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Life and Fate by Vassili Grossman
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Life and Fate (1980)

by Vasily Grossman

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,583594,608 (4.35)1 / 368
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  5. 30
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    pitjrw: Grossman reminds me of Malaparte. Less black humor than Malaparte but the same emphasis on the brief scene that illuminates a larger canvas. I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence that both were journalists.
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English (37)  Dutch (7)  Spanish (5)  Yiddish (2)  French (2)  Catalan (2)  Italian (1)  Swedish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (58)
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
It took me eight months or more to read Life and Fate. Not, of course, in an ‘oh my goodness I cannot put this down’ sort of a scamper. More a sort of Himalayan hike with a growing monkey of determination on my back: I’ve bought it (actually I was given it, but why spoil a good story?) I’m bloody well going to finish it. There were moments in which the Himalayan hike seemed too much, and Vasily Grossman’s epic tome was fated to head off and join the three or four other (not necessarily long) volumes that have defeated me. Yet always there was just at the very least a hint that this was not one of those novels in which the folding of a handkerchief would be the pinnacle of excitement.

Fortunately I have consumed one or two mammoth tomes before – three (I won’t parade my egotism by naming names) rate as my all-time literary favourites. Alright: I shall name one, because it prepared me and inspired me to keep going with Life and Fate. The Brothers Karamazov is as inspirational a read as I have even encountered. And, while it appears Grossman was deliberately emulating that other great Russian tome War and Peace, on which I cannot comment, I can say that the experience of reading Karamazov and indeed of reading Crime and Punishment a few times prepared me for the sheer enormity of scratching around the Russian nomenclature. Russian patronymics, given names and surnames congeal in a bewildering cobweb of syllables, and I have long learned that it is best simply to allow the identity of the character slowly and imperfectly to dawn on this reader’s consciousness.

So, armed with the memory of conquering a few Russian tomes, I journeyed on. I’m glad I did. The fog was at times intense, and the List of Chief Characters at the back of the book is woefully inadequate (page references would have redeemed it), but as I journeyed I was taken into the depths of human vulnerability. The death of a child in a Nazi gas oven is as chilling, yet haunting beautiful a piece of writing as I have encountered. The dreadful carnage and the equally dreadful ennui of fields of battle, the desperate sexual encounters, the ghastly dehumanizing bastardry of war should all be compulsory reading for every thinking human being, pacifist or militarist, left or right or in between. The brutal yet understated irony that the evil of soviet oppression and the evil of Nazi oppression bend to become just two more superimposable chapters of human inhumanity should not be lost (Grossman never lived to see Life and Fate published, much less to read Alan Bullock’s monumental Hitler and Stalin, but it makes a similar point). The ability of the totalitarian State eventually to bend human wills to uncharacteristic compromise should not be lost on any of us who believe we are advocates of some Herculean cause: there is a Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum lurking in most of us. Coincidentally I have been reading Nineteen Eighty-Four during the same period that I was reading Grossman, and the same point is lurking in those shorter pages, albeit less forcefully. Totalitarianism sucks.

I doubt I will ever read Life and Fate again – I may not have a spare eight months. I will however never regret reading it, and I suspect Grossman’s instinctive and lonely wisdom will permeate my thoughts until I stop thinking. Grossman had of course no editor to tidy up the flaws in his work, but he cannot be blamed for that: this is a magisterial work that I will never forget or regret reading. If only the editor of this edition had improved that List of Chief Characters. ( )
  zappa | Jul 19, 2014 |
I've finally finished reading Life and Fate and what an experience it was. This is the tale of an extended family in Soviet Russia living during the Siege of Stalingrad in WWII. Grossman explores everything from the German concentration camps, to the Gulag, to the culture of fear under Stalin, to marital strife, to typical family dilemmas. It's an epic book that I learned a ton from and will want to read again at some point in my life.

Grossman's book was confiscated by the Soviet government when he tried to have it published in 1960. I believe it was first published in the 1980s (Grossman had hidden copies of the novel with several different friends). It is certainly not all negative about the Soviets, Stalin, and Russia, but Grossman definitely posits that Hitler and Stalin, Fascism and Communism, have many negatives in common, a theme that was obviously not popular to the communists. Also, Grossman tries to humanize Stalin in sections, and the fear that the characters live with of being unjustly and unfairly accused and punished of disloyalty is constant. I'm sure all of this contribute to the book being banned.

I came away with great respect for this book, but can't say that I felt deeply connected to it. Grossman chooses to throw the reader into the middle of both the war and his characters' lives. Somehow I just couldn't get involved with the characters. It may be that there were just too many story lines going on, or it might be that I don't have enough cultural and political background to have made some events in the novel as impactful as they should have been. I'm also not convinced that the translation was as well done as it could have been. I felt that a lot of the language had a stilted feel. I have no way of knowing what it would have been like in the original Russian, but I wondered. In the end it was a book that I was extremely grateful to have read, but also grateful to have finished! ( )
1 vote japaul22 | Jun 8, 2014 |
Just something about those Russian authors which I have trouble reading! ( )
  chrishall57 | Dec 30, 2013 |
I.

Dear self,

what is the most that you've ever done to get your words published? I know you're sometimes forced to edit things into shape, and that you find that a little annoying, because honestly, if these fools don't recognize your genius, do they deserve to have your name so close to theirs? But really, if you want to publish x, you can always throw it on goodreads or into a series of facebook posts and at least a few people will read it.

So, what right do you have to criticize this book, written by a Soviet dissident, describing in some depth the psychological twists and turns of life under a totalitarian government the likes of which you will almost certainly never live under (because, let's be honest, you'd probably die of shock as soon as our fictional Stalin took power)? None, I tell you. This man never saw his novel into print, and when it finally was published it required Le Carre-like machinations just to get the thing out of Russia.

Besides, you're always complaining about how people like Milosz and other refugees from 'actually existing 'socialism'' are just used as a salve bu guilty liberal Westerners who can pat themselves on their Chinese-produced-garment-covered backs for being so free. And in this book Grossman does a remarkable job of suggesting i) that socialism is probably better than capitalism for most people; ii) that believing in things like the dignity of human beings is not the unique privilege of privileged Westerners. In short, he shows you how to be an anti-communist without turning into Bill Clinton.

Three stars? Get over yourself,

sincerely,

Your Self.


II.

Dear Self,

did you read this putrid turd? Because I did. The translator notes that Grossman's style "has sometimes been called ponderous, typically Soviet; it would be truer to say that Grossman is capable of many kinds of poetry." That may well be true for all I know; I don't know Russian. This translation, however, has all the panache of pre-cooked brown rice. The book is compared to 'War and Peace,' and that's certainly an apt comparison in many ways (it's about war; it's an historical novel; it's extremely broad; it's very long), save one, namely, 'War and Peace' is endlessly fascinating, and this is tremendously boring 80% of the time.

So yes, I feel bad for not liking this. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. I assume, Self, that you're very into Dickens and obsessed with the siege of Stalingrad, because only that person could possibly find something to enjoy in most of this beast.

I gave it three stars for content, five stars for unearned cultural capital, and minus five stars for style. So there.

Yours sincerely,

Your Self. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
I think if you actually get to the last page of Life and Fate Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece about Russia during the Great Patriotic War, you should award yourself the Order of Lenin, Second Class.

The book is 871 pages long in my Kindle Edition, and it has the rough edges and occasional repetitions of a book that never got the authors final polish that it deserved.

And the Russian nicknames and pet names and patronymics will drive you crazy.

But I don’t care. I loved it.

Grossman’s story is about the siege of Stalingrad – 1941-1942 – and the Russian soldiers (and German soldiers) who fought it and the Russian civilians who endured it. The hunger, the bombardments, the bureaucracy, the isolation, the madness of combat are all detailed with heart stopping depth and intimacy.

Along the way he shows us how the Russian people adjusted to life in a Communist State -- where purity and devotion to the Ideals of Stalin-ism were the most important things – and deviation from the Communist "norm" is the ultimate sin. (Army units go into battle with a commander and a “political commissar”). And Russian paranoia leads to Russian paralysis.

Grossman was a Jew and he was very observant to treatment of Jews – both in the Soviet Union and in Germany. (He was one of the first of any nationality to report on the horrors of the German death camps). He follows one of his characters right up into the death chamber – and makes us as witnesses walk along with her every step by chilling step. .

And on the other hand he can show a Jewish Mathematician with a car and a dacha who works on atomic theory who is hounded for his Jewishness (His brilliant new theorem is criticized for its “Talmudic” bent) But hey they need him, so he is "rehabilitated" and put back to work.

He shows us Stalin and Hitler, generals and privates, rich people and poor people – and in the midst of horror and war and suffering gives us moments of surprising generosity and kindness and humanity.

It’s a grim book with flashes of Russian humor – Stalin wishes aloud he had not had all his best generals shot in 1937 so they could fight for him again at Stalingrad.

Stalin’s grim visage floats over the book like the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg in “The Great Gatsby” – everything done is done in Comrade Stalin’s name and in the hopes that Comrade Stalin would approve. And occasionally Stalin reaches down from his mountaintop and does something godlike and arbitrary. (or someone does it in his name)

And in the end, the outnumbered, surrounded, starving Russians encircled the German Panzers and forced them to surrender. It was the turning point of the war. When you have two armies BOTH ordered by their commanders not to retreat (“Not one step backwards” from Stalin: "Stand or Die" from Hitler) something is going to go boom. And General Winter always fights on the side of the Russians.

And in the last few pages spring comes to Stalingrad and the flowers push up through the rocks and the stones, and you know, Life Goes On. That's not ironic and it's not meant to be.

An amazing book that I had never heard of before someone suggested it for my Book Group. Writing so clear and beautiful that it breaks your heart. Characters human and real - even the bad guys.

Very highly recommended. ( )
1 vote magicians_nephew | Jul 14, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (39 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Grossman, Vasilyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Adrian, EsaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ballestrem, Madeleine vonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Björkegren, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chandler, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rebon, MartaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zonghetti, ClaudiaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Opgedragen aan mijn moeder Jekaterina Saveljevna Grossman
Посвящается моей матери
Екатерине Савельевне Гроссман
This book is dedicated to my mother, Yekaterina Savelievna Grossman
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There was a low mist. You could see the glare of headlamps reflected on the high-voltage cables beside the road.
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But Chekhov said: let's put God, and all these grand progressive ideas, to one side. Let's begin with man. Let's be kind and attentive to the individual man - whether he's a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin islands or a waiter in a restaurant ... That's democracy, the still unrealised democracy of the Russian people.
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Жизнь и судьба
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Book description
A book judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the state, Life and Fate is an epic tale of World War II and a profound reckoning with the dark forces that dominated the twentieth century. Interweaving an account of the battle of Stalingrad with the story of a single middle-class family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered by fortune from Germany to Siberia, Vasily Grossman fashions an immense, intricately detailed tapestry depicting a time of almost unimaginable horror and even stranger hope. Life and Fate juxtaposes bedrooms and snipers' nests, scientific laboratories and the Gulag, taking us deep into the hearts and minds of characters ranging from a boy on his way to the gas chambers to Hitler and Stalin themselves. This novel of unsparing realism and visionary moral intensity is one of the supreme achievements of modern Russian literature.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0099506165, Paperback)

Suppressed by the KGB, Life and Fate is a rich and vivid account of what the Second World War meant to the Soviet Union.

On its completion in 1960, Life and Fate was suppressed by the KGB. Twenty years later, the novel was smuggled out of the Soviet Union on microfilm. At the centre of this epic novel looms the battle of Stalingrad. Within a world torn apart by ideological tyranny and war, Grossman’s characters must work out their destinies. Chief among these are the members of the Shaposhnikov family – Lyudmila, a mother destroyed by grief for her dead son; Viktor, her scientist-husband who falls victim to anti-semitism; and Yevgenia, forced to choose between her love for the courageous tank-commander Novikov and her duty to her former husband. Life and Fate is one of the great Russian novels of the 20th century, and the richest and most vivid account there is of what the Second World War meant to the Soviet Union.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:30:06 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A book judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the state, Life and Fate is an epic tale of World War II and a profound reckoning with the dark forces that dominated the twentieth century. Interweaving an account of the battle of Stalingrad with the story of a single middle-class family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered by fortune from Germany to Siberia, Vasily Grossman fashions an immense, intricately detailed tapestry depicting a time of almost unimaginable horror and even stranger hope. Life and Fate juxtaposes bedrooms and snipers' nests, scientific laboratories and the Gulag, taking us deep into the hearts and minds of characters ranging from a boy on his way to the gas chambers to Hitler and Stalin themselves. This novel of unsparing realism and visionary moral intensity is one of the supreme achievements of modern Russian literature.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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