Lisa Hayden Espenschade's Reviews > Life and Fate

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
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Sep 03, 08

bookshelves: read-in-russian
Recommended to Lisa by: "New York Review of Books," literary history
Recommended for: people interested in World War 2, readers who love long books
Read in August, 2008

3.5 stars.

This 900-page epic about the World War 2 era in the USSR includes dozens of characters, military and civilian, free and imprisoned, Soviet and German, and Grossman draws dangerous parallels between two oppressive systems. Many characters fight for the city of Stalingrad. Others are physicists. Others are held in the Lubyanka prison or German concentration camps.

Sometimes Life and Fate felt so sprawling or crowded that I thought Grossman should have written several novels instead of trying to force all his people and ideas into one book. But there is a nucleus: the Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum, who struggles with “spiritual entropy” as Soviet science and society become increasingly politicized. Viktor and his wife Liudmila connect, with various degrees of separation, to most of the novel’s other characters through family ties.

Shtrum’s spiritual entropy and intense loneliness as he struggles with his own moral decisions and fate as a theoretical scientist left an overwhelming impression, too. Observing the effects of fear, acceptance, and relief on his actions was not easy – these sections centering around the egocentric Shtrum were both emotional and a little drawn-out – but I added more depth to my readings of the psychology of professional and personal survival during the Stalin era.

My overall feelings about Life and Fate are mixed: in spite of some beautifully composed scenes and interesting characters, the hundreds of chapters don’t always quite hold together, and some of the dozens of characters inevitably felt a little stereotypical or unnuanced.

There's more on my blog at: "World War 2, Life, Fate, and Spiritual Entropy"
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