Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossman's novel is one of the great narratives of battle, a moral monument, a witness-report in fiction from the heart of 20th-century darkness and an astonishing act of truth-telling

This autumn, the BBC's drama serial based on Vasily Grossman's epic novel of Stalingrad, Life and Fate (1959), comes to Radio 4. It will have a starry cast, including Kenneth Branagh as the nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum – the nearest thing in the vast human ensemble of the book to an alter ego for Grossman himself . With any luck, a public much larger than the one that encountered the novel in Robert Chandler's excellent English translation will soon recognise Life and Fate as all the things critics say it is: one of the great narratives of battle, a moral monument, a witness-report in fiction from the heart of 20th-century darkness, an astonishing act of truth-telling.

And it truly is these things. Grossman's deliberately plain prose has an extraordinary imaginative power. It leads you into situations observed so directly that it's as if the layers of literary artifice and equivocation have been scrubbed off them. I can remember being on the tube in London when I read chapter 48 of Life and Fate for the first time, and weeping silently and helplessly as I found that Grossman was going to follow his cattle-truck of deportees right into Auschwitz, trading the viewpoint to and fro between a frightened child and the brisk doctor who finds herself holding his hand; passing with them through the gas-chamber doors, staying with them into death, never flinching, never looking away, until the last beat of their hearts.

There are similar intensities of close vision to be found in the scenes set in "House 6/1", the besieged outpost in Stalingrad that becomes a kind of microcosm of what Grossman, as a war correspondent, had found to love in the Red Army. Meanwhile, around these cores of intensity, Grossman builds a huge, meticulous portrait of Stalin's Russia at war that systematically violates Soviet taboos on almost every page. Even as a complete outsider from the society he describes, when you read the book 50 years after he wrote it, you can't help but know you are witnessing a profound act of imaginative self-emancipation.

Yet at the same time there is a sense in which, as a westerner in the present, you are getting its emotional power, and even its iconoclasm, on excessively easy terms; so easy, in fact, that you may miss the difficulty that Grossman himself had in arriving at Life and Fate, and tempt you to underestimate it as an achievement. There is no resistance in us, as readers, that the book needs to overcome, no inner gridlock of loyalties to Stalinism. We are prepped by Antony Beevor. We know from the start that Soviet strategy at Stalingrad was brutally wasteful and sometimes counter-productive. We know, too, that at Stalingrad, one totalitarian evil was fighting another worse one. The analogy between nazism and Stalinism as systems represents the daring outer limit of what Grossman has to offer us in the way of political ideas, but in our time it has become pretty much the received wisdom. We know about the gulag. We possess the darkest secrets of the USSR as common knowledge. We know, in fact, what Grossman never could, since he died in 1964: that the whole Soviet project was doomed, and that everything endured in its name was pointless. (Except perhaps the defeat of Hitler.)

Perversely, it is now much harder for us to see what there was in Soviet experience apart from tragedy. Between us and the felt reality of the time there now lies a barrier, which is a kind of photographic negative of the problem Grossman faced in trying to introduce any tragedy into a compulsorily optimistic picture. To get plausibly inside the past, we need to allow it to have been, as well as tragic, also hopeful, funny, preoccupied and ordinary. Most uncomfortably, we need to let ourselves see what Stalinism meant to contemporaries apart from tyranny, lies and oppression. We need to let it be the other things that it once was to Russians: a way of being modern, a mode of self-understanding, a civilisation. Otherwise, we risk treating the past merely as a theatre in which our own wisdom is confirmed.

I felt this particularly myself when I was trying, as a non-Russian-speaking foreigner, to write my way into the Soviet life of the 1950s and 60s in my book Red Plenty. I suspect other writers who've recently attempted the Soviet past from outside, such as Helen Dunmore and Ed Docx, will have had similar experiences; but it applies to reading too, if we want to pay the dues we should to the otherness of other times. We have to find a way to make allowances for things in the past that are genuinely resistant to the easy enlightenments of the present.

And the Russian writer I found it most helpful to read as I tried to feel my way into the perspective of the past was Grossman, as he struggled to feel his way out of it; or at least, to invent for himself, from scratch, with no aid from conventional wisdom, the tools of feeling required to name the events of his time differently, and to interpret it differently. One of the strangest truths about Life and Fate is that it is a sequel. If, reading it, you find yourself wondering why the strands about the Shaposhnikov sisters don't really seem to tie together, and why the strand about the manager of the Stalingrad power station doesn't go anywhere much, the answer is that they are trailing stubs of plots much more developed in the previous volume.

Za Pravoe Delo, or "For a Just Cause", has never been translated; perhaps it will be now. Though bold enough to get Grossman into trouble when it was published in 1952, it was, nevertheless, a conventional socialist-realist novel, respectful of the main outlines of Stalinist piety. In it, by all accounts, recognisable versions of the people we know in Life and Fate in scrubbed-bare form exist deeply layered, varnished in acceptable feeling and Stalinist sentiment. Viktor Shtrum and all the others were imagined complicitly before they were imagined fearlessly. This is the resistance Grossman had to overcome; this is the position he had to feel and think his way out of. Not just Stalinism as something imposed and official, something comfortably alien, but something intimate to his patriotic, upwardly mobile Soviet generation, from which, with astonishing and lonely determination, he managed to alienate himself.

Life and Fate begins on Radio 4 on Sunday 18 September 2011. A special edition of Start the Week on 9 September will discuss Grossman and his influence.


Francis Spufford

The GuardianTramp

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