REVIEW: Life and Fate

Life and Fate This last weekend I finished Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’d heard of Grossman several times, of course–along with Ehrenburg he was the Soviet war correspondent of World War II’s Eastern Front. Or, as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War. (Ehrenburg would disagree with Grossman sharing his pedestal, I suppose. But I don’t.)

Grossman survived the war and even outlived Stalin, despite the latter’s vicious, senile anti-Semitism. Khrushchev, while not allowing Life and Fate (and other Grossman works) to be published, didn’t send him off to a camp or to the Lubyanka. (Small mercies, I guess.)

Life and Fate follows the Shaposnikov family and their circle, in various parts of the Soviet Union, through the siege of Stalingrad. The echoes of War and Peace are intentional, and indeed Grossman struggles with Tolstoy’s philosophy as well as his literary achievements. (Thankfully, though, he doesn’t betray a Sonya. He gets sort-of-close with Yevgenia Shaposhnikova, though.) His sort-of-protagonist, Viktor Shtrum, is part of the Shaposhnikovs through marrying Lyudmila; it is Grossman’s focusing on the women of that family that gives the book much of its strength. Even though Viktor is to a large extent Grossman’s authorial insert, it is the women who hold the book together, just as it’s the women who are always left to rebuild after the men kill each other in massive quantities.

Several times during the book, women are shown as more capable, more durable than men, and it is the “old peasant woman” in her many forms who holds society–such as it is under totalitarianism–together. There is the old woman holding a brick, who the observers clearly expect to bash the brains out of a German prisoner after the fall of Stalingrad. When she chooses something else, despite herself, Grossman’s own surprise is palpable. His habit as a journalist of describing what he actually sees despite it going against whatever preconceptions he may have is also palpable, and it made me enjoy myself despite some of the more wrenching parts.

What Grossman does best, really, is show the compromises–emotional, physical, spiritual, and in every other way–and the mind-numbing fear of living under totalitarianism. Viktor, after enduring the terror of waiting to be arrested by the NKVD, is suddenly restored to “citizenship” and grace because his scientific work helps the nascent Soviet nuclear program, and Stalin has just realized the utility of the latter. Once he is “redeemed” in the eyes of the State, he is presented with an awful quandary, asked to commit a betrayal. After sticking up for the “right” thing earlier in the book and suffering that completely devastating fear of arrest and reprisal, well.

People get tired, and they have to make choices under that fatigue.

Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness. The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed–while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end. Life and Fate, p. 840

During the war, Soviet citizens had a hope of freedom. The state and Stalinism relaxed their iron grip in order to save its own skin, because terrified slaves don’t fight as well. Many believed that after the war, the arrests and repression would stop. That was part of what they were paying for in blood and pain and sorrow.

Needless to say, the repression began again just as soon as the German siege of Stalingrad was broken. Stalin had no intention of allowing the terror that kept him in power to fade, even if it was tactically sound to loosen the strangling fingers temporarily.

Grossman’s eviscerations of Fascism sprinkled through the book both highlight the brutality of genocide on the Eastern Front as well as, more subtly, the brutality inherent in Soviet totalitarianism. He doesn’t quite explicitly state that the difference between the two dictatorships is only cosmetic–and what Soviet writer could? But the comparison is there. Fighting an evil does not automatically make one good, Grossman seems to be saying, and that is a distinction often (if not always) lost in the heat of ideology.

If there is a way out of the tangle of bloodshed and fear, Grossman says, it is kindness.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. Life and Fate, p. 410

Of course, the character reading the above passage is in a concentration camp, he’s a diehard Soviet reading a “mad priest’s ravings.” The tension between this small hope and the evidence all around Grossman and his characters of man’s inhumanity to man is overwhelming. Grossman was Jewish, and one of the first to report on the death camps. Viktor Shtrum’s mother–a Jewish woman in Eastern Europe–dies, and Viktor’s grief is palpable. The effects of anti-Semitism, a cancer in Soviet Russia just as in Nazi Germany, is a poisonous aquifer in the book. Grossman, no doubt, saw enough of it to fill him to the back teeth.

Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved. It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems. Tell me what you accuse the Jews of–I’ll tell you what you’re guilty of. Life and Fate, p. 484

A neater–and truer–example of projection can rarely be found. Our own modern bigots and xenophobes do the same. If it’s not Jews, it’s Muslims, immigrants, what-have-you. Plus ca change

Reading Life and Fate was a marathon. Several times I had to set the book aside and take a deep breath. The tearing pain of bearing witness bleeds through the pages, made worse by the fact that Grossman saw the horror personally and could not bring himself to look away. I deeply respect that. He was also smart–and empathetic–enough to untangle the feelings of those who believed in Stalin or Communism, who had to believe or who could not imagine anything else. He didn’t shy away from the tragedy of the informer or the NKVD torturer as well as the victims, or the tragedy of those caught between and simply trying to survive from day to day.

Betrayed by his own state all his life, his books “arrested” and his own body failing him with stomach cancer in 1964, Grossman died without knowing that Life and Fate (and Everything Flows, his later book) would be smuggled out and published in the West in 1980, finally seeing publication in his own country in 1988. One suspects that as a journalist Grossman might have felt vindicated. And one can further suspect what he’d think of Russia’s current dictator-lite. Many thanks are due to Vladimir Voinovich and Andrei Sakharov for keeping the faith–and the manuscript–safe and bringing it out to breathe freely.

Wherever Grossman is now, I hope he can rest comfortably. He earned it.

King Trundles

Surveying His Domain
Surveying His Domain

The Princess snapped this shot of Trundles chillin’ halfway down the deck stairs. Proud and rugged, and sitting sidesaddle (he says it proves he’s a Lady of Quality, and cannot understand why Miss B snickers every time) as he watches me weed a bit of the auld sod. This was after his Afternoon Constitutional and before the rains rolled in; it was a little too warm for Odd’s taste but he wasn’t about to go inside if I wasn’t. Goodness knows I might do something interesting, like suddenly produce some food. Or I might need protection from an ankle-biting zombie.

This dog, you guys. This dog.

Mad Tortie Nap

I'm still using it!
I’m still using it!

If you look carefully, you can find a Mad Tortie under the lavender. No, she’s not dead. She’s just resting. Basking in the sunshine is heavy work, after all. Emphysema Joe is to the left, offscreen, humming a little Dead to keep her company while he tends the green. She doesn’t even twitch when Norbert yells at Moxie for digging in the compost. (“GET OUT OF THERE, YOU’LL CATCH A COLD!” “I AM THE SQUIWWEH WHO HAUNTH THE NIGHT, I HAVE ANTIBODIETH!” You can imagine.)

I may have, after taking this picture, crept up to make sure she was still breathing.

She was. She blinked at me, breathed a small kitty “leeme loooooone, Mum,” and went back to sleep.

I almost envy her.

Full Time

ghandi01 Moving, shifting, creaking. Sometimes getting up a little early makes one think about possibilities. Morning t’ai chi. Stretching. Plenty of time instead of a rush all day.

Then, of course, I roll over and burrow back into warmth. Screw that noise, right? Except when I absolutely have to get up and drive someone somewhere.

Anyway. I was rousted early this morning and am still absorbing coffee that became stone-cold while I navigated morning traffic. Fortunately the way home was clear, and we all made it in one piece. The rest of today is for a short easy run and all sorts of wordcount. And piano practice. I have thrown Monday back onto the ropes, but I’m not sure it will ever surrender. The best we’ll achieve is an armed detente.

I spent the weekend playing hooky with a story that isn’t one of the Three Projects. It was nice to clear my head and work on something I didn’t have a clear idea for, just feeling my way from one edge to another. Never underestimate the ability of one story to make another jealous–it doesn’t even have to be a story one plans on finishing, really. I work on multiple projects at a time in order to shift between them when one gets stubborn. The key is to keep the pressure just steady enough to provide forward momentum, and reined in just enough to make it seem like one is stealing time to work on something forbidden. That feeling of illicit work, of thieving around the edges of something else, heart in mouth and skin alive with anticipation, brings all sorts of immediacy to the table.

Now that the week’s started, though, I go back to the projects on tap, and the pressure now comes from getting wordcount in so I can go play later. So much of living is finding ways to trick or game yourself into doing the unpleasant but necessary. Keeping one step ahead of my own desperate desire to just crawl in a hole and let the world go on without me is a full-time occupation most of the time. So much so that thinking about it is a bit disheartening, so it’s time to actually go do something instead of planning.

Over and out.

Still Here

spring

A ramble in the park woods with B is pretty much always a good idea, no matter the season. It’s February, and yet spring has already blown in, somewhat lionlike. I keep telling the crocuses and hyacinths and cherry trees to be careful, but they know better than me, it appears.

They almost always do.

The rains are a little bit warmer now, and the earth is no longer resting. It’s teeming, and that subtle scent of small things waking up is everywhere outside. Sweet daphne and some heather are blooming, too early, and the few cherry trees putting out flowers are humming happily. I hope the mason bees wait for the apple trees at least, or the favas.

I was not quite surprised to see these vine-bushes leafing out already–they’re generally the first to test the wind, so to speak. They told me nothing can be put back in the bottle, that spring has arrived whether I want it to be cautious or not, and that they appreciate my concern but they’d be just fine.

Mouthy little things. They get a little sullen in high summer, but other than that, they’re more than happy to give advice. The firs and cedars are grumbling in their sleep, rising toward wakefulness–they generally wait until the deciduous ones have made a showing before they start rolling over and peering at the alarm clock, so to speak.

It’s here. It’s begun. Another rainy spring, and I am surprised to find myself still here. These fellows, though, don’t seem surprised at all. They greet me like an old friend, and there’s few things as comforting.

Scar, Strong

109ram_icons004 Running, this morning. A poem hits right between the eyes, and as I sweat I put the lines together, shake them, see the edges. Look at how they fit.

Think about the absences. People I couldn’t save, who didn’t want to be saved. The times I had to walk away, the times I’ve shouted down a dark well hoping to help, pouring love and energy into black holes.

Run harder. The poem comes back on little cat feet.

Turn it over, shake it again. The edges come together, seamless.

Memories. Mistakes. Nothing to be done about it now, did the best I could then, made amends where I could. If it could have been fixed it would have been. All the things your friends tell you when you begin to let them in again after curling around your hurt. Their patience, repeating it until sometimes you hear it in your head because it’s sunk in, finally.

Run harder. Yes, the poem’s there. It shimmers. Not perfect, an irregular pearl, but still all mine. Grit and nacre.

It takes so much for me to give up on someone, and even when I do, I still hope. I can’t break myself of the habit. You can’t man the perimeter against the little chink in your own heart, the space where you just want people you care–or cared–for to be happy.

Glance down at B. She’s enjoying the pace, but she’s not the young dog she once was. She’ll run until her heart gives out for me, but I never ask it. For her, I slow, even though I want to run until I drop, until I pass out, until the world turns over.

I have sentinels in front of that crack in my heart. Friends. It’s a good thing to have people who give a damn, it’s a good thing when caring isn’t a one-way street with all the giving at my end. Most days I am completely baffled by it, but on the good days I know I matter as a human being to a couple people. The good days are getting more frequent. Healing is difficult, but it can be done.

Workout over. Poem still in head, a reassuring glow. B glad to stop, though she’d run more if I asked. We walk, she basks as I tell her she’s a good girl. She noses a couple lamp-posts on the way home, reading the day’s news. Still an aching in my chest, but it’s just the scar tissue.

I can live with it.

Home. B on her bed in my office, Odd Trundles still napping on my bed–he woke briefly when we returned, greeting us before he went back to his ever-important late-morning nap. My hair is wet from the shower and I’m in the clothes I wore yesterday, the poem allowed to drift free into the world. Tea steeping, other words crowding my brain.

I feel around the scars, probing, taking stock.

They’re strong. Supple. They will hold for one more precious day.

So I write.

Growing Early

crocus

They’re coming up, gold and purple, everywhere I put bulbs in. I keep trying to tell them we may still have a cold snap, but they are optimistic. So are the daffodils; they are green swords ankle-high and stretching. Some favas have come up where the squirrels hid leftover beans from last year–I can almost forgive the fuzzy little bastards.

Almost.

The now there is rain on the roof, the street is a river, and I am certain every bulb below the surface is drinking deep and preparing to risk everything by growing early.

Seems like a dangerous spring has sprung.