Off the record
- Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler
Collins, 880 pp, £15.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 00 261454 5
Robert Chandler writes: ‘Life and Fate is the true War and Peace of this century, the most complete portrait of Stalinist Russia that we have or are ever likely to have.’ Chandler, who has had the herculean task of making a good translation of this long, moving and very remarkable novel, puts forward that claim in his Introduction. When a long honest novel comes out of Russia today comparisons with Tolstoy are routine – I have made them myself – but in this case it seems worth asking rather more rigorously than usual what they really mean.
In the first place, no novel that merely resembled War and Peace could be anything like it, or indeed any good. Tolstoy himself said that War and Peace was not a novel, nor a piece of history, but something unique which he felt he could make, and which the situation called for. But apart from that, all long socialist realist novels coming from Russia since the Revolution, including those of Alexei Tolstoy, have in fact taken War and Peace, consciously or unconsciously, as a native model. That is one reason why most of them are so bad. What works for a genius will not do so for those who try to avail themselves of what seems his formula. War and Peace depends as heavily on the social and fictional conventions of its time, and on the way of life of the Russian nobility, as it does on Tolstoy’s genius. You cannot transpose its method into a wholly different social ethos and scene.
Technically speaking, the panoramic method of War and Peace, which made Henry James refer to it as a ‘loose baggy monster’, is far more cunningly ordered than it looks. No one is dropped or forgotten; scene dovetails neatly into scene; above all, the central event – the attempted seduction of Natasha by Anatoly Kuragin – works by placing a girl, whose ‘reality’ has been totally established, in a totally conventional fictional situation. Tolstoy’s timeless truths depend on their liaison with stock events in the novels of his time, just as his characters get their living three dimensional selves from a participation in such events.
The instinctive confidence his characters feel in themselves comes from the fact that Tolstoy always starts on the inside of life, always with what it feels like to be oneself. From this extreme natural awareness, which first sprang into words in Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, comes the whole spacious breadth of the external world in War and Peace. And this personal inwardness is of course something altogether alien to the spirit of Soviet Russia which its literature wishes to present, and which is indeed presented in big-scale socialist realist novels, good and bad, from Sholokhov’s Quiet Don to Grossman’s Life and Fate.
Grossman’s method is indeed socialist realism, used with a wholly Tolstoyan truth and honesty. This itself makes a disturbing, an explosive mixture. But where creating individuals is concerned, Grossman uses Tolstoy’s art just as ineffectively as the merest party hack. It is not his fault. Though individuals remain basically the same, their true innerness has no chance to be revealed in a work devoted to the miseries and splendours of Russian wartime society. External pressures are too great. Grossman simply cannot afford the sense of leisure and repose which is the ground of Tolstoy’s art, even though Tolstoy’s deux cent familles offer some kind of correspondence with the Soviet Nomenklatura, the list of in-people suitable for high office which is kept by the Party. These persons have neither the time nor the inclination to be conscious of themselves, and they offer decidedly meagre fare to the novelist who wishes to establish his characters in a solid perspective of familiarity. So a gap yawns in the centre of Life and Fate. The Shaposhnikov family not only do not have the great unifying function exercised by the Rostovs in War and Peace, but are the only characters in Grossman’s novel who are positively null, even boring.
War and Peace is much more a large-scale domestic novel than in any sense an ‘epic’ (how much Jane Austen would have enjoyed Vera Rostova, and the incomprehensible, but absolutely authentic difference between herself and the rest of the family), and it may be that art can no longer handle that basic material of the individual and the family. It is no longer thought of as ‘serious’ and ‘important’. (And yet was it ever seen as being so? Probably not.) Grossman replaces it with a pattern of arbitrary fates – who was killed where, who starved, drowned, was shot, gassed, or relapsed into anonymous existence. We follow to Auschwitz Sophia Levinton, a Jewish doctor, a major in the Medical Corps, captured at Stalingrad, because she happens to be a friend of Yevgenia Shaposhnikova. The latter’s brother-in-law Viktor, an atomic physicist, the most important but least realised character in the novel, is there to make the painful points about the scientist’s role and responsibility under Soviet Communism.
By the same paradox that operates in Dr Zhivago, the author, in the process of operating the random arbitrariness of coincidence and destiny, puts himself too much to the fore and becomes an all-powerful instrument of fate rather than an artist. Tolstoy is all-powerful too, but, as he himself emphasised, the novelist must by some mysterious divination of art know what is, as it were, the true fate of each character, instead of merely allotting them a part. No doubt that is simply not possible these days, and the artist who aspires to paint on the widest canvas the travails of a revolutionary society in war and peace can only imitate the honest eye-witness who is doing it ‘for the record’. Grossman in fact bows to this technique, using it in a way that is quite exceptionally powerful and moving. His novel is a series of scenes and records, which Tolstoy’s is not, although it may seem to be. In some ways Grossman is much more like Isaac Babel, on a huge scale.
So much for the stock claim in terms of construction, technique, effect. But what about the message of War and Peace, its celebration of Russian life, the drive of its propaganda? This is a different and more complex matter, and it must be said at once that Grossman really has managed to breathe into his novel something of the inner spirit of Tolstoy’s. Tolstoy never pretended that he was writing about the whole people of Russia. What interested him was his own class, and the part it had played during the French invasion and the glorious year of 1812. Yet with his massive and almost invisible diplomacy Tolstoy manages to associate all that was best and simplest in Russia with that class – which was under strong attack at the time he was writing War and Peace – and with its achievement. He suggests that ‘good’ Russia is, and always has been, classless. Such a claim is never uncommon among those at the top of the tree in any country, but Tolstoy makes it with great certainty and subtlety. So although the literary method is quite different, inevitably different, there is an almost exact subterranean correspondence between what Grossman wishes to say and what Tolstoy wished to say.