit of pruning is justified. Grossman never had the chance to edit his novel as he wished: the edition published was only a late draft, with untidy and repetitive bits left in. Thanks to the BBC, the essence of “Life and Fate”—the lion-hearted tank commander, the diehard idealists, the love-struck pilot, the scheming party hacks and most of all Shtrum, betraying and betrayed—all come across powerfully: true to life and fate.