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.
Both see with penetrating clarity that everything bad comes from the state ‘machine’, from the people who create it and devote themselves to it, and the mass of people who submit themselves – often willingly – to its disciplines. With the French occupation of Moscow in 1812 this ‘machine’ (his own term) is seen by Tolstoy as working with its own particular sort of mad efficiency. The ‘human’ French soldiers consent and defer to it utterly when they are required to shoot civilians or march out the prisoners. And by one of his characteristic sleights Tolstoy suggests that the ‘machine’ is a peculiarly French organisation, pitted now against good-hearted Russia and the simple human instincts of Russians. So compelling is the machine that it not only dehumanises the naturally good and makes them do evil acts, but paralyses those who have created it and are a part of it. Under its influence Napoleon has no choice but to march on Russia, and further into Russia.
This business about the machine, and the human goodness it corrupts and nullifies, is of course sufficiently old hat, and it takes a creative writer of the first power, like Tolstoy, to bring home to us what it means, and to move us deeply with the spectacle. It says much for Grossman that he can do this too, using the same basic ideas, and conveying them with the same transforming passion of art. But though his position is essentially Tolstoyan, it is more complex than that of Tolstoy in War and Peace. Without straining the probabilities too far Tolstoy was able to oppose Russian ‘humanity’ to French ‘machine’. For Grossman, naturally enough, the picture has to be different: his ‘machine’ achieves a virtually identical perfection in two places, Stalinist Russia and Hitlerite Germany. Germans have the same entrée to Life and Fate as the French had in Tolstoy’s novel, and their language is frequently used in a Russian context. This tacit but significant interchangeability – of the one country and the other – would itself be abhorrent to the orthodox Soviet line, even if there were no other offences in the novel. Its time sequence is that of the siege and relief of Stalingrad, though there are frequent references back and forth, particularly to 1937, the year of the purges. A number of scenes take place on the German side, in German camps, on the trains to Auschwitz and Dachau, and in the dug-outs and headquarters of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad: and there is no great difference in tone between the reflections and conversations on both sides. Real persons are introduced in speaking parts, as in War and Peace and in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914; there are identical attitudes, ambitions and ideologies among Soviet and German fonctionnaires.
The genius of both novelists appears in the compelling and spontaneous way they juxtapose the human and the non-human in scenes of swift unspoken analysis. Towards the end of War and Peace Colonel Denisov, now a partisan commander, discusses the fate of the French prisoners with the sinister roué Dolokhov. He is furious with Dolokhov for expressing total cynicism on the point, even though he admits the prisoners will probably die anyway, of cold and hunger. An almost exactly similar scene occurs after Stalingrad between two Russian officers, one of whom has just casually kicked a wounded German by the roadside. The fury of the other, and their quarrel, illustrates with silent irony the difference between spontaneous human goodness and the equally spontaneous need to maintain appearances. The two things depend on each other, and validate the conviction that Russians, or Germans, or English, just don’t behave like that. ‘Are we Germans or something?’ cries Natasha, when it is a question of the wounded using the carts in which the Rostovs are evacuating their belongings. How we behave fuses nationality with humanity in a way essentially absurd, but also saving. The machine, whether Soviet, German or English, has no time for such incongruities.
In the face of the machine, even certain kinds of smallness and selfishness become allies of human dignity. When Field-Marshal Paulus surrenders at Stalingrad his captors wait curiously for him to utter some appropriate sentiment – appropriate, that is, to one machine that has been put out of action by another. What went wrong? Where was the decisive error? Instead he says shyly: Sagen sie mir, bitte, was ist Makhorka? A heavy smoker, he is enquiring about Russian tobacco. All he can think of is will he be able to get something to smoke and eat, be given some warm place to sleep. He has been reduced to just the same small preoccupations and anxieties as the ordinary soldier.
Grossman was a war correspondent who worked for the Army newspaper Red Star and witnessed the disasters of ’41, the defence of Stalingrad and the eventual fall of Berlin. As a popular wartime newsman, he was second only to Ehrenburg. In a way, he was in the position of Pierre at Borodino, whom Tolstoy uses as an innocent observer, whose eye makes the routine horrors of battle strange, and thus even more terrible. Tolstoy himself had been in the same kind of dangerous and yet privileged position at Sevastopol. But for Grossman as a writer his first-hand knowledge and penetrating sense of the truth (‘My hero is truth,’ wrote Tolstoy in Sevastopol Sketches) is touchingly undermined by years of conditioning in socialist realist propaganda. Many of the scenes of the Stalingrad fighting in Life and Fate are as heroically stylised as those in any of the innumerable Russian novels about the war years. It looks as if Grossman had decided to include much of the same standard material that he had already used in For a Just Cause, the epic about Stalingrad which he had begun in 1943, and which had been published in Novy Mir after the war. Favourably reviewed, and frequently reprinted, it eventually earned the author in 1955 the coveted decoration of ‘the Banner of Labour’. But in the previous years, before Stalin’s death, Grossman’s position, as a Russo-Jewish writer, had become decidedly insecure. Fadayev, watchdog and lackey of the Writers’ Union, had attacked him. With the thaw, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes, his fortunes revived, and Fadayev switched over to praising his work.
It seems likely that Grossman hoped that the change of climate would make Life and Fate acceptable, which is why he made much of the Stalingrad material as conventional as For a Just Cause. He may thus have hoped to smuggle into print a wholly new attitude to the Patriotic War, at a time when, in spite of Stalin’s death, Russian chauvinism was increasingly a feature of the Soviet machine. If so, he was soon undeceived. The Cultural Section of the Central Committee pronounced the novel anti-Soviet (they were right), and the KGB stepped in, confiscating every piece of MS they could get hold of. Suslov, the leading party ideologue, himself wrote to Grossman that the novel could not possibly be published for the next two hundred years, a pronouncement which, among other things, carries echoes of the Fifty Year Rule and the Thousand Year Reich. State machines have an Alice in Wonderland attitude about their own longevity. The Soviet émigré writer Vladimir Voinovich, who managed twenty years after its completion to get a copy to the West, observed that Suslov’s remark was at least a tribute to the novel’s lasting importance.
Grossman was isolated, not arrested. He continued to write, and the short novel, Everything Flows, which he began in 1955, a meditation on the camps, the kulaks, and the fate of Russia generally, was published in the West in 1972. By then, Grossman had been dead for nearly ten years, living at the end alone and in poverty, and uncertain whether his great book had survived and would ever come out. As Robert Chandler observes, the strength of Grossman is that of an insider, who had participated closely in Soviet society and was as familiar with its old-boy network as Tolstoy had been with the Tsarist establishment. Like many Russian Jews, he had been particularly loyal to the regime throughout the war and the purges, and unlike Pasternak and the Mandelstams, he had spoken its language and known it from within. He strikes one, ironically, as a native member of the Nomenklatura, just as Tolstoy was a native of the aristocracy: both have the common touch, in the particular sense of enjoying and celebrating what the Russians call a byt, a way of life natural and dear to them; and both combine this sense of belonging with a penetrating and wholly independent intelligence which, in the end, will not let them belong. It is an interesting question whether Grossman’s growing realisation of the way things were, and his need to record them, derived wholly or in part from the persecution of the Russo-Jewish intelligentsia at the time of the doctors’ plot.
Pushkin’s scribe Pimen, in Boris Godunov, is a recorder of all that goes on in the Russian state, in ‘war and peace’, a phrase that may well have given Tolstoy his title. Grossman’s aim, too, was such a record, sober and accurate, the more so, in a sense, from using the conventional literary form of the time – socialist realism – as Pimen had used the monkish chronicle. In formalistic terms, the falsities, which are also the received conventions, stand to the truths of his narrative as the conventions of an epic or thriller do to the real world it reveals. Thus extended scenes or dialogues, like those between fighter pilots, tank men and other heroic figures, sound all wrong, although in a manner the reader is quite used to. This may reflect the Russian admiration for Kipling’s version of the way professionals talk at their work, although it is obvious that both Kipling’s and Grossman’s characters are talking, not for each other’s benefit, but for the reader. In both cases, this is the falsity produced by the realistic reportage of a good war correspondent.
But in between the surfaces of this conventional stuff are small, understated perceptions and awarenesses which gradually transform the whole and give it a secret and a truthful life. Many of these are ironic or funny, building up a deliberate contrast between the war correspondent’s official version of things and how it actually was. The hero of the main Stalingrad defence, General Chuikov, is so angry with a chief of staff who disagrees with him on the exact position of the front line that he knocks his front teeth out. He also abandons his command post to attend a dinner on the safe bank of the Volga to celebrate the founding of the Cheka. The soldiers watch the grandees arriving for this as if they were colourful fish in a warm glass tank. Such details are not for the official record, and neither is the real story of what happened in a strong-point cut off by the Germans and defended by a brilliant ‘housekeeper’ in a manner quite at variance with proper Soviet practice. The political instructor who gets through to it reports back in a shocked way that they are behaving ‘like some kind of Paris commune rather than a military unit’. Grossman’s account of ‘House 6/I’ blends a sentimental romance between a young soldier and a girl radio operator with a sardonic picture of what happens to heroism which can’t be fitted into the proper mould. As Tolstoy says, intrigue on one’s own side is always worse than the malice of the enemy. The real threat to ‘House 6/I’ is not the Germans (though they eventually wipe it off the map) but the politicals at the rear who are trying to take it over for their own purposes. An unexpected touch of surrealism is added by an old soldier who refuses to believe that War and Peace is not about this war, in which Tolstoy himself must be fighting, because his reports are so much truer than those of the correspondents.
Faithful to the spirit of his model, Grossman celebrates the defence of the homeland against the Germans, as Tolstoy did against the French: but both deprecate the un-Russian spirit of mean efficiency, and ruthless indifference to the human cost, which seeks to carry the war into the enemy country and liquidate him like the kulaks or the party dissidents. When her sons have saved Russia the Party steps in and takes the credit, giving the cold shoulder to uncommitted loyalty and decency. Stalin in the Kremlin reflects that success has now condemned his victims to limbo: ‘Nobody quarrels with a victor.’ The commander of the tank corps which successfully completed the encirclement of Stalingrad is reported on unfavourably by the corps commissar for holding up his attack for a few minutes in order to ensure his men won’t be decimated for lack of artillery support; and at the end of the novel he seems headed for demotion and possible disgrace. As at the end of War and Peace, victory seems only to have confirmed tyranny and made it both more confident and more suspicious.
Of course everybody knows this now. Grossman’s fervour is years out of date, and even at the time must have seemed a voice crying in the wilderness. The old paradox obtains. What for Suslov must not be published for two hundred years, lest it amaze and confound the faithful, is in the West merely a repetition of what we have been told many times, or what we can work out for ourselves. We can also raise our own objections, for Grossman’s propaganda is no more absolutely true than Tolstoy’s. Patriotism and decency are all very well, but what won the war was the sheer brutal discipline and drive of the Red Army and the Party – their ability, by whatever means, to keep up the ammunition supply, to get the guns and the conscripts into action. No one who reads John Erickson’s account of the four-year Russian campaign, lifeless and over-documented as it is, can fail to be struck by the extraordinary achievements of that vigorous and dynamic totalitarianism, achievements in the tradition of Genghiz Khan himself. And all this was, so to speak, a family affair, giving intense pride even to the most non-political of Russians, for Grossman’s parallels between the Nazi and Communist systems ignore the continuous political tradition on the Russian side. Stalin was no mystic Fuehrer but Khosain, the owner, the boss, just like Peter the Great, and he himself was fully aware of the relation. It is ironic that the Party never referred to the Nazis but always to the Fascists, for ‘National Socialism’ was altogether too near home. But though the two systems functioned in an identical way, the national difference between them was none the less very great.
Assent on both sides was equally over-whelming, and in a sense still is. Rather engagingly, Grossman has a weakness for the old thriller technique in which villains love to make long speeches to helpless heroes in defence of their policies, speeches of great elegance and philosophical subtlety. O’Brien does it in 1984, and the interrogator Gletkin in Darkness at Noon. In Life and Fate a cultured SS officer of high rank, a friend of Eichmann, enjoys long discussions with his old Bolshevik prisoner from Stalingrad, remarking that it doesn’t really matter which side wins, since both stand for the same thing, and thus victory for their joint policy is assured. Towards the end of the novel the same kind of talk takes place in a cell in the Lubianka, where Krymov, one of the party faithful arrested at Stalingrad for not taking a more vigorous line about House 6/I, finds himself incarcerated with another unexpected victim, a veteran Chekist whose aesthetic love for the whole system is so great that he imagines a time when there will be no difference between being in a camp and outside one.
Naturally, the old Bolsheviks are appalled and agonised by the cynicism of the SS man and the old Chekist, who treat them as no different from themselves. To the reader, however, the tableau is both commonplace and unconvincing. Russians love to talk, and the way they talk (lying under an idea as if under a stone, as Chadayev said) is more intense and dramatic than anything that usually takes place in a free society. But conversations designed solely to emphasise a point to the reader are unconvincing in any fictional context. SS and KGB men are far cruder and more naive types than this, and their conversation would most likely be meaninglessly depressing, or as banal as the chat of businessmen in a bar. Equally unconvincing are the sentiments of the heroic ‘housekeeper’, Grekov, to the lads in House 6/I.
No one has the right to lead other people like sheep. That’s something even Lenin failed to understand. The purpose of a revolution is to free people. But Lenin just said: ‘In the past you were led badly, I’m going to lead you well.’
Unexceptionable sentiments, but they are fatally compromised by being set in the socialist realist mould. They might fascinate and appal the Russian reader (though would they really today?), but us they excite as little as would their mirror image in the same style of a young soldier proclaiming Lenin’s beneficent divinity. The medium, in a sense, nullifies the message. We can also understand why, in a piece entitled ‘Le Cas Grossman’ in a French periodical (L’Age d’Homme, 1983), Simon Markish quoted a Russian friend’s comment on Life and Fate: ‘Yes, all this is noble, elevated, morally irreproachable, but I don’t need a follower of Leo Tolstoy’s.’
That reaction is natural, almost unavoidable, and yet the novel survives it triumphantly. I strongly agree with Chandler, who in his excellent introduction is aware of all such criticisms (‘the novel is indeed a remarkably old-fashioned one’) and yet remains convinced of its inherent freshness and importance. The defects and drawbacks are obvious: ideology, propaganda, ‘the clash between freedom and totalitarianism’ – all these things take on an academic quality from the fact that they are painted as the old academicians used to paint. And yet the novel can still present a disturbing, an explosive mixture.
Structurally, it is dead: spiritually, it could not be more alive. There is even a certain justice about the fact that Grossman, who detests all forms of political and moral organisation, should himself be unable as a writer to organise his book on such lines. Although the scale is so impressive, the detail so varied and compelling, the true life of the book seems obstinately to exist independently, between and among all these forces that have been marshalled to make it. This is its truest, most secret relation to War and Peace. It also contrasts very sharply with the method and outlook of Solzhenitsyn in his big novels, particularly the current roman fleuve of which the first instalment was August 1914.
Solzhenitsyn has a passion for dogmas and explanations which represent, it could be said, the other side of Tolstoy, his overbearingly dogmatic side. Grossman clearly regards Solzhenitsyn’s attitudes with deep dislike. One of his conversation tableaux, in a gulag, sets the ‘mystical obscurantist’ types against those who merely want ‘the path of freedom and democracy’ for Russia. (The young opponent of the ‘obscurantists’ is proud of the fact that unlike the others he is there for a real reason: he has written an article entitled ‘The State of Lenin and Stalin’, and distributed it to his students.)
What fill the mind at the end of Life and Fate are the innumerable glimpses the book contains of ‘senseless kindness’. This is the phrase used by a dotty old creature who has ended up in Dachau, and who has managed to preserve a kind of essay, a very Tolstoyan document, on what men really live by. This gets into the hands of the SS officer Liss, who maliciously conveys it to the old Bolshevik prisoner Mostovskoy, whom he loves to talk with and ideologically torment. Both regard the document, whose insertion has a parallel in the Grand Inquisitor passage in The Brothers Karamazov, as a piece of crazy nonsense, beneath contempt: and yet the old Bolshevik, who will soon be liquidated anyway, is secretly tormented by it as much as he is by the SS man’s affable intimacies.
Senseless, unwitnessed, such kindness is ‘outside any system of social or religious good’. It is ‘as simple as life itself’, and yet ‘even the teachings of Jesus deprived it of its strength.’ Christianity in its time killed it as effectively as modern totalitarianism. The sentiments of the holy fool are not particularly original – indeed it could be said that acts of ‘senseless kindness’ are usually no more than gestures of human self-satisfaction, the universal sentiment Tolstoy understood so well – and yet in some extraordinary way Grossman’s entire novel endorses the old madman’s point with all the secret force of which the language of art is capable. ‘Art’ is the operative word, for Grossman’s old-fashioned simplicities, and his extensive use of second-hand techniques, might lead the reader to suppose that he is not an original artist. The proof that he is is shown more than anything by the fact that we are not ‘moved’ or ‘horrified’, in the obvious sense, by the most memorable scenes and sequences in the novel – like the one in which a trainload from Eastern Europe arrives at Auschwitz, to be followed through the ‘bath-house’ into the gas chamber. Art here shows itself to be deeply, and as it were naturally, in league with ‘senseless kindness’, as at the moment when a woman in the queue for the gas chamber painstakingly brushes the mud off the back of another’s dress, or when a small boy sees the movement as a fan starts in the ceiling to suck in the cyanide, and thinks that some bird or animal has been trapped up there. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel, quite near the beginning, simply describes how a mother goes to the cemetery of a military hospital to visit the grave of her son, a lieutenant who has just died of wounds. She hugs his grave, as if she could still warm him and comfort him inside it.
Art in the novel is no good without a personality to go with it. Not only is Grossman’s extremely appealing, but it is part of the nature of the appeal that it escapes from ‘the machine’ – the full gruesomeness of whose impact upon the lives of Soviet citizens it continually but almost incidentally reveals – without rejecting it. It sets up no counter-philosophy, like Solzhenitsyn’s, to fight the system: and partly for this reason, Grossman’s personality, and awareness of things, are much more congenial than Solzhenitsyn’s. Only a man indifferent to the real voice of art, a man who insists that the novel must above all things be novel – aligned with whatever kind of Modernism is currently valid – could dismiss Life and Fate as merely ‘noble, elevated, morally irreproachable’. It is a work whose greatest recommendation is that it has no need to be in tune with the times. And yet, as Suslov inadvertently pointed out, in his act of refusal and denial to its author, the times are all too likely never to be out of tune with what Grossman has written, and how he has written it.