Grossman’s Life and Fate (I)

Grossman’s vast, relentless, horrifying novel of the collision of the two great crushing ideologies of the 20th Century, fascism and communism, at their most ruthless (the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union) could only have been written in our time because analyzing hopelessness and despair meticulously in the major artform of the age has never been indulged in before except by the ancient Greeks.  Occasionally modern writers analyze the insignificance and random destruction of individuals (e.g., Sartre, Camus, Kafka).  And there have been ages where lamenting one’s lot was fashionable as a point of view (as with the endless melancholic pieces of Dowland and his contemporaries).  But really only the Greeks examined the consequences of what appeared to them to be the most logical explanation of the human condition, namely, that the gods randomly toyed with humans for sport, or, as Anne Carson explained tragedy, men were punished for the original sin — being born.

But even the Greeks examined the inevitable, but random, destruction of man by looking at the treatment of individuals (Ajax, Herakles) or at most in the cascading lots of a family set upon like a string of dominoes (the house of Atreus).

Grossman attempts a novel where everyone causes and suffers the same fate, where people are snuffed out like ants without even the consolation of knowing they are suffering unjustly, and where almost no one is free from responsibility for the injustice and suffering that the world is awash in.  And therefore Life and Fate is a “modern” work of art.  But its modernism is not to be found in its technique.  In fact, the rhythm, the exposition, the character development and many other aspects harken back to the world of the great Russian novels, not the literary world of the 20th Century.

It is of course not surprising that Grossman avoids all experimental techniques.  Unlike, say, Pasternak, Grossman was not a stylist or innovator.  In fact, his rise as a writer depended on his devotion to the Soviet realist formula.  But Life and Fate is a total rejection of Soviet realism, not only in terms of its political perspective but from its class viewpoint.  The Soviet novel found heroism in the worker and taught the reader to do likewise.  Life and Fate finds pathos in all men’s lot and has no answer except pity, that most un-Soviet of points of view.  So Grossman is forced to return to the techniques of the writers who lived in that time of universal liberalism of the intellectuals, the worldview of Belinski and Herzen.  And he consciously (I believe) apes the techniques of the liberals like Turgenev and, of course, Tolstoy and others less obviously.

Let me start with an example of an interior monologue which turns into a riff on “time.”   It is the interior monologue of Krymov, a political commissar sent to Stalingrad to resolve a dispute between an officer and his corresponding political agent.  (The Stalinist system required that every organization be monitored and instructed by a representative of the Communist Party.  Krymov is a true believer, but at the same time something of an idealist who, unlike most Stalinists, believed in persuasion and the dignity of man.)  He planned to give a general lecture to all the officers and then resolve the dispute.  He finds, however, that the disputants have been killed before his arrival, and the officers treat him with contempt (not only because he’s a politician, not a soldier, but also because he is bourgeois, not proletarian).  While he is being subjected to the polite, but withering scorn (the kind that flourished under Stalinism — where the subject cannot precisely pin down the insult), the Germans advance on the underground headquarters.  Krymov is forced to fight, along side the other officers in close quarters. The fight is exhilerating and exhausting, and, after its over, Krymov finds himself awakening to a tune played on a fiddle by the officers’ barber.

The simple tune affects Krymov, as it does the other officers in the bunker, and he muses about his loneliness since his wife left him.  This triggers the musing about “time,” and it’s worth an extended quote (from  the excellent translation by Robert Chandler):

Somehow the music seemed to have helped him to understand time. Time is a transparent medium. People and cities arise out of it, move through it and disappear back into it. It is time that brings them and time that takes them away.

But the understanding that had just come to Krymov was a very different one: the understanding that says, ‘This is my time,’ or, ‘No, this is no longer our time. Time flows into a man or State, makes its home there and then flows away; the man and the State remain, but their time has passed. Where has their time gone? The man still thinks, breathes and cries, but his time, the time that belonged to him and to him alone, has disappeared.

There is nothing more difficult than to be a stepson of the time; there is no heavier fate than to live in a an age that is not your own. Stepsons of the time are easily recognized: in personnel departments, Party district committees, army political sections, editorial offices, on the street … Time loves only those it has given birth to itself: its own children, its own heroes, its own labourers. Never can it come to love the children of a past age, any more than a woman can love the heroes of a past age, or a stepmother love the children of another woman.

Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes.  And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes.  Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time.  But now another time has come — and you don’t even know it.

In yesterday’s fighting, time had been torn to shreds; now it emerged again from the plywood fiddle belonging to Rubinchik the barber.  This fiddle told some that their time had come and others that their time had passed.

‘I’m finsished,’ Krymov said to himself.  ‘Finished!’

The narration of this riff is “old fashioned” in the simple sense that it is supplied by the omniscient narrator, rather than stream of consciousness or other “modern” technique. But for all that, it somehow makes a more profound point. I say this, comparing it principally to the time motif in Mann’s Magic Mountain (or even his Joseph and His Brothers books). Modern as Mann’s technique is, his point about “time” is virtually incomprehensible.  Mann’s view of time is supposed to represent reality, while at the same time organizing the exposition of the novels.  For Krymov it is the way of understanding how his fate has been handed to him, and for organizing the narration it explains how characters keep bobbing up and down like flotation devices.

But, by making the “meaning” (or its function as character delineator) so clear, Grossman risks exposing it as a mere throw-away unless such observations become something of a leitmotif in the novel. Whether the book is more subtle than simply random philosophical observations “spoken” or thought by a character depends (in my mind) on how the writer uses the technique of invading a character’s mind and revealing the contents.  In the next, we’ll look at how a particular back-story of a character harkens back to the very beginning of the Russian literary tradition. (Part II is found here.)

  1. April 11th, 2011
  2. November 14th, 2012

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