Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate is fascinating for many reasons, and one of them is the way that it is both a pastiche and a personal statement; a conscious, cold-blooded attempt to sum up everything Grossman knew about the Great Patriotic War, and at the same time to rewrite War and Peace. Tolstoy’s novel was the only book Grossman read during the war, and he read it twice; War and Peace hangs over Grossman’s book as a template and a lodestar, and the measure of Grossman’s achievement is that a comparison between the two books is not grotesque.
Life and Fate also contains ‘one of the most extraordinary, electric moments in 20th-century literature’, when Viktor Shtrum (Kenneth Branagh to Radio 4 listeners) receives a phone call in the middle of the night:
A voice unbelievably similar to the voice that had addressed the nation, the army, the entire world on July 1941, now addressed a solitary individual holding a telephone receiver.
‘Good day, comrade Shtrum.’
At that moment everything came together in a jumble of half-formed thoughts and feelings – triumph, a sense of weakness, fear that all this might just be some maniac playing a trick on him, pages of closely written manuscript, that endless questionnaire, the Lubyanka…
Viktor knew that his fate was now being settled. He also had a vague sense of loss, as though he had lost something peculiarly dear to him, something good and touching.
‘Good day, Iosif Vissarionovich,’ he said, astonished to hear himself pronouncing such unimaginable words on the telephone.