Grossman’s Life and Fate (III)

In the notes for his Turgenev lecture, Nabokov says:

“One will observe a queer feature of Turgenev’s structure.  He takes tremendous trouble to introduce his characters properly, endowing them with pedigrees and recognizable traits, but when he has finally assembled them all, lo and behold the tale is finished and the curtain has gone down whilst a ponderous epilogue takes care of whatever is supposed to happen to his invented creatures beyond the horizon of his novel.  I do not mean there are no events in this story.  On the contrary, this novel [Fathers and Sons] is replete with action; there are quarrels and other clashes, there is even a duel—and a good deal of rich drama attends Bazarov’s death.  But one will notice that all the time throughout the development of the action, and in the margin of the changing events, the past lives of the characters are being pruned and improved by the author, and all the time he is terribly concerned with bringing out their souls and minds and temperaments by means of functional illustrations …”

[Previous parts of this series: Part I and Part II.]

Vasily Grossman reporting for Krasnaya Zvezda ("The Red Star") in Schwerin, Germany in 1945.

You can’t escape the same conclusion when reading Life and Fate.  In the first place, it takes more than a third of the novel to introduce the disparate groups of characters.  And with each group there is a formal introduction of characters, usually quite compact, as though the reader cannot understand a character’s actions without a biographical snapshot before him.  It’s hard not to consider how differently Tolstoy handles the introduction of characters.  (The Tolstoy comparison is hard to avoid since Grossman himself practically announces it with the selection of his title and since his translator Chandler makes a strong argument for it in the introduction.  Whether Grossman really resembles Tolstoy or not will be considered in a later entry.)

Anna Karenina begins not with a background sketch of anyone but rather with a mise en scène (in the way screen writers use the term, as descriptions of actions between dialogues).  It tells of a house in turmoil, and describes the cause – the letter from the former governess revealing her affair with the husband, the wife’s announcement that they must separate, the confusion of the staff, the wandering about without supervision.  None of the characters is even named in this description.  The novel properly begins then with Stiva (the guilty husband) waking and contemplating his dream.  He slowly remembers the situation he’s in, and the story takes off.  Characters are introduced, not by an assessment but rather simply as they come in contact.  Their personalities become apparent in their relationships.  In fact, the entire story is largely propelled by the handing off of one character to another, much like an elaborate partner trade in square dancing.  When backgrounds are described, they are not done in block fashion, but naturally, as it were, out of the nature of the scene.  Stiva’s background is explained while he is reading his newspaper.  Noting that it is a moderately progressive paper leads to a discussion of his point of view—a take-no-risk personality (Part I chapter 3).  Other background information is given when characters come in contact.  For example, Stiva’s professional rise is described as a matter of his affability and is placed right before he arrives at the office, where he where he is said to have won the affection of all with whom he came in contact.  This discussion introduces his sister Anna (who is coming to speak with his wife Dolly to calm her uproar over his affair) and, more importantly her husband, who gave Stiva his first job.  The background is not so much to describe Stiva as to set up a future intersection of characters (I:5).  The same approach is used when the prior history of Levin and Kitty is explained (I:6) and takes place after Levin meets Stiva in his office and allows the story to slightly backtrack to pick up what Levin was doing right before Stiva woke up in Chapter 1.  The story then proceeds with the meeting at the ice rink and the dinner with Stiva later that night.  Stiva leaves to go to the party at the Sheherbatskys to meet Kitty, and at this point Kitty’s story is briefly told (I:12).  And so on.

Sergey Levitsky's 1856 photo of Russia's literary establishment. Standing, Tolstoy is in uniform. Below him Turgenev is seated. Standing next to Tolstoy is Dmitry Grigorovich. To Turgenev's right Ivan Goncharov sits; to his left first Alexander Druzhinin, then Alexander Ostrovsky.

Turgenev, by contrast, presents character backgrounds as though they were encyclopedia entries.  And they come, usually, shortly after the character is introduced.  In Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov barely learns from his valet that there is “no sign” of something and sits down on a bench at the posting station they were waiting at, when Turgenev introduces a full-dress biographical entry (all quotes from the Hare translation):  “We will introduce him to the reader while he sits, with his feet tucked in, looking thoughtfully around.”  The entry, which takes up most of the first chapter, describes the man’s property holdings and then begins with his father, and how he went from Army hero to land owner, tells of his father’s relation with his mother, recounts his schooling and university experience, his marriage and domestic life and the birth of his child – who he and his valet are waiting for.  The chapter ends with the valet hearing the approaching coach.

Other encyclopedic character entries describe Nikolai Petrovich’s brother, Pavel (Chapter 6), Fenichka (Chapter 8), Anna Sergyevna Odintsov (Chapter 15) and Bazarov’s mother, Arina Vlasyevna (Chapter 20).  All are so oddly formal, and all effect such a sharp break with the scene they conclude, that the conclusion is natural that Turgenev had some sort of functional purpose for them, perhaps providing mileposts in the narrative.  The background of Pavel, for example, is supposedly given by Arkady, his nephew, but no attempt is made to have it sound as though it were being told, rather than written by the narrator.  “And Arkady told him his uncle’s story.  The reader will find it in the following chapter.”  Fenichka’s background follows an intriguing scene where Pavel awkwardly visits her on a pretext, asks to see the baby and stays until he is interrupted by his brother who is unaware of Pavel’s strange attraction to the peasant (“And really is there anything in the world more captivating than a beautiful young mother with a healthy baby in her arms?”).  Nikolai Petrovich kisses the hand of his mistress:  “Nikolai Petrovich, what are you doing?” she murmured, lowering her eyes, then quietly looked up again; her expression was charming as she peeped from under her eyelids and smiled tenderly and rather stupidly.”  And then begins the background.

Grossman’s character biographies are usually much shorter, and so they do not interrupt the narrative in such a pronounced way. They would probably not be particularly noticeable except for their sheer number.  Occasionally the back story of a character, such as David which we saw in the last Part,  is introduced without calling attention to the abrupt time shift and seamlessly works its way back to the narration of current events. (It helps in the case of David that it occurs at the beginning, where there are so many scene shifts as the novel introduces so many different groups of characters.) In many other cases, however, the character’s background is inserted as a parenthetical which interrupts the narration.

Here are a few examples:

  • Ikonnikov (Part I chapter 4), the former Tolstoyan, now atheist, whose character functions solely as a Christian foil to true believer communist Mostovskoy’s Marxist certainty in the German concentration camp. His background is inserted in a “philosophical” dialog between them, which ends somewhat artificially as Grossman goes on to describe another “old Russian.”
  • Getmanov (I:21), Party functionary who was appointed political commissar of the tank corps that will spearhead the Soviet counter-offensive against the Germans. His biography is inserted in the middle of the farewell party at his family’s temporary home in Ufa. The drinking party among Getmanov’s former comrades paints Getmanov as an amoral, ambitious Party tool. Grossman nevertheless felt it necessary to describe his history in a blisteringly acidic tone so that the reader was not left with any doubt that he had no principles, no talents and no reason for authority other than his complete identification with the current Party directives. (Getmanov’s history since the beginning of the war is continued in I:52, where it is not done in such a heavy-handed manner.)
  • Shargorodsky (I:25), introduced simply as another tenant in the building in Kuibyshev, to which Yevgenia Shaposhnikova (sister and sister-in-law of the protagonist couple) has been relocated by the war. His background is presented at the moment he is introduced: He was a liberal aristocrat and poet who made friends in exile with the post-war revolutionaries. He is a “type” exhibiting progressive but not radical views.
  • Katya Vengrova (I:57), the young radio operator who just arrived in the bombed out building in Stalingrad called 6/1 (a building held by a group of Soviet fighters, although surrounded by Germans in other abandoned buildings). Having just been introduced to the commander, she is sent to her position where her background is introduced by her thinking of the “fairy-tale like” existence she had before the war. She lived with her mother and followed a drab impoverished routine. Only the night before she left for the Army did she learn from her mother how her father had abandoned her and how hurt her mother was. “Katya had been quite astonished: the world of the human soul suddenly seemed so vast as to make even the raging war seem insignificant.”
  • Karimov (I:63), translator of Western literary works into Tartar. Viktor Shtrum meets him when the physics group is evacuated to Kazan during the war. Shtrum learns Karimov’s background from the librarian. Karimov becomes a member of the group, including Shtrum, which engages in discussions of literary and political topics, often with a freedom that was politically dangerous.
  • Yershov (I:70), Soviet colonel planning to organize an uprising across Germany from the concentration camp he was imprisoned in. As he is a character who introduces a new plot element, Grossman devotes a new chapter to describe his plans, his ability to carry them out and then his background. While Yershov was in military service, his father was denounced as a kulak and his estate taken. Yershov was refused admittance to the Military Academy, despite his high marks and had to work at manual labor to support his father (his mother and sisters had died early in the banishment). When he was called up during the German invasion, he proved himself valiant and a natural leader and was promoted accordingly. Now despite having every natural incentive to reject the Soviet leadership and ideology, he is considering how to engineer a revolt all over Germany. While deciding which Soviet officers to trust with his plans he muses over the characters of other prisoners, which allows the Grossman to give a brief story about Gen. Gudz, Brigadier Commisar Osipov, Colonel Zlatokrylets and Major Kirillov.
  • Beck (II:11), German infantry officer in hospital for surgery to remove bullet splinters. Perhaps because Grossman has insufficient knowledge to describe life in pre-war Germany, the “background” of Lt. Bach is merely an intellectual history of how the son of social democrats, who himself despised the anti-intellectualism of early Nazis, came to consider Hitler the solution to Germany’s problems.
  • Darensky (II:13), artillery officer, whose reports were well regarded by Army command, on fact-finding mission for in the desert surrounding the Caspian Sea. His host and temporary bunk-mate having passed out drunk, Darensky tries to sleep but remembers the treatment he and his aristocratic parents received before the war from the Party.

Even Eichmann’s background is described (II:29) in connection with his meeting an SS officer who knew his family before the war.

Not all biographical summaries are inserted with such a heavy hand. For example, the backgrounds of Grekov, Klimov, Batrakov, all members of the army unit holding House 6/1 are recalled by Shaposhnikov as he sits in Army HQ, anxiously eager to return to his colleagues (I:60). Shaposhnikov considers what he knows of their pre-war lives to understand why he considers their (and his own) life at the House more meaningful, and this musing in part leads to his return to the House, with its comradery and heightened experiences. Likewise the story of Nyeudobnov, the chief of staff of the tank corps commander Novikov, whom Getmanov was assigned to as political commissar, arises from the situation itself. In this case the background is supplied by Getmanov himself (I:52). Getmanov is having drinks with the commander (they have just received orders to begin moving out for the offensive), and he reveals that General Nyeudobnov was a ruthless enforcer of the purges in the Army instituted by Stalin. In this case the description (while also necessary to define the character to explain future actions) is part of Getmanov’s arsenal of methods to make himself out as trustworthy, to draw others out to see if disloyalty can be identified and generally to keep the people he dealt with (and spied on) off guard.

Even with occasional more artful manner of inserting them, the constant, almost obsessively routine, relating of a character’s pre-war biography, particularly of minor characters who do not play significant roles in any of the plot lines, makes the large novel seem even more overstuffed. Why did Grossman feel compelled to insert them all?

Of course the background of the characters inform how they act now (in the novel’s present) and why other people react to them the way they do. Trained Marxists, as all Soviet intellectuals had to be, would be able to form opinions about a person’s character, politics and values from his background. Soviet readers would probably expect to learn the background of the characters in these circumstances.

Perhaps also, Grossman inserted them as a way to deny the Soviet state the power to change the past. Grossman in life may have grown to think that way because the state had arrogated the past to itself. In the novel (I:63) the narrator says (in connection with the officers purged by Stalin): “the might of the State had constructed a new past. It had made the Red cavalry charge a second time. It had dismissed the genuine heroes of long-past events and appointed new ones. The state had the power to reply events, to transform figures of granite and bronze, to alter speeches long since delivered, to change the faces in a news photograph.” By setting for a character’s background as a fact, Grossman denies that it is a matter for reinterpretation by the State.

Or maybe it is simply because the manner by which Turgenev told stories was so ingrained in Grossman that it did not seem to him as artificial as it now seems. What make this last point seem more plausible is how chapter 34 of Part II is told. Tank corps commander Novikov returns to his quarters past a group of brand new recruits. Their fear of his reproach causes him to ruminate about the power officers in war time have over young men and how frequently they caused men to die without regret or real concern. At his quarters Nyeudobnov gave his opinion of the worthlessness of that group of recruits, proving himself both less reflective and more inhuman than Novikov. After this exchange, the chapter abruptly introduces another discussion under the influence of vodka with this observation (an uncharacteristic address directly to the reader and especially as one relating to storytelling):

“In his novels, Turgenev often describes calls paid by neighbours on a landlord who has just settled down on his estate . . . That evening, two jeeps stopped outside Corps HQ and the hosts came out into the porch to receive their guests: the commanders of an artillery division, a howitzer regiment and a rocket-launcher brigade.

“. . . Take my hand, dear reader. Today is the name-day of Tatyana Borisovna and we must go pay her a visit . . . ” (Ellipses in original.)

The second paragraph is a reference to Turgenev’s The Sportsman’s Notebook and comes from the sketch entitled “Tatyana Borisovna and her Nephew.” That section begins: “Give me your hand, dear reader, and come with me. The weather is glorious; the May sky is a tender blue; . . . ” (Charles and Natasha Hepburn translation.) The book, which made Turgenev’s reputation, is a vast and unwieldy collection of stories about Russian country life, which although told by a detached narrator, carries a political message. It was said to have strongly influenced public opinion in favor of the emancipation of the serfs. It also led to his arrest. The chapter about Tatyana Borisovna concerns a simple-hearted small landlord who sympathetically listens to those who come to her with problems and who cherish her kindness. The sketch has a very long description of her past shortly after the physical description of her property.

In the chapter of Life and Fate in which this allusion is made, however, Grossman for once utterly omits any background information of the three officers he introduces. Their personalities come through solely based on the opinions they take on the two question: how men should be led in battle and whether generals unduly sacrifice their men. The discussion shows how men of good will (in this case Novikov) are flummoxed in the face of duplicitous authoritarians (in this case Nyeudobnov) and how Party members were able to adopt whatever position they felt useful in the circumstances without fear of being contradicted. The chapter in fact shows that biographical backgrounds are not always necessary for either the plot development or the philosophical point Grossman is making. So is there another reason?

Although the accumulation of so many varied personalities suggests Turgenev or Tolstoy, it seems that what Grossman was trying to collect was a cross-section of the Soviet Union at the crisis, not for its own sake, but to demonstrate his alternative to Soviet Marxist ideology — a humanist appraisal of individual’s character in the context of a Russian democratic outlook. In this respect the writer he most respects is neither Turgenev nor Tolstoy, and certainly not Dostoevsky, but rather Chekhov. Grossman puts the argument in the words of Madyarov, brother-in-law of Viktor Shtrum’s colleague and best friend. After dismissing both the Decadents and the Soviet Realists because they exalted only one thing (the individual in the case of the Decadents and the State in the case of the Soviet Realists), Madyarov says that Chekhov “brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness–with people of every estate, every class, every age . . . More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all these people — as a Russian democrat. He said — and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy — that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! He said something no one in Russia had ever said.” (Part I chapter 64.) He did this, according to Madyarov, principally by bringing “such a mass of different people into the consciousness of society.” Madyarov partially lists them:

“Doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, lecturers, landlords, shopkeepers, industrialists, nannies, lackeys, students, civil servants of every rank, cattle-dealers, tram-conductors, marriage-brokers, sextons, bishops, peasants, workers, cobblers, artists’ models, horticulturists, zoologists, innkeepers, gamekeepers, prostitutes, fishermen, lieutenants, corporals, artists, cooks, writers, janitors, nuns, soldiers, midwives, prisoners on the Sakhalin Islands . . . “

Madyarov said that only by looking at all the individuals in their idiosyncratic detail could Chekhov make the point that had eluded the writers before him:

“Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history — the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man. From Avvakum to Lenin our conception of humanity and freedom has always been partisan and fanatical. It has always mercilessly sacrificed the individual to some abstract idea of humanity. Even Tolstoy, with his doctrine of non-resistance to Evil, is intolerant — and his point of departure is not man but God. He wants the idea of goodness to triumph. True believers always want to bring God to man by force; and in Russia they stop at nothing — even murder — to achieve this.

“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. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we’ll never get anywhere. That’s democracy the still unrealized democracy of the Russian people.”

And so there is perhaps another reason for showing the background of as many characters as Grossman can fit it, especially the background before the war which changed everything. Except for one thing: Karimov tells Shtrum that he thinks Madyarov is an informer.

In the next part, we’ll look at how Grossman saw the war changing individuals as well as the State itself. We’ll eventually also see whether this book ends up like Nabokov claims Turgenev’s books do: abruptly and without justifying the care that Turgenev used to define his characters.

  1. June 19th, 2011

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