Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, trans. Robert Chandler (New York: New York Review Books, 2006 (1985))
These questions are at the core of Vasily Grossman’s splendid, heart-breaking, hope-making novel, which explores man’s attachment to freedom, the centrality of random kindness to making us human, and the place of the individual in (large-scale) state-sponsored systems. Or rather, the non-place of such collective systems, particularly of a violent nature, in the future of humans – if they are to have a future.
The book has been likened to a 20th century Soviet answer to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Where War and Peace has Borodino at its heart, Life and Fate revolves around Stalingrad. They’re both Russian, very long, vast in scope, and utterly gripping. If I were to choose one to re-read, I would at first glance prefer War and Peace, but that’s because it’s less hard on the mind and soul and it evokes an era to which I am more attracted. The Soviet Union combined with the Second World War was a maelstrom of pounding, boundless human suffering about which it is hard to feel any kind of nostalgia or romance.
The time Viktor was bound to, spiritually and intellectually, was a terrible one, one that spared neither women nor children. It had already killed two women in his own family – and one young man, a mere boy. Often Viktor thought of two lines of Mandelstam, which he had once heard from Madyarov…
The wolfhound century leaps at my shoulders,
But I am no wolf by blood.
But his time was his own time: he lived in it and would be bound to it even after his death. 267
That said, Life and Fate is for me the greater novel, perhaps even conveyed by its title. It has an echo of War and Peace but encompasses a larger sweep, not just ‘war’ and ‘peace’, but ‘life’ and ‘fate’. I would go further, and suggest it raises questions about the fate of humanity and what it means to be human.
Grossman was a Russian journalist whose front-line reporting for the Red Star was devoured by ordinary soldiers. One survivor of Stalingrad said his reports were read and re-read until they were in tatters; it was as near as they could get to knowing what was really going on. Grossman’s report on The Hell of Treblinka was apparently the first in any language on the Nazi death camp, and was used as evidence at Nuremburg. It is one of the most searing descriptions I have come across.
Grossman did not limit himself, either in his journalism or the novel, to the atrocities of the Nazis. An earlier story, ‘The Old Teacher’, was about the massacre of hundreds of Jews in a town which resembled Berdichev, the Ukrainian town where his mother died in a ghetto. His ‘Ukraine without Jews’, on the same subject, was turned down by the Red Star. Too close to home.
Grossman indicted both totalitarian systems that were at war, and indeed any potential totalitarian system, no matter how apparently ‘good’ and noble its aims. As a result, when he revealed Life and Fate in 1960, it was considered the most threatening book since The Gulag Archipelago, and the KGB came to his home to arrest the book (not him, his status was too high), including carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. It was only published in 1980, some time after his death. The arrest of the book, and the uncertainty surrounding its life and fate, affected him profoundly.
According to his friend Semyon Lipkin, “Grossman aged before our eyes. His curly hair turned grayer and a bald patch appeared. His asthma … returned. His walk became a shuffle.” And the writer Boris Yampolsky reports Grossman himself as saying, “They strangled me in a dark corner.” Introduction to Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler (New York Review Books, 2013), p. viii
Grossman lived through the times he describes. At the most prosaic level, this is not a history book, but could (should) be read as part of a history course, as a journalist’s vital, considered and questioning translation of years of clear-eyed reporting into world-class literature. He brings to life the experiences of millions, on both sides of the war in and around Russia, through the lives and complexity of individuals, magnificently, intricately, touchingly, and sometimes chillingly, depicted.
His empathy and acuity allows him to take you inside the mind and experience of Sofya Levinton, a Jewish, Russian doctor who finds herself in a concentration camp. Her whole life has brought her to this moment, culminating in a few acts of resistance and kindness, starting with choosing not to grab a passing chance at saving her own life by volunteering when they ask for doctors and surgeons to step forward:
When they had called for the doctors and surgeons, she had remained silent, fighting against some powerful force that she found repugnant. 544
She then takes David, a small boy on his own, under her frail wing, before attacking one of the guards with futile ferocity:
In the brief moment when Sofya had attempted to attack the guard, she had forgotten about David. Now once more she took him by the hand. David saw how clear, fierce and splendid human eyes can be when – even for a fraction of a second – they sense freedom. 546
Having attacked a guard against all odds, she takes the boy in her arms to carry him into the gas chamber so he doesn’t die alone or unloved. Being smaller, he dies before she does, and she is conscious of having become a mother for the first time.
Turning the tables, Grossman shares the perspectives of several Nazis. He gets graphically granular, introducing you to the engineer tasked with designing a gas chamber, which he approaches not with abhorrence but as a tricky technical problem. You sense no particular hatred of Jews or any other eventual victims of his carefully thought through and executed solution. Just a conscientious professional trying to do his job properly.
Number one complex was constructed according to the principle of the turbine. It was capable of transforming life itself, and all forms of energy pertaining to it, into inorganic matter. This new turbine had to overcome and harness the power of psychic, nervous, respiratory, cardiac, muscular and circulatory energy. And in this building the principle of the turbine was combined with those of the slaughterhouse and the garbage incinerator unit. His task had been to find a way of integrating these various factors in one architectural solution. 474
A shopping list of sanitized euphemism, starting with that enigmatic ‘psychic energy’. And ‘turbine’ effectively means a human-scale meat grinder which, once it begins winding, cannot be unwound, just as you can’t reconstitute meat that has been fed by the inexorably turning helix through the mince-maker. So there is no way for your channelled humans to turn around, once they realise that it is death and not a shower that awaits them, and force their way back via the route that brought them in.
Later you meet a German soldier who has no qualms looking through a port-hole window to determine at what point the gas chamber’s doors may be opened and the corpses removed. Without fuss, Grossman gives you his story, so you grasp how a simple country boy could gradually become acclimatized to do such things without compunction, focusing instead on the old-age security he can provide his sweetheart due to the kilo or two of gold he’s been able to accumulate from post-mortem dentistry.
At the end of each day one of the dentists would hand Roze a small packet containing several gold crowns. Although this represented only an insignificant fraction of the precious metal taken every day to the camp authorities, Roze had twice handed over almost a kilo of gold to his wife. This was their bright future, their dream of a peaceful old age. As a young man, Roze had been weak and timid, unable to play an active part in life’s struggle. He had never doubted that the Party had set itself one aim only: the well-being of the small and weak. He had already experienced the benefits of Hitler’s policies; life had improved immeasurably for him and his family. 533
Grossman equally dissects the success of Nazism as a system for breaking people:
What Mostovskoy found most sinister of all was that National Socialism seemed so at home in the camp: rather than peering haughtily at the common people through a monocle, it talked and joked in their own language. It was down-to-earth and plebeian. And it had an excellent knowledge of the mind, language and soul of those it deprived of freedom. 23
Grossman also anatomizes strong capacities and weaknesses. For example, I found this a surprising insight into endurance and courage versus cowardice, the source for one and the cure for the other, which I had never thought of as being curable:
Byerozkin often compared the battle for Stalingrad with what he had been through during the previous year of the war. He knew it was only the peace and silence within him that enabled him to endure this stress. As for the soldiers, they were able to eat soup, repair their boots, carve spoons and discuss their wives and commanding officers at a time when it might well seem impossible to feel anything except fury, horror and exhaustion. Byerozkin knew very well that the man with no quiet at the bottom of his soul was unable to endure for long, however courageous he might be in combat. He thought of fear or cowardice, on the other hand, as something temporary, something that could be cured as easily as a cold. 62
Quiet at the bottom of your soul, peace and silence within, the source of endurance, even in the heat and hell of battle. Or this typology of despair:
Abarchuk sighed. ‘You know what, someone ought to write a treatise on despair in the camps. There’s a despair that crushes you, another that attacks you suddenly, another that stifles you and won’t let you breathe. And then there’s a special kind that doesn’t do any of these things but somehow tears you to pieces from within – like a deep-sea creature brought suddenly up to the surface.’ Nyeumolimov smiled sadly. His rotten teeth were almost the same colour as the coal-dust on his face. 177
Grossman also sheds piercing light on how human outrage could be committed on such a scale, how so many people obeyed, even willingly, what was asked of them:
And it wasn’t merely the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, but hundreds of millions of people who were the obedient witnesses of this slaughter of the innocent. Nor were they merely obedient witnesses: when ordered to, they gave their support to this slaughter, voting in favour of it amid a hubbub of voices. There was something unexpected in the degree of their obedience.
What does this tell us? That a new trait has suddenly appeared in human nature? No, this obedience bears witness to a new force acting on human beings. The extreme violence of totalitarian social systems proved able to paralyse the human spirit throughout whole continents. 214-15
Extraordinary violence on the one hand, paralysing the human spirit, and on the other, the ‘hypnotic power of world ideologies’. But another reason Fascism (and by implication, other violent and extreme ideologies) can succeed up to a point is due to insane optimism.
Another fact that allowed Fascism to gain power over men was their blindness. A man cannot believe that he is about to be destroyed. The optimism of people standing on the edge of the grave is astounding. The soil of hope – a hope that was senseless and sometime dishonest and despicable – gave birth to a pathetic obedience that was often equally despicable. 215
I have occasionally been told that I’m an optimist. In fact, I have recently realized and even more recently responded, sometimes optimism is a choice and even an effort. In other words, there are moments when pessimism feels a more ‘rational’ and perhaps easier reaction to the world. But I have in mind Thoreau’s suggestion that ‘expectation is prophecy’ – and the possibility that we may in some small way contribute to the outcome our pessimism considers more probable, by breathing power into it, by allowing it to appear likely to succeed. Up to a point, this may have validity, but clearly there is a point beyond which it is nothing but ‘blindness’, as when you are standing on the edge of the grave and cannot believe you are about to be destroyed.
The book is as much about the Soviet Union as it is about the Nazis and the Second World War. It is a gigantic plea for not embracing vast systems even when purportedly or initially aimed at universal good. In fact, Grossman warns of any system that propounds the general good, stating that the only reason for a collective group to exist is precisely to protect and enable the particularities of the individual to flourish.
Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities. 230
I like the word ‘peculiarities’ – suggesting space for quirkiness, individual expression or behaviour, not following the crowd, let alone aping it. We talk about ‘diversity’ but I’m not sure we use it expansively enough, rather focussing it on certain areas, such as gender, race, other species, and so on, perhaps because these are themselves other collectives which makes it a tidier concept to grasp and act on. What about a less measurable and altogether messier diversity in the use of colour, in the phrases and metaphors we use, in the way we furnish and decorate our homes, the way we dress or think?
Among a million Russian huts you will never find even two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar-roses, should be identical… If you attempt to erase the particularities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate. 19
‘Life itself must suffocate’. I can’t prove this, but I see diversity in this broad sense as being at least a celebration of life, if not proof of it.
For years, I have been thinking about the relationship between the individual and the collective. In some senses, individualism has been made a synonym for self-centredness or selfishness; an ‘individualistic’ attitude being at odds with collective well-being. I see no need for conflict between them – you can be a ‘team player’ while being highly individual in your thinking or approaches, in which case you may contribute fresher ideas or perspectives. When I was a teenager my father mentioned that ‘Your freedom ends where the next man’s begins’, which seemed a helpful rule of thumb for where freedom as an individual has natural limits.
When Grossman talks about the utter ordinariness of some soldiers, he affirms that it is this very ordinariness that is worth defending.
There his men were: timid, gloomy, easily amused, thoughtful; womanizers, harmless egotists, idlers, misers, contemplatives, good sorts … There they all were – going into battle for a common, just cause. The simplicity of this truth makes it difficult to talk about; but it is often forgotten by people who should, instead, take it as their point of departure. The thoughts of these men may have been trivial – an abandoned dog, a hut in a remote village, hatred for another soldier who’s stolen your girl … But these trivialities are precisely what matter. 230
Building on this is an interesting thought about leadership, ostensibly about the purpose of revolution:
‘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.” 260
How many people in leadership positions see their job as being to lead people well, or at least better than previous bad leaders, rather than to free them to lead themselves, which is much harder? Freedom is a recurring theme in this, freedom at an individual level. And I liked Grossman’s evocation of the steppe as a symbol of freedom:
The steppe has one other unchanging characteristic: day and night, summer and winter, in foul weather or fine weather, it speaks of freedom. If someone has lost his freedom, the steppe will remind him of it… 292
Another theme is the supremacy of what we commonly call ‘random acts of kindness’ over any creed, system or set up that appears to be working for The Good of All, or occasionally even The Universal Good. As he shows by a brief history of Christianity, the noblest beginnings and principles can lead to colossal suffering and cruelty. And he saw the same process in his own country, in the pursuit of the revolution that was meant to deliver us from evil.
I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country. I saw this struggle during the period of general collectivization and again in 1937. I saw people being annihilated in the name of an idea of good as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia – men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. This idea was something fine and noble – yet it killed without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands and children from fathers. 406-7
Forget all those credos and the abuses they can engender, our focus should be on pointless, forgotten, ephemeral gestures of individual kindness.
Chekhov said, let’s put God – and all these grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin islands or a waiter in restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we’ll never get anywhere.” 283
Grossman hammers this home in the book, that kindness is what counts, and particularly of an uncalculated, unsystematic, unplanned nature:
The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness A kindness outside any system of social or religious good. … But if we think about it, we realize that this private, senseless, incidental kindness is in fact eternal. It is extended to everything living, even a mouse, even to a bent branch that a man straightens as he walks by. 408
This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! 409
In a book dealing with as much human bleakness as this one, there are light rays of humour, even of the gallows kind:
In 1926 Shargorodsky took it into his head to give lectures on the history of Russian literature; he attacked Demyan Byedniy and praised Fet; he took part in the then fashionable discussions about the beauty and truth of life; he declared himself an opponent of every State, declared Marxism a narrow creed, and spoke of the tragic fate of the Russian soul. In the end he talked and argued himself into another journey at government expense to Tashkent. 131
How to get the government to buy you a train ticket! Continuing with Shargorodsky, I liked this description of his worship of Fet, which meant he ended up knowing more about Fet than Fet did:
To Shargorodsky Fet was a god. Above all he was a Russian god. Glinka’s Doubts and the folk-tales about Finist the Bright Falcon were equally divine. Whereas Dante, much though he admired him, quite lacked the divine quality of Russian music and Russian poetry. … No one in Russia can have known Fet like he did. Fet himself, by the end of his life, probably no longer remembered all that Shargorodsky knew about him. 131-32
I mentioned earlier that I believe this book to be far more than an almighty snapshot of an almighty era, that it challenges us to think about the fate of humanity and what we believe being human means. Grossman has an unusual style, like the 19th century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, in slipping in extremely short chapters. One of them, pre-dating the advent of artificial intelligence by half a century or so, talks about a vast machine capable of everything man is capable of. I quote the chapter almost in its entirety:
An electronic machine can carry out mathematical calculations, remember historical facts, play chess and translate books from one language to another. It is able to solve mathematical problems more quickly than man and its memory is faultless. Is there any limit to progress, to its ability to create machines in the image and likeness of man? It seems the answer is no.
It is not impossible to imagine the machine of future ages and millennia. It will be able to listen to music and appreciate art; it will even be able to compose melodies, paint pictures and write poems. Is there a limit to its perfection? Can it be compared to man? Will it surpass him?
Childhood memories… tears of happiness … the bitterness of parting… love of freedom … feelings of pity for a sick puppy … nervousness … a mother’s tenderness … thoughts of death … sadness … friendship … love of the weak … sudden hope … a fortunate guess … melancholy … unreasoning joy … sudden embarrassment…
The machine will be able to recreate all of this! But the surface of the whole earth will be too small to accommodate this machine – this machine whose dimensions and weight will continually increase as it attempts to reproduce the peculiarities of mind and soul of an average, inconspicuous human being. 217
You can smile with your 21st century technological superiority at the notion that a machine of such capacity would have to be huge to recreate everything a human is or can be. But I think the chapter raises important questions about the relationship between humans, in particular average, inconspicuous ones, and artificial intelligence. And the last line makes me question this even more:
Fascism annihilated tens of millions of people. 217
Is this book bleak? No, it is optimistic, and I don’t think out of anything like blindness. Few fine minds of the 20th century saw it for what it was, at its worst (arguably about as bad as humanity ever got, at least in terms of scale), as clearly as Grossman.
Man’s innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed. Totalitarianism cannot renounce violence. If it does, it perishes. Eternal, ceaseless violence, overt or covert, is the basis of totalitarianism. Man does no renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future. 216
Maybe we will survive due to our yearning for freedom, our attachment to individual peculiarities and our capacity to be randomly, pointlessly kind.
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. 410
If you have read this far, send me a few lines about some unexpected, passing kindness you’ve witnessed or experienced recently. Did someone go and find a jar and a postcard so they could safely capture that bee trapped in the house and release it on a flower outside? Did they lift a dehydrating worm from a concrete path and put it in a moist bit of earth? Did they help a drunkard hanging on to a lamp-post to cross the road safely?
PS See the website I’ve created to celebrate the joyous, eternal kindnesses and peculiarities of human life: www.nuannaarpoq.com
PPS A note on the publisher – New York Review Books is a favourite publisher for the sheer quality of paper and print, the wonderful range of titles in their Classics series, and the mouth-watering cover designs, making me want to withdraw to a quiet room, garden or island and read my way through their gorgeous paperbacks. See also my review of Vasily Grossman’s Armenian Sketchbook, in the same series. My only complaint is that they don’t make those book covers available as postcards. Go, NYRB, go!