10 August, 2007

I read Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate on my holidays (incidentally, reading a lengthy novel about Stalingrad and the Holocaust while swanning around the Languedoc did make me think of this cartoon), and I was incredibly impressed. I had already read around half of it but had to start again in order to remember who everyone was.

This was a wonderful, enormous, human book: like War and Peace, it depicts a vast network of people connected by marriage and friendship, all affected by the Holocaust, the war, and Stalin's repression in the Soviet Union. The central character, Viktor Shtrum, is a Jewish physicist, working on nuclear reactions: after being denounced by his colleagues for expressing internationalist views on the importance of science, and when he is expecting imminent arrest and imprisonment, he receives a phone call from Stalin wishing him well with his work. With Stalin's awareness of the importance of nuclear physics Grossman gives us a small reminder of what the next horror of world history will be.

Viktor's mother Anna Semyonovna is a Jew living in the Ukraine who is deported to the death camps. Her letter to her son, written with a clear awareness of her own fate, is one of the most moving and beautiful pieces in the book. I also liked the way Grossman discusses the differences between Stalin and Hitler's repression: it's a monstrous concentration camp Kommandant who equates the two systems, and other reviewers have suggested that this is Grossman's view as well, but I thought the emphasis on Stalin's caprice - in Viktor's case, benevolent caprice - suggested that the oppression in the two countries was more systemic in Fascist Germany but a terrible result of one man's ultimate power in the USSR (although that is too simplistic a way of putting it: who knows whether the Third Reich could have continued after Hitler's death? The Soviet Union's repression didn't end with Stalin's.). [45]

I must now read A writer at war: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, which is a collection of Grossman's notebooks and articles from when he was a war correspondent. Anthony Beevor used them in his book Berlin: the downfall which I wrote about here, and I though his observations were wonderful. One of the wonderful things aboiuth Life and fate was how real the scenes of battle and the concentration camps were: it seems that Grossman was at the battle of Stalingrad and the liberation of Auschwitz, and also that many of the soldiers and incidents he describes in Life and fate come from real life and are written about in his diaries of the time.

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