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The Line of the Main Drive in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate

The Line of the Main Drive in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Building the “syuzhet” of Life and Fate. The following lecture by Ferdinanda Cremascoli has been presented  in Moscow, during the international conference on Vasilij Grossman. Moscow, September 2014.

Published on page Studio su Vasilij Grossman, on italianacontemporanea.com
Published on EduCatt Catholic University of Milan
La versione italiana è qui

The Italian Brandy “Tre Valletti”

“Watch this, comrades!” said Fresser. With the sweeping gesture of a conjuror, he took out from under his pillow a litre bottle of ‘Three Knaves’ Italian cognac.

The Italian cognac Tre valletti! Fancy that! We’ve always had that stuff at home! The last bottle only a few years ago (the distillery has closed down). But how on earth does a bottle of Tre Valletti end up in the hands of a German soldier, in a field hospital near Stalingrad? All of a sudden, this bottle evokes war, the expedition of the Italian Alpine troopers to Russia and their dramatic withdrawal, described by Mario Rigoni Stern in Il sergente nella neve. 

There are novels that interact with the cultural background of their readers in a somewhat unexpected way, which immediately wins them over. 

The emotional involvement of Life and Fate captures the readers right from the start: they find themselves plunged into the absurd atrocity of life in a lager, in the courageous defense of Stalingrad, in the perverse inhumanity of the mass extermination of the Jews, the agonizing death of thousands of people in war. In the first part, the initial six chapters deal with the internee Mostovskoy in a German lager; the following seven chapters switch over to Stalingrad and Krymov; after, the sequence of events happened to Shtrum and his family and, in chapter 18, the long and anguishing letter Anna Shtrum is writing to her son; Tolja’s death and his mother’s torment are central to the first part of the novel. These grievous events are accompanied by stories of a completely different spirit. In spite of the continuous difficulties and hardships of life in war (lack of food, no residency permit, cold weather…), the reader is fascinated by the reflections on Russian literature, by the remarks on the ambiguity of love, by the feeling of greatness at the sight of something outstanding like a wood. 

The reader of Life and Fate is submerged by varied and complex subjects matters, by the number of characters and the abundance of their dramatic, extraordinary and – in the same time – prosaic and everyday vicissitudes. 

How the author has managed to deal with so many and so difficult topics?

Further to the emotional involvement, however, the readers are eager to understand how the author has managed to deal with so many and so difficult topics, what reason is at the head of drawing up alongside so many characters and so many stories; what problems the author wants to put forward while establishing the order in which he has arranged the various stories the reader finds in the book. 

Certainly, such a vast topic is entangled in order to keep the reader’s attention. This technique has been very common and popular in European literature since classical ancient times.

In fact, in the first part of the novel, the various characters and their stories are introduced (or recalled to the minds of those who are reading Life and Fate as the second part of the dilogy, whose first part bears the title For the Right Cause): Mostovskoy and his lager companions, Krymov and the soldiers of Stalingrad, Shtrum with his family and  Alexandra Vladimirovna, Getmanov, Novikov, Zhenya, Viktorov, Abarchuk, Sofya Levinton, Andreev and Spiridonov with Vera, Darenskj. In the last chapters, the circle closes as it has begun, with Mostovskoy in the extermination camp. The red thread of blood runs through the whole novel.  

However, the sequence of events in this first part of the novel is not just a way to attract the reader’s attention, it is rather a choice required for the basic topic of the whole novel: the conflict existing in the life of every human being between the constraints of the existing – fate – and life instinct. Life instinct means free life, which is also essential and indestructible in every human being, not only in man but first of all in man.

It is such a strong and tenacious demand that sometimes it has the power to affect the destiny which seems to be written. 

That is why the battle of Stalingrad was won by the Red Army.  Despite their insufficient means of defense, the resistance of the people surrounded by the Germans and well aware of impending death but resilient and determined not to let their city fall, is considered the turning point of the war, and specularly, decided the doom of the VI Army led by field marshal Paulus and his officers, who did not want to obey the order of the Führer, but then did it to the end. 

The line of the main drive

This is the most important topic, “the line of the main drive” of this novel. The topic that keeps all the other stories and reflections together. In order to highlight his main topic, the author makes use of all the instruments available for a novel writer: discussions among characters, explicit comments of the narrator, but the most significant is the structure of the plot, the composition of the different stories narrated, the structure of the “syuzhet”.

The topic of freedom and specularly of the violence of totalitarism emerges in a lot of episodes. 

For example in Kazan among Shtrum and his friends, who seem to have forgotten about the mortal risk of expressing opinions freely. In this context, it is significant that Shtrum has the intuition of a new idea, which will be the basis for the physical theory that he will work out subsequently.      

Even more remarkable are the discussions about freedom by the soldiers of 6/1 who are well aware of the fact that they will have to give in to the Germans; nevertheless, their deep friendship based on equality will change the otherwise inescapable fate caused by the German advance. 

Memorable the dialogue between Abarchuk, a Bolshevik prisoner in a Soviet lager, and his friend Magar, who being on his last legs, recognizes his error of not understanding  the sense of  freedom.  “We did’nt understand freedom. We crushed it. Even Marx did’nt value it – it’s the base, the meaning, the foundation that underlies all foundation”

How can one forget about the encounter with the old Kalmuck, an encounter emotionally evoked by the coarse and dull landscape which, however blooms in spring?

No episode of the novel has been terminated after a defined number of chapters

The dialogues among the characters are not the only vehicle of the topic of Life and Fate. The reader actually notices that no episode of the novel has been terminated after a defined number of chapters. 

The character of Mostovskoy, just to mention one of the numerous examples, appears in the first part of the novel, in the first six chapters. Then the reader finds him again, as already mentioned at the end of the first part in chapters 70 and 74. In the second part of the novel the reader meets  Mostovskoy in the central part, in chapters 15 and 16 in the icastic dialogue with the Nazi Liss. After a lot of chapters Mostovskoy is again mentioned in chapter 40 and in the succinct chapter 41. A final  extraordinary acceleration of rhythm precedes the revelation of his death. 

In the novel there is a displacement of the formal structure of chapters and that of the logical structure; this creates suspense between the two levels of the narrative, leaving room for the considerations of the narrator that comments on the on-goings and invites the reader to think things over.  There are a lot of examples. 

In the first part in chapter 11, the narrator makes a consideration about the perception of the concrete fact of battle for a soldier in the forefront.  In chapter 42 and the even more detailed chapter 50 and the icastic chapter 51, the narrator draws the reader’s attention to the extermination of the Jews and totalitarism as an extreme form of violence. 

In the second part, the first chapter is dedicated to the analysis of the states of mind of the soldiers, and in chapter 31 it returns to the advancement of anti-Semitism. 

In the third part, chapter 19 is crucial. There the narrator reflects on the paradox of the Soviet victory of Stalingrad: actually, this victory over the Germans, gained thanks to the battle for freedom, will give Stalin the power to declare the new social order which is based on nationalism, the theory of socialism in one country.   

This leads to the conclusion that the editing of the episodes serves to satisfy the strong requirement of comments, not only expressed by the narrator but also made possible thanks to the structure of the “syuzhet”. 

That is the reason why we find episodes and characters put together as they are living similar experiences with opposite results, or different situations with similar outcome.

Characters living similar experiences with opposite results, or different situations with similar outcome

The situations in which Mostovskoy, Sofya Levinton and Semyonov are living are similar but the outcome is completely different one from the other.  On the other hand, in the cases of Novikov, Krymov, Shtrum, Spiridonov  the start conditions are completely different, whereas the results resemble each other. 

“Mikhail Mostovskoy, Agrippina Petrovna, Sofya Levinton and Semyonov had been captured by the Germans on the outskirts of Stalingrad one night in August”. The arrest of Mostovskoy, Sofya Levinton, Semyonov and Agrippina Petrovna is first mentioned in chapter 3 of the first part. 

The four have a completely different fate one from the other. Agrippina is Ukrainian and thus immediately released. Mostovkoy is sent to a lager where he is betrayed by his own people and executed. Sofya is a doctor. After being recognized as a Jew, she refuses to give away her profession. On the train to the concentration camp, she gets entangled with little David. Their death in a gas chamber (what precise description of a chemist and what great empathy at the same time!) is narrated in the second part of the novel, precisely in chapter 48. 

In chapter 49 the narrator comments on death by gassing reflecting on life as freedom and compassion. This is the leitmotif of the whole novel: the joy of life is opposed by the slavery of violence, typical for totalitarian governments. 

Significant the choice of putting this reflection just before chapter 50, where Semyonov, who has never been mentioned again since chapter 3 in part I, is saved.  The Russian Semyonov is saved by the compassion of an old Ukrainian woman, whose family has been exterminated by the politics of collectivization. 

The same story of imprisonment, hunger and violence as that of Sofya and Semyonov has a different outcome and the author chooses to talk about this topic in the chapter directly before, once more underlines the topic of practical kindness against abstract kindness, which even in the darkest and distorted world survives weakly but determined. 

Another juxtaposition deals with completely different stories, whose outcome is similar. 

The novel contains numerous examples but I want to focus just on one.  The last 10 chapters of the novel narrate how Novikov’s, Shtrum,’s,  Krymov’s and Spiridonov’s stories end. Although being completely different characters with different lives, they are all defeated by the totalitarism of the party machine. 

Novikov, the victorious tank driver, is called back from the front in order to account for his braveries and able to assume responsibility. Strum, who stands off the more and more insulting attacks by his party officials, due to his being Jewish, ends up with signing a letter against the assumed conspiracy of Jewish doctors. The Bolshevik Krymov, companion of Lenin, is imprisoned and tortured in Lubianka. Spiridonov, the director of the power plant of Stalingrad, who has resisted for a long time against the German attacks on the opposite side of the Volga river, is accused of negligence by the party because of abandoning the plant the day before the soviet counter offence. He is dismissed and sent to the Ural mountains in order to run an old plant there. 

All these different characters are facing the same fate, the fate of outcasts. Each of them has been hit but perhaps not destroyed. The novel written with subtle sensitiveness that distinguishes great authors, does not reveal anything about the future but leaves it open and unknown to the reader. 

What will happen to Novikov? – Will he be released, will he go back to his poor life before the war? And Shtrum? How will he manage to live with the remorse for that signature, and how will he be able to work at the creation of the atomic bomb? And Krymov? Will he die under torture, will he finish in a gulag, will he be released? And Spiridonov with Vera, with her child and with Alexandra Vladimirovna, how will he live far away from the house where there have been so many sufferings in Stalingrad?

Life and fate is a classic book

Life and fate is a historical novel. It deals with real events that took place between the first and the second half of the 20th century, the German invasion of Russia, the genocide of the Jews behind the frontlines, the battle of Stalingrad.  

Being this kind of novel a “mix of  history and imagination”, some characters really existed (Hitler, Stalin, their generals), others (a great number) were invented. However, all the thoughts and actions of the invented characters could only take place under peculiar historical circumstances; actually, the actions and thoughts of these invented characters help us to get a better comprehension of the historical events. 

The characters are invented but they make us understand the Soviet World not only better and more explicit than history books. Robert Chandler, who translated Life and Fate into English, said that every character of the novel is a slice of the Soviet world: Shtrum, the intellectual Jew; Abarchuk and Krymov, the Bolsheviks, the victims of the purges of the Thirties; Getmanov, homo novus of the Stalin period¸ Novikov, the capable and competent soldier entrusted with the defense of his homeland, but always under the control of the Party…

It is not difficult to understand that the first readers of this novel were confronted with emotions linked to former times, to a period they personally remember as well as to the fear of those who know that they were risking their life by publishing such a novel (that is why it is censured!)

This, however does not mean that Life and Fate is a novel linked to a given period of time. 

In Life and Fate Stalingrad will never have existed and will always exist: like Troy in the Iliad

Semyon Lipkin remembers that Grossman was reading the Iliad in his last years of  life. He fell deeply in love with it because he, too, had written a classic. Life and Fate is a classic, a book, as Italo Calvino should say, that will never cease to say what it says.

At least – as a Italian poet says “as long as shines the sun on human woe”.


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