Posted by: roamingolivia | June 23, 2010

Bragging book review: Life and Fate

(FYI – This post has nothing to do with Italy.)

Okay, I don’t have time to blog anything about myself or my recent weekend adventures (my weeks are a race against time, and my weekends are blissful – and I can’t decide if I like it or not), but: I have to brag about this book I just read.

It is called Life and Fate, and it’s by Vasily Grossman. It is 857 pages. I read it in about 8 days, despite being extra-busy at work.

That’s the bragging part. From here on out, I will make this post not about me.

This book is amazing. It is not that famous – it is certainly not as famous as Crime and Punishment or War and Peace, both similarly huge tomes – one of which (the former) I really love. But it is so much more readable than either of those, although it’s not like those are bad books. Grossman has become recently slightly famous (I saw the translator, Robert Chandler, at a literary festival this weekend, and I think it’s partly his immense body of translation work that is responsible for this welcome trend), but he is still certainly underappreciated.

I feel like the people who wrote the stuff on the back of the book did the novel a disservice. It says:

At the centre of this epic novel, overshadowing the lives of its huge cast of Russian and German characters, looms the battle of Stalingrad. Within a world torn apart by ideological tyranny and war, Grossman’s characters must work out their destinies.

Now, to me, that says several things:

  1. epic = long
  2. huge cast of Russian and German characters = you will never understand what is happening in this book
  3. a battle looms over everything = this is exclusively a war novel

But actually, here is what I would write, although I’d need an editor to make it more professional-sounding:

This book describes how the lives of ordinary, sympathetic, flawed and immense humans were torn apart by the failures and successes of 20th century ideologies. This book is about the human soul’s need for freedom, and the inviolability of that need. Its gripping imagery and haunting characters portray this in unusual clarity, abandoning traditional ideological differences in the name of human truth.

Or something.

Basically this book is amazing – as a humanist classic of the 20th Century. It is hard for me to say more than the fact this book is about the entire world in the 1940s, or more than my general impression of immense empathy for humanity when reading this. I never cry in books, and I almost cried TWICE on two different airplane rides because of parts of this book (it is pretty intense). You will get to know the characters (and there’s a cast list in the back – awesome idea, all books should have this – or the long ones), and you will love some of them and hate some of them, but you will feel that every one of them is human. And you will see the bleakness that came with that victory in Stalingrad. And parts of it will probably haunt you. For a while.

It’s too late at night for me to write a real essay about this book, so I’ll just follow up with some quotes:

“The Soviet prisoners-of-war were unable even to agree among themselves: some were ready to die rather than betray their country, while others considered joining up with Vlasov [a officer who founded an army to fight against the Soviets]. The mnore they talked and argued, the less they understood each other. In the end they fell silent, full of mutual contempt and hatred.

“And in this silence of the dumb and these speeches of the blind, in this medly of people bound together by the same grief, terror and hope, in this hatred and lack of understanding between men who spoke the same tongue, you could see much of the tragedy of the twentieth century.” (17)

“A new day was beginning and the war was about to fill it to the brim with smoke, rubble, iron and bloodstained bandages. Every day was the same. There was nothing left in the world but this battered earth and this blazing sky.” (33)

“I’ve realized now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive.” (72)

“Viktor was always amazed when he read Sokolov’s work. How could a man think so boldly and elegantly, how could he elaborate and prove the most complex ideas with such concision – and then drone on so tediously over a cup of tea?” (258)

“In great hearts the cruelty of life gives birth to good; they then seek to carry this good back into life, hoping to make life istelf accord with their inner image of good. But life never changes to accord with an image of good; instead it is the image of good that sinks into the mire of life – to lose its universality, to split into fragments and be exploited by the needs of the day. People are wrong to see life as a struggle between good and evil. Those who most wish for the good of humanity are unable to diminish evil by one jot.” (390)

“My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be concquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

“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.” (394)

“You say man will be able to look down on God – but what if he also becomes able to look down on the Devil? What if he eventually surpasses him? You say life is freedom. Is that what people in the camps think? What if the life expanding through the universe should use its power to create a slavery still more terrible than your slavery of inanimate matter? Do you think this man of the future will surpass Christ in his goodness? That’s the real question. How will the power of this omnipresent and omniscient being benefit the world if he is still endowed with our own fatuous self-assurance and animal egotism? Our class egotism, our race egotism, our State egotism and our personal egotism? What if he transforms the whole world into a galactic concentration camp? What I want to know is – do you believe in the evolution of kindness, morality, mercy? Is man capable of evolving in that way?” (676)

“A world capital is unique not only because it is linked with the fields and factories of the whole world. A world capital is unique because it has a soul. The soul of wartime Stalingrad was freedom.” (782)



  1. I’d love to read this book. In fact, it might be a good one to take with me on my overseas travels this summer. xxoo

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