Grossman’s Life and Fate (II)

Time of course is one of the inherent dimensions of a novel. This is so, not only because all narratives must be historical (in the sense that whatever happened, happened before it was described), but also because to the extent a novel follows the western art tradition that applies not only to stories, plays, but also most performance art (such as art music) development is a nearly essential component. Characters often undergo development over time; but not always (Meursault is as anomic at the beginning as at the end, at least as he describes himself when on death row in The Stranger).  But even the absence of development, however, is only seen against time measured in other ways.

Grossman’s characters by and large don’t develop in the course of the narrative. But Grossman frequently gives salient background to explain how they arrived at their current conditions. Less frequently, Grossman provides an analepsis. One of the most striking of these is of David, the young boy caught up in the German round-up of Jews in Ukraine, while on vacation from his mother in Moscow. David’s situation is for Grossman the converse of Viktor Shtrum, who lives in Moscow and fails to bring his mother from Ukraine, before she is rounded up. Like Viktor, Grossman himself failed to save his mother and for the same reason: his wife objected to her living with them. David’s fate, therefore, can be seen as the working out of Grossman’s own guilt. But even if you don’t subscribe to psychoanalyzing an author (and usually it offers no insight, because when it’s easy to see the biography of the author, there’s nothing it adds, and when it’s more difficult, we generally lack sufficient analytical data about the author to permit its use in explicating any aspect of the novel or its technique), at least the chiasma (so to speak) of the fates of mother-David / Viktor-mother adds to the overwhelming blanket of hopelessness that covers all the doomed characters.

Grossman’s treatment of David’s background is not simply a striking flash-back in the midst of a book trapped (like the characters in it under seige) in a stiffling “presentness,” it is also an escape into a gentler Russian literary sensibility. Consider the following paragraph (from Part I, chapter 49). It describes David’s education in the ways of nature after he spends time with his Grandmother, far away from his urban existence:

“The living world was no longer confined to the pages of spelling books and the faces of toy bricks. David saw how much blue there was in the drake’s dark wings and how much gay smilling mockery in the way he quacked. He climbed up the rough trunks of cherry trees and reached out to pick the white cherries that glowed among the leaves. He walked up to a calf that had been tethered on a patch of wasteland and offered him a sugar-lump; numb with happiness, he looked into the friendly eyes of this great baby.”

This wistful (and in Grossman’s case fey) treatment of childhood taps into a stream of particularly popular Russian literature that goes back to the very beginning: romanticized autobiography. This genre was sampled by almost everyone outside of the Gogol-Dostoevsky alienated-urbanite tradition. It began with Sergei Aksakov’s hugely popular trilogy of fictionalized autobiographies. Tolstoy himself came to fame with his own Childhood. In the twentieth century both Ivan Bunin (in exile) and Konstantin Paustovsky continued the form, in stark contrast to the prevailing trend of Soviet literature.

The essence of the form is that it describes a romanticized view of boyhood, in which the boy is filled with wonder as he communes with nature. (These narratives take place in the country, altough occassionally the youth visits a city or lives in one for a short time. Cities usually mean the end of childhood.) The boys are never contaminated by the caste system of Russian civilian life, nor by observing the brutalization of the serfs or the degradation of peasants. (The self-image of 19th Century Russian aristocrats is much like that of American gentry of the ante-bellum South.)

The key to the popularity of this genre, I suppose, was in the inherent goodness of the central boy. He is innocent; his only point of view is simple curiosity and gratitude. Although not very articulate, he causes immense joy (usually) in all about him. In Aksakov’s Years of Childhood (the last published of his trilogy; not nearly as acclaimed as A Russian Gentleman, about his grandfather mainly, and chronologically before his A Russian Schoolboy — it covers roughly his years 3 through 10), the very young boy is in the midst of a serious illness (this from Duff’s translation published by Oxford Press):

“Once in the early morning I woke, or became conscious, and could not recognize where I was. All was unfamiliar: the large lofty room, the bare walls of fir planks, new and very thick, the strong smell of resin. The sun — a summer sun, apparently — was just rising, and as it shone through a window on my right above a thin canopy spread over me, was brightly reflected on the opposite wall. Near me was my mother sleeping uneasily, in her clothes and with no pillows. Even now I seem to see her black hair straying in disorder over her pale thin face. … [F]or some minutes I looked through the curtains with satisfaction and curiosity at the new objects around me. Not wise enough to let my poor mother sleep on, I touched her and said: ‘How bright the sun is! What a good smell!’ My mother sprang up, frightened at first; but when she heard the strength of my voice and saw the freshness of my face, fear gave place to joy. How she caressed me and called me by fond names and wept for joy! Such things cannot be told in words.”

You cannot mistake this for Dostoevsky or Gorky; in fact, this kind of false recollection of boyhood past was the special province of landed gentry, particularly the nearly ruined kind.

So when Grossman employs the technique, it is an intentional departure from the gritty, sparse prose of prescribed Soviet style. It is perhaps as far as Grossman can separate himself from the stoic heroism of the characters in his own popular No Beautiful Nights. It is in fact dangerous bourgeois sentimentality; no more wanted in Stalin’s Soviet Union than in Hitler’s occupied Europe.  But how do you convey a system relentless to it core?  Like this:

“Childhood memories … tears of happiness … the bitterness of parting … love of freedom … feelings of pity for a sick puppy … sadness … friendship … love of the weak … sudden hope … a fortunate guess … melancholy … unreasoning joy … sudden embarrassment …

“Fascism annihilated tens of millions of people.” (Part I, chapter 51).

[Part III is found here.]

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  1. January 26th, 2011
  2. April 11th, 2011

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