Vasily Grossman‘s novel Life and Fate is one of the more neglected books from the Soviet era samizdat literature, so eminently neglected that it makes to the editor’s pick of the most neglected books in the world. This is somewhat ironic, because Grossman attempted to write a 20th century sequel to one of the most known novels, War and Peace.
Written in 1960 it was never published in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet ideologue, is supposed to have told Grossman that the book would not be published for the next 200 years, comparing its publication to an atomic explosion! The book made it’s way to the West via a microfilm made by one of Grossman’s friends and was published in its English translation in 1980.John Lanchester has a fine review of the novel at LRB. The review starts off a little didactically, but becomes easier to read as it progresses (the reason perhaps that I ended reading the review backwards.) One aspect of the book that has gone unmentioned in Lanchester’s review is the insightful discussion on Anton Chekhov and Tolstoy, where Grossman characterizes Chekhov as a more democratic writer.
The chilling telephone encounter with Stalin in the following excerpt is reminiscent of a similar incident in Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle.
Shtrum starts to experience the strange freedom of the outsider, the fact that, once disgraced, he no longer has to be so careful about what he says and does – and then the telephone rings. ‘Its ringing now made Viktor as anxious as if it were the middle of the night and a telegram had arrived with news of some tragedy.’ He takes the receiver:
A voice unbelievably similar to the voice that had addressed the nation, the army, the entire world on July 1941, now addressed a solitary individual holding a telephone receiver.
‘Good day, comrade Shtrum.’
At that moment everything came together in a jumble of half-formed thoughts and feelings – triumph, a sense of weakness, fear that all this might just be some maniac playing a trick on him, pages of closely written manuscript, that endless questionnaire, the Lubyanka . . .
Viktor knew that his fate was now being settled. He also had a vague sense of loss, as though he had lost something peculiarly dear to him, something good and touching.
‘Good day, Iosif Vissarionovich,’ he said, astonished to hear himself pronouncing such unimaginable words on the telephone.
Stalin expresses good wishes for Shtrum’s work – and in that moment Shtrum’s life is transformed. That one call is all it takes. Stalin, the deus ex machina, really does have the powers of a god. It is one of the most extraordinary, electric moments in 20th-century literature, far transcending Tolstoy’s use of Napoleon in War and Peace, but the moral of the incident is yet to come. As soon as Shtrum gains something, he immediately has more to lose, and his corruption is simply effected. With his new status, he is easily inveigled by his boss at the laboratory to sign an anti-semitic petition. Grossman, who signed a similar petition himself, makes it all too easy to empathise with Shtrum’s weakness. It is a devastating depiction of the final trick played by a totalitarian state: to destroy people’s sense of themselves by giving them a sniff of success and inclusion.