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.

Fairytales, Tooth and Claw

Kin-Lili-St.-Crow Once I had written Cami and Ellie’s stories, well, Ruby couldn’t be far behind. I had only foggy idea of what her story entailed. It was one of those situations where I just had to trust that the Muse knew what she was doing and it would turn out all right.

Red Riding Hood has never drawn much of my interest. I suspect Freud ruined it for me. “Don’t go into the woods, little girl. Those are huge… tracts of vast dark sexuality!” As a slut-shaming or even a cautionary tale, I found it objectionable. Even the violence in it didn’t move me. It took me a while to figure out that I didn’t have to listen to the (mostly male) academics (or the male-gaze dominated cartoons or movies or TV shows or or or) winking and nudging about how the wolf was a guy hanging out at the corner to lead a virginal girl astray and RUUUUUUUUIN HER.

Fortunately, my little Red didn’t have to buy into such bullshit.

Instead, her story became about different things. The pressures of love and obligation, for one. Ruby has something I never did: she was born into a tightly knit, loyal clan. It took me a long time to realize not all families were like mine, minefields of pain and degradation. I did go through a phase where I went the opposite direction and assumed other families were perfect, and mine was fucked-up because I was poisonous. (After all, I’d been told for most of my life that I was a mistake, that I made everything worse, that I was a problem.) It took a long time before I realized there was a continuum of family fuckedupness–like much else in life, there’s a gradient. Even a good, loving family is full of pressure. (Even good stress is still stress.)

Ruby spoke to me of things I hadn’t thought of since my own teen years. Boyfriends with quick fists and how they move you bit by bit through a maze until you’re trapped. Hated, necessary duties, and the feeling of being cheated upon learning which things were not necessary. The fear of adulthood, the massive change that hits once school’s over. Suddenly being on your own in a world they’ve told you is worse than what’s at home–because how would they get you to stay if you thought there was a chance of a place where you wouldn’t be beaten or screamed at by rageaholics?

The longer I wrote, though, the more I realized Ruby’s story wasn’t so much an exorcism for me as a synthesis. The structure of Little Red Riding Hood was an alchemist’s set-up, and I was distilling.

Ruby, Cami, and Ellie save each other. Sure, there are princes in their fairytales, but it is the friendship between these three young women that brings them through. It is the friendship that keeps looking for each of them when they disappear, that breaks well-meant (or not so well-meant) rules in order to keep searching, that brings each of them back from their abyss. Each of them is a reflection of the others (those doubles and triples again) and the message they carry is the same.

You’re strong enough. You’re good enough. You matter.

That’s another thing about fairytales–you can choose to find hope or despair in them. Cautionary or elevatory tales, it’s up to you.

Life is dangerous, and when you’re young, there’s a certain lack of proportion. You haven’t lived long enough to understand some things are molehills, not mountains. If you survive (psychically or physically, or both) you can eventually learn. Survival, like telling stories, is most often a bloody process. Even in the best situations, with people who have the best of intentions or who are doing the best they can, blood can be drawn and pressure can mount.

Ruby was always the character who seemed the most “together.” Even Cami and Ellie expected her transition into adulthood to be seamless. One of the more surprising things about her was that she was just as uncertain as either of her friends, she just coped differently. It’s like Madame told me once about ballet class–nobody is looking at you, everyone is worrying about their own dancing. But you don’t know that when you’re young. You don’t know everyone is faking it. You don’t know that everyone around you is as uncertain as you are; it takes a long while before you begin to suspect that everyone is stumbling along in the dark no matter HOW seamless their confidence appears from outside.

All these things came together while I wrote Ruby. All these things went into the cauldron and boiled, and the soup surprised me.

The exhaustion that hit at the end of the trilogy was some of the most severe I’ve ever had. I’ve talked before about snapback–the exhaustion that hits at the end of a book. It happens exponentially at the end of a series. The massive flywheel in your head that’s been powering yo along, pushing this boulder uphill, has too much momentum to stop right away. It has to spin down, and while it does that, your head can feel like the inside of a bombed sieve.

When you set out to tell a fairytale, you’re opening the door to forces bigger than yourself, an accumulated lightning-charge that will teach you all sorts of lessons, painful or not. I’d made it through the woods, to the castle, past the gate. I’d told the stories I needed to tell, the stories that needed me as an outlet. It was exhausting, and I grieved a little, because I knew Cami, Ellie, and Ruby had other mountains to climb as their lives unreeled. I had to say goodbye to them, because they were different people now. It’s a good feeling, but also a painful one. There’s no birth without that pain, no creation without that discomfort. Even the stories that tear their way out, red in tooth and claw, heal over.

If there is a balm to be found in the ending of fairytales, in that happily-ever-after, it’s that even the worst things can heal. It doesn’t have to be ever after, it can just be for now, and that’s okay.

A scar, after all, means you’ve survived.

Perfect Skull

No, really.
No, really.

Me: LOOK AT WHAT I’M TEMPTED TO BUY.[1]
The Princess: DO EET.
Sister 1: …I hope that’s not a real animal.
Me: Uh, no, it’s resin.
The Princess: We can put it on the front step.

If there is a more perfect explication of my, my daughter’s, and my middle sister’s personalities than this, I haven’t run across it yet.

(I had a fairytale post planned for today, but things didn’t work out. Next week!)

[1]No, I didn’t buy it. The urge to bludgeon someone with it would overwhelm me, and that would create paperwork. BUT I COULD HAVE BOUGHT IT.

Fairytales, Survival’s Price

Wayfarer My week of fairytales continues!

I’ve never liked Cinderella. The idea that one must be patient and submissive even under the worst treatment and someday, someday you’ll be rewarded strikes me as damaging at best and a culturally approved way to groom people to be abuse victims at worse. I was always faintly uncomfortable with the endings of different versions–the stepsisters cutting parts of their own feet off, shoes full of blood, casks full of red-hot nails rolled down a hill with the stepmother inside. It wasn’t the violence that made me uneasy, I knew from a very early age the world is a brutal place and safety largely an illusion. It was the feeling of righteousness welling up when I read about abusers getting theirs that made me queasy. I often wondered if those feelings made me just as bad as the stepmother and sisters–or just as bad as the people who beat me.

So when I realized Ellie from Nameless needed her own story, it irked me. I didn’t have the trouble in choosing the tools to excavate it; they came easily to hand for once.

That should have been my first clue that the exorcisms weren’t over.

I wrote Wayfarer during the Great Casa to Chez situation. About halfway through, I deconstructed under the stress, and for only the second time in my life, the words refused to come. I had no emotional energy to spare and yet the urge to write tormented me with spurs under my skin. I would sit down, look at the files open on my desktop, and slide straight into a panic attack because I was too burnt out to feel my way from word to word. Having the urge and being unable to scrape together even a single syllable was a very special kind of hell.

Buying a house is not for the weak.

Anyway, that passed, and as if in payment for keeping the faith, I fell into Ellie’s story as soon as I turned on said desktop in the new house. It occurred to me, now that I’d achieved some distance from the story (not by my own will, but still) that I wasn’t really writing about someone else.

I was writing, in some ways, about myself.

The fairy godmother doesn’t show up when Cinderella is being beaten for not cleaning something properly, doesn’t show up when she sleeps in the cinders, doesn’t advocate with her when her inheritance is stolen. Instead, she arrives before a goddamn ball. Which has always seemed to me like she’s not really very invested in dear old Cindy-Rella, but has an agenda of her own. You find out when you survive a bad childhood that escaping carries a price and risks all its own. Those who offer to “help” you often have their own agendas, and your wellbeing may be only a small (or nonexistent) priority. A few harsh lessons from that quarter and the devil you grew up with starts looking like a marginally safer bet. Some kinds of help aren’t really helpful at all. In other variations of the tale, it’s the dead mother and a Giving Tree who step in to send Cinderella to the ball, and if that doesn’t make a false dichotomy between the dark and passive feminines, I don’t know what does.

Ellie understands very well she’s trapped because she’s a minor. She puts a brave face on at school and doesn’t invite her friends further into her problems than she is absolutely forced to. “Help” isn’t something she feels is possible, it isn’t something she feels she can ask for. When she is finally driven to a certain cottage, the “safety” there is just as perilous as “home.” She does well in school until she can no longer go, understanding it’s one of her few ways out. When you’re that young, and that under siege, isolation begins to feel like your only and safest bet. You cannot trust anyone else, even those who really do want to help you. You fight even the best support, because trust is a liability you can’t afford when you’re holding together your psychic integrity under assault 24-7.

Not only that, but one can often feel…corrupted. Being told over and over that you’re worthless, evil, the worst thing that ever happened to your parent, that it’s your fault they do these horrible things to you, fucks up every sense of priorities, perspective, and worth you might have. The effects go on for years, and even therapy cannot completely erase the stain or the sting.

It can take a long time to piece yourself back together. Therapy has helped me immensely, as well as medication to get the anxiety under control. (Just give me a stick!) I have found people who can be trusted, and I have allowed myself to trust. There was no fairy godmother, even though I wished for one. In the end, it’s Ellie’s own strength, and her bonds with people who are willing to give the right kind of help, that saves the day. The latter is never guaranteed, and the former isn’t either, but I’ve spent my life betting on the latter and am, incredibly, still breathing.

I found out I was stronger than I ever suspected. Ellie’s survival is in part mine too; this is part of why fairytales stick around. Even under the trappings I care very little for–the prince, the ball, the dresses pulled from a nutshell or bibbity-bobbity-booed into existence–there is a hard kernel of truth that can ignite the bonfire I burn all the pain and rage and helplessness in. I don’t sleep in those ashes anymore, I have difference sources of warmth.

But when I go into battle, I paint my face with them, because I’ve survived. That was the story I needed to write, and I think–I hope–I did.

Fairytales, Twos and Threes

nameless One does not simply walk into fairytales. Not without an axe and a pocketful of breadcrumbs, anyway. And when you are inside, you must look carefully at every face, because it carries an echo of its opposite.

Nameless started with a single image: an injured little girl in the snow in front of a gleaming-black limousine. I was about sixteen when the image came to me, and it occurred periodically for years afterward. I didn’t write the book that went with that image for almost two decades. I wasn’t ready, and I knew I wasn’t ready. Still…the story stayed inside me, closed up on itself.

When I was ready to begin excavating, I chose a shovel. It broke, and I had to choose another. (As one does.) Over and over, every tool I wanted to use kept breaking, it took about six before I found the one that would work and settled into a rhythm. About a third of the way through–thankfully, the pickaxe was still holding up–I realized I’ve absorbed, by dint of sheer cultural saturation, the fairytale laws of twos and threes.

Snow White and the Queen are two sides of a coin, the Prince and the Huntsman (Nico and Tor) likewise reflect each other. Once I realized that, the structure of the book almost built itself. The difficulty was stepping into each character. Camille’s terror, and the abuse that robbed her of easy speech, was heartbreaking, but it was something I was familiar with. The White Queen’s fear of old age and death, and her selfishness, was arduous in different ways. It’s a lot harder to feel empathy towards a nasty, self-centered villain.

Actually, I take that back. The empathy is easy. The hard part is suspecting there’s some part of oneself that reflects the villain’s awfulness. We are large, we contain multitudes, and every archetype casts a shadow. To tell stories is to delve into those dark patches.

A character can function as a double more than once. For example, Papa Vultusino (the widowed king) and the White Queen express different conditions of authority. And the old Vultusino and the new (Papa and Nico) are in creative tension with each other, just as Cami’s own shadow-side is reflected in her acceptance, through most of the book, in her persistent feeling of being nameless.

When I was younger, the variations of Snow White filled me with a sort of antagonistic loathing. I hated that she was passive, that she bit the damn apple, that someone else had to save her. Then I went through a period of considering the entire story an allegory, with each character a part of the psyche. There was a time I thought it was about “found family” and how you could be helped by people you could trust when your own flesh and blood betrayed you.

Writing Nameless, though, became about something even more personal. I went into a jungle full of mirrors and shards of other things I’d thought the story meant, in order to answer a deep, almost-unarticulated question from my own childhood–how can a mother injure her own child? I didn’t understand it then, and as a mother myself I don’t really understand it now. It’s utterly foreign to me, but at least writing the story, with each character refracted through its double or split into threes, helped me achieve some sort of tenuous peace.

I have come to believe that retelling a fairytale is similar to performing an exorcism. If one isn’t prepared, it can go badly. The accumulated charge of these stories, told and retold, repeated in threes and sevens, is great to plug into but dangerous as well. Under each variation is a core of something halfway between emotion and truth, taking the strength of both and reflecting. Two mirrors facing each other, and a candle between them to light up the labyrinth. The glare can blind you if you don’t have a ball of thread, or pebbles to drop in each intersection, or…you get the idea.

Over and out.

Badonkadonkus Felinum

My backpack’s got jets.

I had occasion to take this picture of Madame A yesterday. She bears little resemblance to the scrawny baby her rescuers found. Now she is a queen, and baby, well.

Baby got back.

I half suspect she was a dog in a past life, because her furry belly is not a trap. Despite having pitons for claws, she does not take blood after you give her tummy rubs. In fact, she throws herself on her back and demands Miss B give her belly-nosings every time we go downstairs. She would be on my heels, like Miss B, all damn day–if not for the fact that Odd Trundles is also at my heels all day, and he is far too Loud and Obnoxious for her taste.

One of these days, she’s just going to smack Odd in the face when he wiggles up demanding at top volume that she play with him, and from then she will rule him unmercifully. (At least, that’s what the Mad Tortie does.) Until that day, though, she heads for the stairs whenever she suspects he’s awake.

Anyway, here is our calico wonder. If you listen closely you can hear her purring.

Bad Fuel

bigtroublelittlechinaicon So my reward for putting in a new villain scene in a finished zero draft yesterday was…3k words falling out of my head on the Redneck Zombie Apocalypse With Librarian story. I am seriously considering finishing that for the Selkie, mostly because it makes me giggle and I like having fun. (Such as it is.)

This morning, for various reasons, I landed on listening to Marvin Gaye. (This may have had something to do with it.)

I can feel the odd focus of less sleep and more high emotion tickling under my skin. I used to use it for book fuel, but now it just makes me feel unsettled and tired. Learning to lower my tolerance for that fuel–because though it’s high-octane, it’s also stressful as fuck–was one of the best gifts therapy ever gave me. It’s tempting to go back, because it’s reliable and familiar. I suppose this is the acid test of learning healthier ways of dealing with the world; the pinch comes when you feel the pull to go back to that bad old racetrack and fill up on that bad juice.

So there are things I’m doing today to interrupt the cycle. A hard run. Some chair-dancing to good music. Some stand-up dancing, too. (How can you be so old, and still not get it?) Plenty of fuzz therapy. Writing something fun for the hell of it. Narrating the guinea pig’s joy at fresh-plucked greens. (Today his accent is less Berlin and more Paris.) Leftover pesto pasta for lunch.

Put that way, I’m awful lucky.

*chair-dances away*