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No Exit

Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s indispensable account of the horrors of Stalinism and the Holocaust, puts Jewishness at the heart of the 20th century

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Leora Laor, Wanderland #137, 2001-2003 (Courtesy Andrea Meislin Gallery.)
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Writing the story of the Holocaust is a futile ambition—not because the events of 1939 to 1945 are too horrible to be told, but because they are too various to be compressed into one definitive or representative story. The 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis came from every part of Europe, from every social class and profession and age group, from every point on the spectrum of Jewish life between militant atheism and traditional piety. All these stories had a similar ending—but then, so do all human stories, and the monotony of death does not annul the immense multiplicity of life.

Inevitably, however, we tend to create a generic Holocaust narrative out of the tales we hear most often, and find most easy to identify with. As Americans, we respond to stories of assimilated Western European Jews who are gradually shut out of their country’s life, like that of the German diarist Victor Klemperer. As city dwellers, our imaginations are compelled by Anne Frank’s experience of hiding out in a crowded apartment, invisible in the multitude. And as members of an advanced industrial society, we are compelled by the image of the gas chamber, which writers since Hannah Arendt have made the central emblem of the Holocaust—the ultimate reduction of human life to inanimate matter.

All of these are truths about the Holocaust, but they are not the only truths. As many Jews died by simple shooting as in gas chambers; far more died in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe; millions were killed almost as soon as their towns and villages were occupied by the Germans, with no chance to hide out or adjust in any way to life under Nazism. Statistically speaking, the representative Holocaust story might not feature concentration camps or hiding places or repressive laws at all; it might simply be the story of waking up one morning to find German tanks in your street and a month later being shot and buried in a mass grave. It might sound like this:

People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish—it’s just the way people are. I do the same myself. There are two women here from a shtetl and they tell the same story as my friend did. The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included. The Germans and Ukrainian police drive up and recruit a few dozen men for field-work. These men are set to dig ditches and two or three days later the Jewish population is marched to these ditches and shot. Jewish burial mounds are rising up in all the villages round about. …

Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine—I still go on seeing patients and saying, “Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks.” I’m taking care of one old man whose cataract it will be possible to remove in six months or a year. … Meanwhile the Germans burst into people’s houses and steal; sentries amuse themselves by shooting children from behind the barbed wire; and more and more people confirm that any day now our fate will be decided.

This is the voice of Anna Semyonovna Shtrum, writing her last letter to her son Viktor, in Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. Anna’s letter takes up a whole chapter of the novel, and it haunts the 800-page book just as it haunts Viktor, a Soviet nuclear physicist who is one of its half-dozen main characters. Viktor lives in Moscow, which never fell to the German Army, so he and his family survive the war. If only Viktor had allowed his mother to come and live with him, she would have survived; but his wife, Lyudmila, didn’t get along with Anna, so she remained in Berdichev and died. It’s a situation Grossman could have invented out of sheer authorial sadism, in order to burden Viktor Shtrum with the maximum amount of guilt—except that it was Grossman’s own story. Grossman’s mother never had a chance to smuggle a letter out of Berdichev before she died, so the son invented one for her, setting down the grief and guilt that defined his postwar life:

But my fate is to end my life alone, never having shared it with you. Sometimes I’ve thought that I ought not to live far away from you, that I love you too much, that love gives me the right to be with you in my old age. And at other times I’ve thought that I ought not to live together with you, that I love you too much. Well, enfin, Always be happy with those you love, those around you, those who have become closer to you than your mother. Forgive me.

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I just finished reading “Life and Fate”–a Goodreads buddy put me onto it–and since then, I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know. The Holocaust sections are almost unbearably wrenching, and the chapters where Viktor Shtrum is slowly ostracized from Soviet society, to the detriment of the Russian war effort, are absolutely staggering. I think it should be required reading for seniors in Jewish high schools.

June Getraer says:

I had not heard of “Life and Fate” before reading this article. Thank you for this great review. I am going to pick up a copy of the book today and thanks to Helen’s comment, pass it on to my grandsons.

Robert Chandler says:

Thank you for this, Adam. And may I just add (as Grossman’s translator) that Grossman’s very last works – the short novel EVERYTHING FLOWS and some of the short stories in THE ROAD – are at least as fine as LIFE AND FATE. R.C.

Thanks for the information, Mr. Chandler! I’ll pick them up. You did an incredible job with the translation, it really sings.

It must be remembered that Vassily Grossman was a major reporter of the Soviet advance from Stalingrad to Berlin(before he became disillusioned with the regime)

Michael in Ohio says:

Adam, an excellent review of an excellent book. Well done.

I read Life and Fate many years ago.

The review made me take the book down again and reread it.

Great article on a great novel.

Joseph Shier says:

Your review captures part of the power of the novel but omits what makes it so overwhelming: its relentless, unyielding honesty. From that letter from Viktor’s mother to the end, Grossman takes the reader by the throat and continues to tighten his grip. He refuses to soften anything, to allow any character to hide from the truth.

You write that Life and Fate is one of the very greatest Holocaust novels. That is like saying War and Peace is one of the greatest war novels. Life and Fate deals with the very essence of the 20th century and is the greatest novel of that century.

jacob arnon says:

What Mr. Shier said.

Gabriel Goodliffe says:

This is a wonderfully written review (as always), although as an epic and sprawling novel that can be rightfully compared to “War and Peace,” I think, to someone who hasn’t read “Life and Fate”, Kirsch perhaps overstates the centrality of the Holocaust as its principal theme (say, in comparison to a book like Jonathan Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” in which the Holocaust is the overwhelmingly central backdrop and which incidentally indisputably draws on Grossman’s magnus opus.) Kirsch is of course right to focus on the totalitarian parallels drawn by Grossman between the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and his highlighting of the central role played by anti-Semitism in cementing their respective apparatuses of repression, but I would aver that that this accounts for only half the story in this sweeping historical narrative. The other half is about the heroism and sacrifice displayed by the Russian people conceived as a pluralistic and multiethnic whole (notably as cast as characters in the Red Army) first, in the face of the Nazi onslaught (in this sense, it is significant that the one constant historical backdrop which anchors the novel is Stalingrad), and then in the face of the Stalinist one.

In this sense, I read this book somewhat more ecumenically (something that I think a long-standing Communist like Grossman would have appreciated), the Jewish experience of suffering serving to illuminate for me the broader experience of the suffering of all Russians during World War II and what followed. By emphasizing the centrality of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust and then the second Stalinist purge as the novel’s central thematic motif, I think that Kirsch somewhat underplays this broader ecumenical theme that undergirds the novel, and which for me makes Grossman one of the true humanist writers of our time–in the sense of being able to empathize so deeply with the human condition and write so movingly about it–like a Tolstoy, a Balzac, or a Dostoevsky before him

In this and all others (any other that I read) review and commentaries the readers are missing the central point of the story, its pinnacle – a telephone call from Stalin to nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum. Try to imagine that one day you receive a personal call from Mr. Obama who asks you how are you doing, how is your job and how he can help you? What chance do you have to receive such call? Well, Stalin was not Obama, he was the “leader of all nations for all times”. It was more like receiving personal call from God himself. The point Grossman was trying to make was to ask the reader: were Stalin and Hitler indeed unique individuals among people or almost everybody in their situation would act in a similar way (can power corrupt everybody or just certain individuals?). By giving Viktor Shtrum such enormous power (which Stalin’s call gave him) Grossman wants to see how this honest and compassionate person (who from the beginning hated dictatorship with all his guts), how is he going to use it in the small environment of his workplace, family, among his neighbors. (Not as the leader of the whole country) Mr. Grossman invites every reader to judge Viktor’s actions and think how he or she would act in his place. This, central point of the novel, for some reason is missed in all the comments that I read.

Earl Ganz says:

I’ve just finished Life and Fate. Think of the 60s Oh Wow! school of criticism. I’m
speechless. It’s the best novel I’ve ever read. But Adam Kirsch didn’t get me to it. The person who did was a former Chairman of the U. of Montana’s English Department. Merrel Clubb turned 90 last month and has published a WW2 memoir with the U of W Press. He said L and F was the best novel he’d ever read and he’s not even Jewish. We’d been waiting for the great WW2 novel.
It was already written, just not published,
then not translated. I’ll be 79 on the 14th so on behalf of old guys everywhere I would like to thank Mr. Chandler for his trans-lation and The NY Review of Books Press for their publication. We almost didn’t make it. But we did! Hooray! It’s a great novel

Bob Schwalbaum says:

I just finished “LIFE and FATE”.

As an American Jew spared the horrors of the Holocaust.. reading it was a very bitter but worthwhile experience.

Grossman was obviously a man of great courage.

If it was hard for me to read it.. imagine the agonies suffered by Grossman in writing it!

I’m two hundred pages into “Life and Fate” and reading very slowly as I don’t want this book to end…as was once said of “War and Peace”(and I paraphrase),It’s not a Novel but Life.

John Garrard says:

thank you for your incisive analysis of Life & Fate–you have gone to the heart of this immense book. You may be interested to know that the second edition of my and my wife’s biography of Vasily Grossman will be published in the spring of 2012 by Pen & Sword in the U.K. and in the summer of 2012 by their U.S. Partner. It will be retitled “The Life & Fate of Vasily Grossman,” though it originally appeared as The Bones of Berdichev: the Life & Fate of Vasily Grossman” in 1996 with the Free Press. As translated into Italian in 2009, it won the Italian national prize for biography/history, the Giovanni Comisso. the Italians have created an entire center, “The Center for the Study of Vasily Grossman and the Battle of Stalingrad” at torino, Italy, and it contains a travelling exhibit which has been all over the world.
Sincerely, John Garrard, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies, U of Arizona

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No Exit

Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s indispensable account of the horrors of Stalinism and the Holocaust, puts Jewishness at the heart of the 20th century