Sunday, November 3, 2013

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

Here's a quick non-review of Vasily Grossman's magnificent Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics). Non-review, since I don't read enough literature to be able to write a literary review, but I do wish to bring this book to the attention of potential readers.

Grossman (1905-1964) was a Soviet writer and an important war correspondent during the 2nd World War.  He was at Stalingrad, and at the liberation of Nazi camps. His mother was murdered by the Nazis; he himself was later castigated for not being patriotic enough. All of these themes are woven into Life and Fate, a story of the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad which is clearly modeled on War and Peace. Like War and Peace, its multi-stranded story presents the entire society - generals and prisoners, intellectuals and combat pilots, old women and young men, heroes and knaves.

Last year I reviewed Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, and in doing so I mentioned a series of previous books I had read comparing the Soviets and the Nazis. I recommended Snyder's book and still do, but Grossman's is much better. Snyder's has far more historical facts; Grossman's gives the historical truth. He was there, watching and understanding, and he tells it as it was. The oddest part of his book is that he ever thought it could be published in the Soviet Union, even in the relatively benign Khruschev years. Such a damning portrait of Soviet society could only be published outside the system, as it eventually was in 1980, 16 years after the author's death and after the manuscript had been smuggled out of the country.

In an otherwise powerful book, a number of sections stood out in particular in my reading. The first is a farewell letter of a doomed Jewish mother, on the eve of the liquidation of her ghetto. I have to assume Grossman was writing about his own mother. There's a description of how scientific discoveries are made which could have been lifted directly out of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition were it not for the fact that Grossman wrote before Kuhn, and had no way of being influenced by him. There are descriptions of the battle of Stalingrad, and especially the fighters of a surrounded and doomed Soviet outpost which contradict the entire sense of Soviet society for their raw sense of freedom. There is a description of a Nazi death installation which isn't accurate, but the power of Grossman's words about how "life is tuned into inanimate material" makes it more potent than most of what has been written about Nazism. There are descriptions of how individuals coped with life under totalitarianism, how they adapted, and how by doing so they bolstered the regime.

About a hundred pages before the end there's a description of the interrogation of Krymov, a life-long communist who is now in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. This section was one of the most important I've read, ever. It shows how the interrogator takes decades of loyal activity for the Party, and convincingly makes it sound like decades of subterfuge and treason. Krymov knows it's all a lie, but as the interrogation continues, he sees the sense of the allegations, how useless it will be to cling to his version, and how hopeless it will be to continue to believe in his life-long convictions and his own memory at the same time. His cell-mates, all veterans of the party and interrogations, demonstrate that in order not to reject everything he has ever believed in, he must accept that he has been wrong all along - or vice versa. Either way, the Party will remain untouched, while he, the life-long party activist, will be destroyed.

Much of the book is fascinating for a history buff such as I. The section about how the interrogator has collected all possible information about Krymov's entire life, so as to arrange it in the most damning version conceivable, however, is of urgent importance not only for the dwindling number of us who still remember the history of the 20th century. This is how the purveyors of systematic lies operate today, in 2013, and will still be operating in 2113.  Read Mondoweiss any day of the week, or preferably, every day for a few weeks, and you'll see the NKVD in its full glory.