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Andrew Marr: An introduction to Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate

Friday 9 September 2011, 08:01

Andrew Marr Andrew Marr

Editor's note: This coming Monday Andrew Marr discusses the life, work and legacy of the writer Vasily Grossman in a special Start the Week recorded at an event in Oxford to celebrate his novel, Life and Fate. Centred around the bloody battle of Stalingrad, Life and Fate charts the history of both a nation and a family in the turmoil of war. There is a special thirteen part adaptation of Life and Fate with Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant starting on Radio 4 on 18 September. On the Radio 4 blog Andrew Marr introduces what many see as one of the greatest novels of the modern age - PM.

Battle of Stalingrad

Stalingrad, used under license from the Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Mikhail Suslov, the "cultural" boss of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, was one of the worst. He read Life and Fate closely. He decided it could be published - but not for more than 200 years.

When you pick up or listen to Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, you are experiencing a masterpiece plucked from oblivion. KGB officers had raided Grossman's flat and thought they had every copy of the manuscript, even down to copying paper and the ribbons from his typewriter. Grossman died thinking nobody would ever read it.

In fact, he'd given a copy to a friend, and it had been forgotten in a bag underneath some coats in a country home. It was copied by dissidents and made its way eventually to the West. We have Life and Fate by the slenderest of chances.

Why were the authorities so frightened?

Grossman had been a popular and patriotic novelist. He had narrowly escaped Stalin's terrifying Great Purge but when Hitler invaded Russia, became a journalist for the Red Army's newspaper Red Star.

Life and Fate is one of the best examples of journalism elevated and reshaped into a great novel. Grossman saw the Soviet retreat, the heroic defence of Stalingrad, titanic tank battles and the fall of Berlin. His unblinking, pulse-racing prose was devoured by soldiers and airmen all over Russia. He was nominated for the Stalin Prize.

He was also the first reporter to reach the hideous concentration camp Treblinka. His account of the Jewish holocaust there is one of the essential pieces of journalism of the twentieth century.

But there was a lot more to Grossman's uncovering than reporterly objectivity. He was a Jew, who had had to leave his mother behind when the Germans advanced; she was murdered and he never recovered from the guilt and despair. As a Jew, he fell foul of the Stalinist dogma that the Nazi atrocities were aimed indiscriminately at Soviet citizens. Describing the Nazi programme to exterminate Jews in particular was not welcome in the victorious Soviet Union. As a truth-teller, and a Jew, Grossman was in trouble.

After 1945 came full-blown Soviet anti-Semitism and a new round of purges. Grossman became a steadily more open critic. His last and uncompleted novel, Everything Flows, ends with flaming, raging pages which tear into the inhumanity and barbarism of Lenin and Stalin. Like his Treblinka report, it remains essential reading for anyone who wants to know the truth of that bloodiest of centuries.

English readers do not - as yet - have access to Grossman's "Soviet" novels, so we cannot compare them to Life and Fate. But this is the opposite of a propaganda or "political" novel. It is a book written in a spirit of love and pity for human weaknesses, as much as one which celebrates courage. It is a book of foolish regrets, greed, a sparkling love of nature, passionate arguments and tiny details - as well as fighting and killing and courage. Peace, and war.

It is also a book of ideas, up-to-date even today. Grossman was a highly educated scientist, fascinated by the latest thinking. Einstein and the curvature of space-time haunt the imagination of his physicist hero, Viktor Shtrum. He reflects that "The Day of Judgement had come... Truth had been sleeping for centuries... no one in the world could be happier than the scientist."

This book really does stretch its arms round all human life, as does another book about invasion and patriotism, Tolstoy's War and Peace. Tolstoy was one of Grossman's heroes - he paid a pilgrimage to the older writer's home, Yasnaya Polyana, just before it fell to the Nazi invasion. Grossman, ambitious though he was, would be first to say that to compare Life and Fate with the greatest novel of all is absurd.

But here is the extraordinary thing. Snatched from the gloves of the KGB, Grossman's novel, though not perfect, actually can stand this most extreme comparison. It has become a book every educated person should know.

Andrew Marr presents Start the Week


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    As a scholar who has devoted a number of years to the study of Vasilii Grossman’s work, I shall be listening very carefully to the forthcoming serialisation of Life and Fate on BBC Radio 4. Some years ago I wrote a draft for a radio adaptation of Life and Fate.

    When writing my draft I identified the following themes and scenes as critical for any radio adaptation. They are: the trials and tribulations of Viktor Shtrum, especially the machinations of the cowardly, conformist, politically-correct apparatchiks; Stalin’s phone call; the conflict between the deluded Krymov and the magnificent Grekov (house 6/1); the struggle for professional autonomy (Ershov, Novikov, Darenskii); a portrayal of Getmanov; maternal grief (Liudmila Shtrum); Grossman’s thoughts on the Holodomor and the Holocaust; the role of Russian nationalism at Stalingrad; intellectual freedom (see Mad’iarov’s wonderful defence of free speech); the meeting between Mostovskoi and Liss (← absolutely essential since it is the philosophical core of the novel); and some role for Ikonnikov-Morzh and his testament.

    I had intended to submit this to the BBC for consideration in the hope that my draft would be adapted for radio. One reason I did not submit this draft to the BBC was that I was not satisfied that the BBC could be trusted to adapt Life and Fate for radio in a way that did justice to the novels main themes and characters. I feared that the left-wing biases of the BBC, well known, would corrupt any adaptation of the novel. Now, it may well be that the BBC’s radio adaptation will indeed do justice to Grossman and his novel and that my fears about BBC left-wing bias will prove to be groundless. Maybe the BBC will prove me wrong.

    Finally, the caption which accompanies the photo on Andrew Marr’s blog states the following: “Battle of Stalingrad, 21st June 1942”. This is a serious error. The first units of German 6th Army to reach Stalingrad were columns of 16th Panzer Division on 23rd August 1942.

    Frank Ellis (10th September 2011)

    Frank Ellis is the author of Vasiliy Grossman: The Genesis and Evolution of a Russian Heretic (1994); From Glasnost’ to the Internet: Russia’s New Infosphere (1999); Political Correctness and the Theoretical Struggle: From Lenin and Mao to Derrida and Foucault (2004); Marxism, Multiculturalism and Free Speech (2006); E le loro madri piansero: La Grande Guerra patriottica nella letteratura russa sovietica e postsovietica (2010); The Damned and the Dead: The%2

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Hello Mr Ellis
    Thank you for your comment and the correction. I have amended the caption which was based on the date of the picture held in the Deutsches Bundesarchiv. The archive itself does say: "For documentary purposes the German Federal Archive often retained the original image captions, which may be erroneous, biased, obsolete or politically extreme. Factual corrections and alternative descriptions are encouraged separately from the original description."
    Many thanks again,
    Paul Murphy

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Mr Ellis:

    Your " I feared that the left-wing biases of the BBC, well known..." is a contention I as a left winger would dispute. I suspect you will be proved wrong and I would expect a retraction. As for the content of your self publicising contribution, perhaps this would have been better addressed to the producer.

    I laud the BBC for adapting this great work, and look forward to it, warts and all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Dear Mr Blitzfish
    Thank you for your response to my post. Andrew Marr, a BBC insider, has publicly conceded the left-wing biases of the BBC. Not that his confirmation is essential. Maybe I will be proved wrong by the BBC’s adaptation of Life and Fate. We shall see. Once I have finished my analysis of the serialisation I shall ask the BBC to post it. Should it be posted you can expose any criticisms I might make as unjustified.
    Please do not misunderstand me. I think it is a good idea that Life and Fate is being serialised. My fear is that key themes will not be covered properly or will be ignored. Any retraction that I might have to make or would consider making could only be made to you once you have fully identified yourself.
    Yours sincerely
    Frank Ellis (12th September 2011)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Dear Mr Murphy
    Thank you for your response (understood). As I pointed out to Mr Blitzfish, it is my intention to write a full analysis of the radio serialisation of Life and Fate. I am doing this as part of a bigger research project related to Grossman.
    In view of Mr Blitzfish’s response it occurred to me that other listeners might wish to read and to comment on my assessment. I would also value the critical comments (some of them I assume). If the BBC would like to post my full assessment on the relevant part of your web site, let me know and I will send you a full copy.
    Yours sincerely
    Frank Ellis (12th September 2011)

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I started reading Life & Fate about a year ago, after a moving event about George Orwell at Cheltenham Literature Festival by Peter Davison.
    At this event parallels between Orwell (in particularly 1984) and Grossman were drawn as you'll see from this video of his presentation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oawpyZaf9_w . However, Davison compares "whereas Orwell draws on his imagination, Grossman draws on fact."
    This is what makes the novel full of impact - an authentic experience shared through the attraction of storytelling, sewn together with compelling and affecting descriptions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    A Response to the discussion of Life and Fate on BBC Radio 4, Start the Week (0900-0945hrs, 12th September 2011).

    The origins of Life and Fate and Grossman’s final and irrevocable defection from Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet state cannot be divorced from the Holodomor (Terror Famine), the massive dislocations imposed on Soviet society by industrialization and Stalin’s Great Terror. To argue that Grossman realised the true nature of Soviet totalitarianism only after he encountered anti-Semitism in the Soviet state, during and after the war, hardly supports Grossman’s status as an acute observer of human behaviour in all its forms.

    A close analysis of Grossman’s early work, and a lot of biographical detail, point very clearly to the conclusion that for Grossman the move away from Soviet totalitarianism was under way before 22nd June 1941. To be sure, war disrupted and retarded this process of re-evaluation, since Grossman hoped that something better would emerge after victory, but the point to be made here is that the intellectual, artistic and moral changes that were to lead to Life and Fate and Everything Flows had started before the war.

    My assessment of Grossman’s intellectual defection from the Soviet state is based on a reading of his pre-war and post-war work. Knowledge of Russian is, of course, essential here since none of the early material has been translated into English. This means that those, who cannot access the primary source material in Russian, archival or published, are unable properly to assess Grossman’s place in Russian literature. This means that any assessment of Grossman’s intellectual and artistic evolution will be flawed if based solely on the two main translated works (Life and Fate and Everything Flows). I note for example that Linda Grant was not even aware - or has only just become aware - of the fact that Life and Fate is the sequel to For a Just Cause. Given this, I am at loss to understand how she is in any way competent to write an introduction to the latest translation of Life and Fate.

    Grant claims to see some kind of ‘humanism’ in Life and Fate. I think she misconstrues the nature of the novel. The whole thrust of Life and Fate is hostile to all –isms, be they communism, socialism, national-socialism, fascism or humanism. Humanism is just another ideological device of control. It may not lead to the extermination of 11,000,000 Soviet peasants (Holodomor), some 6,000,000 Jews (Holocaust) or some 40,000,000-60,000,000

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Your blog post opens with a claim that Suslov read the novel. As far as I know he never read the novel and said so to Grossman. Suslov based his decision not to 'free' the book on a memo prepared for him by two aides.
    On a non-factual side, the question 'why were authorities afraid?' remains unanswered, I am afraid.
    - Alexander Anichkin

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I sympathise with Mr Ellis's concerns regarding the BBC's well documented left wing bias. To Mr Blitzfish I would point out that when I used to hold left wing views I could never detect such a bias with the BBC, but now that I have revised my political views over the last decade, I see this bias regularly. For an organisation that is funded through a compulsory tax (under threat of imprisonment) this is less than satisfactory. As a self confessed left winger, Mr Blitzfish 'would say that wouldn't he' regarding the BBC. Nevertheless, I hope the BBC does this novel the justice it clearly deserves. I look forward to seeing Mr Ellis's views after the broadcasts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    When the above Mr Ellis fatuously cites left-wing bias by the BBC, we have to ask, does this supposed aficionado of all things V Grossman, himself not emanate from the far-right wing politically and ideologically. Under those prejudices of course, even bourgeois liberalism would appear as left-wing. So for the record Mr Ellis, are you not the selfsame Dr Frank Ellis, formerly of Leeds University, once removed in 2006? (see link). If not, I will apologise in advance - unreservedly. Meanwhile, I shall listen to the complete radio broadcasts and hopefully return with an assessment of the 'oral performance' of this most important 20th century novel - from a Bolshevik, but decidedly anti-Stalinist position, later. I hope you can wait! http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/mar/24/raceineducation.highereducation

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    What a shame that comments on this blog post are so focused on whether the BBC has a left-wing bias, rather than the material at hand.
    Having said that, I found it fascinating to hear that Life and Fate is a sequel to For a Just Cause, which I see on Wikipedia was originally called Stalingrad. Hopefully this BBC Radio 4 adaptation will encourage publishers to fund a translation of this and other Grossman novels.

    I agree with Mr Ellis that the novel questions all isms, but like Orwell and so many great war correspondents, they let the events tell the story and let readers make their own judgements. He rarely passes emotional proclamations in the novel, despite long passages describing the nature of freedom and institution.


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