There are a number of reasons for closing a book, and a number of ways of closing it. Sometimes I’ll slam one shut in anger and frustration, usually because the writing is bad or the work is brimming with cliched phrases and run-of-the-mill imagery [flames that dance; wind that moans. GTFO]; sometimes I’ll close a book tiredly, slowly and softly bringing the two halves together, perhaps because I have been mentally exhausted by it [I’m looking at you Phenomenology of Spirit]; sometimes I’ll snap a book shut eagerly, because, oh I don’t know, maybe there’s some football on TV that is about to kick off or I’ve realised I’ve misjudged the time and I’m in danger of being late for something exciting; most often I’ll close a book unwillingly, with a heavy heart, because it’s past my bedtime and I’ve got to go to sleep or my break is over and I’m due back at work. Once, only once, I closed a book quickly, out of fear, a fear of what I might be subjected to next, with my heart beating faster than normal, my mouth hanging open, my throat and lips dry. That book is Life & Fate.
Part of me is hesitant to talk about my reaction to this book because I believe that it could reflect negatively on the book itself. You people reading this are perhaps now wondering if Life & Fate is some melodramatic monster, cynically designed to extract extreme emotional responses, like The Lovely Bones. It isn’t. Or maybe you think that I’m a massive drama queen, someone who would start blubbing if you showed him a youtube video of a limping cat. Well, in all honesty, I probably would blub at that, but generally speaking I am most often criticized, by the people who know me, for being hard-faced, detached, unsympathetic and unemotional. And yet this book got to me. Not once, either, but multiple times throughout the 900 pages. It was page 530 though, in my Vintage copy, that had me clapping the book shut as though a large aggressive spider had just crawled across the page. I thought I knew prior to commencing my reading what I was getting myself into. No one picks up a heavy Russian book about WW2 expecting a gentle romantic comedy [their eyes met over the rubble and the dead bodies – no it’s not going to work]. I knew that Life & Fate had been praised for its realism, and Grossman for his unflinching honesty, I knew the work dealt with the extermination of Jews, I even knew specifically about page 530, but nothing could have prepared me for reading what I read.
You all now want to know what happens on/around page 530, of course. Well, it isn’t even half as pornographic or gory as you’re probably expecting [some of you, no doubt, hoping]. There’s a scene in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, an unnecessarily long, relentless, excruciatingly detailed scene where a man is skinned alive. I consider that particular passage to be disgustingly voyeuristic; others will disagree, of course, but I believe that it serves no purpose other than as a kind of fairground titillation. Well, there’s nothing like that in Life & Fate, not at the point that I am referring to now, or at any other point. What we get are a bunch of ordinary people who are loaded onto trucks; and we all know where these people are going, but Grossman doesn’t stop there. We follow their journey, and continue through the gates, into the showers, and finally into the chamber. We aren’t spared here either, because the author stays with these people while they kick their life out and draw their last breaths. I don’t know what to say about that; I’d prefer to say nothing, and in that way I’m a coward, but what I want to avoid is making asinine self-important comments about how awful the ritual murder of millions of people is, as though you don’t know that already.
“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.”
I don’t want to give the impression that Life & Fate is solely about the plight of Jews during WW2. It isn’t. In fact, what was so impressive for me was its panoramic quality. The book is often compared to War & Peace, but I don’t see it. Superficially, yes, in that it is a big Russian text about a famous war, featuring an old aristocratic family, but Tolstoy’s novel is much more controlled, more finely crafted, more, well, elegantly novelistic. Despite its length and reputation War & Peace hangs together very well, has a coherent narrative; Life & Fate, to my mind, is much closer to [a more serious] Gravity’s Rainbow or Catch 22 or, if you like, Dos Passos’ USA, crossed with Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. You could even argue that structurally it’s a bit of a mess, the characters largely one dimensional, but what it does provide as it jumps around from one situation, and one extravagantly named character, to another are snippets, scenes, fragments of the lives of hundreds of people during wartime conditions. Indeed, I actually found this more interesting and ultimately more moving than a traditional approach, because, by not focusing on one group of people, Grossman illustrates something that we all know but don’t often fully grasp: the sheer scale of the tragedy of war. Some chapters are barely a page long, some chapters entirely given over to philosophical musings by the invisible narrator. That the characters are mostly one dimensional is not a criticism either, by the way, but more of a virtue; by not getting to know them beyond their desire to remain alive, to eat, to have sex, to wash, they are given a universal, everyman quality that highlights, by contrast, the insanity of their situation and how out-of-the-ordinary it is.
“He sensed Death with a depth and clarity of which only small children or great philosophers are capable, philosophers who are themselves almost childlike in the power and simplicity of their thinking.”
The most rounded character in the novel is Victor, a Jewish scientist. As someone engaged in an activity that is defined by freedom, both freedom of expression and thought and a more practical freedom, Victor is most affected by what we popularly see as, in turn, the defining aspects of communism under Stalin: paranoia, denunciations, and a fear of saying the wrong thing. Grossman is, obviously, making the point that this discipline, science, is incompatible with the atmosphere created by the political ideology. He was himself a journalist, if I remember correctly, so one can understand why he would be interested in this tension. Victor finds that his work is criticized, comes under suspicion, as does his character. If there is a hero in the novel, beyond the notion of the suffering hero [a notion I don’t agree with, by the way; despite what TV, and certain charities, would have you believe, someone doesn’t become a hero purely by virtue of having suffered], it is him.
I’d like to say a few words, before concluding, about Grossman as a writer. I have seen it written in numerous reviews that his style is flat, that his work has a journalistic feel, that it lacks poetry. I understand where this opinion comes from, because Grossman doesn’t sugar his pill, he doesn’t [either because he couldn’t or wished not to] embellish and polish his writing with flowery imagery and rapturous description. Yet, my response would be: what about the poetry of a beautiful heart? Grossman’s novel is soulful, it felt while I was reading it like the work of a wonderful man. Look, maybe he was a dick – who knows? – but his work is full of soul.
As for rating this book, I don’t award stars. But if I did I’d follow the lead of a number of characters in it and raise my eyes to the sky:
Count them. Double it. Ah, maybe then you’d be close.