Life and Fate
by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler
Harper and Row, 880 pp., $22.50
Unlike older Soviet writers such as Pasternak who spent their formative years before Soviet power was established, with all its deadly erasings of historical memory, and unlike his younger contemporaries, who were cured of Leninist delusions by the bitter pill of the Gulag, Vasily Grossman was the product of a purely Soviet milieu. For most of his life, he remained an establishment writer—or so it seemed, even though he was one of the most talented of Soviet war reporters. He died in 1964, not long after writing Life and Fate, which gives one of the most deeply subversive accounts of the Soviet establishment yet published.
Born in 1905, in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, into a family of assimilated Jews, Grossman was launched into a literary career by the guru of socialist realism Maxim Gorky himself, and for years scribbled the correct stuff. He had talent, and talent occasionally glitters even through the optimistic gloom of the formulas of socialist realism he followed in his early plays and stories: an imaginative passage here and there comes alive, a stereotype now and then does something untypical.
The inward struggle of the artist against the caterer of pedagogical examples may have come to the surface in Grossman’s work more often than in the work of other socialist realists. But basically the concoction was the same: the pseudodrama of the “positive” characters engaged in a scramble with “negative” ones, played against an industrial, agricultural, and later intellectual back-ground, and leading inevitably to the victory and ideological ripening of the hero. The message is one of class consciousness and Party mindedness (English, fortunately, has as yet no natural word for this concept), militantly rejecting wavering intellectualism, the “philosophical garbage” which is not “worth a good worker’s boot,” as the heroine of Grossman’s play If You Believe the Pythagoreans puts it.
He wrote such lines at the time of the man-induced famine in his native Ukraine; he wrote at least one story set in that country precisely at the time when hunger-crazed peasant women resorted to cannibalism—yet his characters perceive only the rosy horizons of a happy future. His is a Ukraine viewed through the frosted glass window of a Writers’ Club. He peddled his government-issue goods when people were being denounced right and left for crimes no one could commit, and trembled—himself very likely not excluded—in fear of the 4:00 AM knock at the door. He was one of an army of more or less skillful hacks who produced fiction less dependent on reality than the most orthodox of the roman nouveau novelists with their ideal of literature as absolute artifice.
Or was he? Did he really see nothing? Was he devoid of doubt? Hardly. He seems rather to have belonged to that category of youthful enthusiasts who need a punch on the nose to rid themselves of the effects of ideological inebriation. The suffering, even mass suffering, of others, as long as their own skin …