Desert Island Books

1 Life and Fate Vasily Grossman

Linda Grant who wrote an introduction to a new edition of Vassily Grossman’s “Life and fate” translated by Raymond Chandler, said that it took her three weeks to read the book and three more to get over it.  It took a lot longer for me to read and I am still recovering.

There is something enduringly magisterial about this epic novel, regarded by some as the finest Russian novel of the twentieth century. In its 800 or so pages it covers what must be the bleakest period in this great nation’s history under the brutality of the soviet and fascist systems.  But it is not a book with a message in the classic sense of the word. The great tyrannical ideologies are almost footnotes in this beautifully woven human story of individual lives caught up in the bizarrest and ugliest of situations and yet somehow demonstrating the integrity of the human spirit, something that the terrible might of evil forces are unable to fully crush. So it is a story of hope. It is also a story of great tenderness.

It moves through Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga, the street by street fighting and the encircled division in building 6/1, to the middle-class home of the scientist and his laboratory comrades. We are in the interrogation rooms, the death camps and the gas chambers. We follow the Führer, though the woods and Stalin is on the line. We travel with the tank corps and the retreating sagging armies.  There are the Russian, the Germans, Armenians, Ukrainians  and the Jews, the Bolsheviks and fascists, All the time the ghost of 1937 is eerily present casting its dark shadow over the conversations and memories and everywhere there is the relentless struggle between the big ideas and the reality of what is happening on the ground.

It is a quite beautiful and inspiring tale.

Much of the novel rotates around Victor Pavlovich, a middle-class theoretical physicist in a power struggle with his colleagues and stressed in his fraught relationships with his wife and daughter, complicated by a secret liaison. Much of his torture, however, was over the conflict between his loyalty to his work, to the purity of science and where it conflicts with the Leninist view of the nature of matter. His careless comments taken out of context, get him into trouble and are used by his enemies to ensure his downfall. In the process of administering his disciplinary case, he has to complete a massive questionnaire which seeks to garner any hint of anti-revolutionary thought or taint. Any connection or sympathy for the exiles or of the purged of 1937 will mean certain exile. When he notes the most casual of links with someone who was arrested, he is seized with a feeling of irreparable guilt and impurity. He prepares to make his confession and He recalls a meeting at which a party member, confessing his faults had said “Comrades, I am not one of us”. It was when he sensed he had lost everything that he gets the call from Stalin. “I wish you success in your work” is the one affirmation that changes everything. The actual work is not defined and only referred to obliquely “A new shadow, still faint and mute, barely perceptible, now hung over the ravaged earth, over the heads of the children and old men. No-one knew of it yet, no-one was aware of the birth of a power that belonged to the future”  (page 751)

There is Grekov the crude but likeable commander of the division in the encircled house 6/1. While there was death and destruction all around he and his men take pity on an injured cat and care for it as it were a child.  The radio operator is the only female in this terrible place and she senses that sooner or later one of the men will make a pass at her. She somehow senses it will be the commander, by the way he looks at her, but she so much wants it to be the young poet Seryozha. Her hopes are dashed, however, when Seryozha is sent out on a raid. The raid, for some reason is cut short and he returns early. They spend the night snuggled up together in their lice ridden great coats and boots and she is still sleeping on his shoulder when the unit reforms in the morning. The commander announces that Seryohza is to be sent back to HQ. This will surely end the promising relationship but in a twist of surprising kindness Grekov tells the radio operator that she should go back too. She is not needed there anymore.  Later when the Commissar comes to relieve Grekov of his position, his unorthodox and anti-soviet tendences have become too much for the authorities, he ask after the radio operator.

“Are there any women in the building?”

“Tell me, comrade Commissar, is this an interrogation?

“Have any men under your command been taken prisoner?


“Well where is that radio operator of yours?

Grekov, bit his lip and his eyebrows came together in a frown.

“The girl turned out to be a German spy.

She tried to recruit me

First I raped her then I had her shot”

He drew himself up to his full height and asked sarcastically

“Is that the kind of answer you want from me?

It’s beginning to seem as though I’ll end up in a penal battalion”

Then there is Sagaydak ruminating on his special role as a newspaper editor. “He considered that the aim of his newspaper was to educate the reader- not indiscriminately to disseminate chaotic information about all kind so probably fortuitous events. In his role as editor Sagaydak might consider it appropriate to pass over some event: a very bad harvest, an ideological inconsistent poem, a formalist painting, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, an earthquake, or the destruction of a battleship. He might prefer to close his eyes to a terrible fire in a mine or a tidal wave that had swept thousands of people off the face of the earth. In his view these events had no meaning and he saw no reason why he should bring to the notice of readers, journalist and writers. Sometimes he would have to give his own explanation of an event: this was often boldly original and entirely contradictory to ordinary ways of thought. He himself felt that his power, his skill and experience as an editor were revealed by his ability to bring to the consciousness of his readers only those ideas that were necessary and of true educational value.”

Novikov the tank comander looks at his men and his heart is warmed:“One soldier was singing; another, his eyes half closed, was full of dire foreboding; a third was thinking about home; a forth was chewing some bread and a sausage and thinking about the sausage; a fifth, his mouth wide open, was trying to identify a bird on a tree; a sixth was worrying about whether he’d offended his mate by swearing at him the previous night; a seventh, still furious was dreaming about giving his enemy – the commander of the tank in front- a good punch on the jaw; an eight was composing a farewell poem to the autumn forest; a ninth was thinking about a girl’s breasts; a tenth was thinking about his dog sensing that she was about to be abandoned among the bunkers; an eleventh was thinking how good it would be to live in a hut in the forest drinking spring water, eating berries and going about bare foot; a twelfth was wondering whether to feign illness and have a rest in hospital; a thirteenth was remembering a fairy- tale he had heard as a child; a fourteenth was remembering the last time he had talked to his girl- he felt glad that they had now separated for ever: a fifteenth was thinking about the future- after the war he would like to run a canteen.

‘Yes’ thought Novikov, ‘They’re fine lads’ “

When Getmanov leaves for the front and has to say goodbye to his family: “He held his hand to his chest, afraid that his booming heart-beats would disturb the children. He felt a piercing ache of tenderness, anxiety and pity for them. He desperately wanted to embrace his son and daughters and kiss their sleeping faces. He was overwhelmed by a helpless, tenderness, an unreasoned love; he felt lost, weak and confused.

He wasn’t in the least worried or frightened at the thought of the new job he was about to begin. He had taken on many new jobs, and he had never any difficulty in finding the right line to follow. He knew it would be the same in the tank corps. But how could he reconcile his unshakable, iron severity with this limitless tenderness and love?

In the corridor he said goodbye, kissed his wife for the last time and put on his fur coat and cap. Then he stood and waited while the driver carried out his suitcases.“Well then” he said – and suddenly stepped up to his wife, removed his cap and embraced her once more. And this second farewell – with the cold damp air off the streets slipping in through the half-open door and blending with the warmth of the house, with the rough, tanned hide of his coat touching the sweet-scented silk of her dressing gown- this final farewell made them feel that their life, which had seemed one, had suddenly split apart. They felt desolate.”

When we think we can’t bear any more we are taken with Sofya Levinton and a young boy David, she has linked hands with, into the darkest hole of the century, yet, even here, humanity shines through. She is as a medic and could have escaped the gas chamber but chose to go with her people and with motherly instincts, though herself a virgin, took the boy’s hand and kept him beside her until he collapsed by her side.

“ Sofya felt the boy’s body subside in her arms. Once again she had fallen behind him. In mine shafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the bird’s and mice, that die first. This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her. “I’ve become a mother” she thought. That was her last thought. Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David ,now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.”

But we are also on the other side with Anton Khmelkov as he expresses his disgust at his co-worker Trofima Zhucheko in his attitude to the gruesome work of closing the hermetically sealed doors. Trofima looked happy and even excited by his work marshalling the columns of prisoners from the railway.

“ What Khmelkov didn’t understand was that it wasn’t Zhuchenko’s greater guilt that made it so disturbing. What was disturbing was that Zhuchenko’s behaviour could be explained by some terrible, innate depravity – whereas he himself was still a human being. And he was dimly aware that if you wish to remain a human being under fascism, there is an easier option than survival – death.”

Towards the end of the story the German company Commander Lenard, following his ragged army in retreat, comes, in the evening, upon a group of his men hacking meat from a frozen dead horse while others in a ruined building were gathered round a fire and a blackened cauldron while a cook prodded the meat with his bayonet

“The light of the evening can reveal the essence of a moment. It can bring out its emotional and historical significance. Transforming a mere impression into a powerful image. The evening sun can endow patches of soot and mud with thousands of voices; with aching hearts we sense past joys, the irrevocability of loss, the bitterness of mistakes and the eternal appeal of hope.

It was like a scene from the Stone Age. The grenadiers, the glory of the nation, the builders of the new Germany, were no longer travelling the road to victory. Lenard looked at these men bandaged up in rags. With poetic intuition he understood that this twilight was the end of a dream.

Life must indeed conceal some strangely obtuse internal force. How was it that the dazzling energy of Hitler and the terrible power of a people moved by the most progressive of philosophies had led to the quiet banks of a frozen Volga, to these ruins, to this dirty snow, to these windows filled with the blood of the dying sun, to the quiet humility of these creatures watching over a steaming cauldron of horsemeat?”

The futility and inevitable demise of all the worlds kingdoms is finally revealed. The utter stupidly and folly of believing that by our skill our dexterity, our ideas, our wisdom our solidarity and our determination we can build a heaven on earth, is inevitably laid bare in time. It is the truth that history always teaches us and one we fail to learn. All that is left, as Grossman sees it, is the individual, their tenacious hold on hope and their modest peculiarities expressed sometimes in inexplicable acts of human kindness.

In my desert island I would want to be reminded of the beauty of the individual and our shared humanity.