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Life and Fate
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Archive > May and June 2014: Life and Fate Part I

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message 1: by Trevor (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1425 comments Mod
Please use the thread below to comment on Life and Fate : Part I (introduction to page 322).

While you should feel free to post here at any time, we have put together a general reading schedule, focusing on this part between May 1 and May 21.


Jonathan | 232 comments Have other group members started reading this yet? I'm on page 200 at the moment.

I found the first 50 pages quite dull and did briefly consider abandoning it. But it did improve shortly after as Grossman started to concentrate on the Shaposhnikovs - mostly Lyudmila, Viktor & Vladimirovna.

The style is so detached though that it's difficult at times to feel any connection with the characters. And it's difficult sometimes to know the setting of each chapter. I guess that Grossman was writing in a Soviet-approved style even if they ultimately disapproved of the content.

I've decided not to obsess too much over the number of characters and trying to work out who's who, though the list of characters at the beginning of the book is useful for those occasions when I do want to check a character.


message 3: by Cynthia (new) - added it

Cynthia Dunn | 71 comments Jonathan wrote: "Have other group members started reading this yet? I'm on page 200 at the moment.

I found the first 50 pages quite dull and did briefly consider abandoning it. But it did improve shortly after as ..."


I haven't gotten as far as you but I am having trouble with all the characters names and trying to figure out where they all are.


Jonathan | 232 comments Cynthia wrote: "I haven't gotten as far as you but I am having trouble with all the characters names and trying to figure out where they all are. ..."

I'm trying not to let the multitude of characters get in my way too much; the list of characters helps and I find Grossman does give clues as to how they're related. I'm guessing that if it becomes crucial I'll just refer back to earlier material.

I must admit I'm at a loss as to where most of the characters are and when the scenes are taking place.

I generally don't read introductions of books before reading the book as they often contain spoilers or assume that you've already read the book but I am starting to wonder if the introduction may be useful. I may read it when I've finished Part One.

Other than keeping track of the characters, are you enjoying the book Cynthia? At the moment I can't see why people consider it a masterpiece but it's growing on me as I delve further into it.


message 5: by Cynthia (new) - added it

Cynthia Dunn | 71 comments Jonathan wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "I haven't gotten as far as you but I am having trouble with all the characters names and trying to figure out where they all are. ..."

I'm trying not to let the multitude of charac..."


I'm afraid I'm not loving it and admit to going back to read the reviews. I'm relieved to see it's not only me, Jonathan. Yes, let's see what happens.


Seana | 407 comments I have just started it, because I had another long book to read for a different project and only finished that yesterday. I thought I'd give myself a day off from long books, but I started this one this morning and am actually quite absorbed in it already. I don't know what my speed will be like, but at least I've begun. For some reason I decided to start by reading aloud, which may have helped distinguish characters and the like.


Seana | 407 comments Perhaps stating the obvious, but there is a list of all major characters at the back of the book, just in case anyone missed it. I always hate it when I struggle through something not realizing that there is some crucial help at the very end of the book.


message 8: by Cynthia (new) - added it

Cynthia Dunn | 71 comments Seana wrote: "Perhaps stating the obvious, but there is a list of all major characters at the back of the book, just in case anyone missed it. I always hate it when I struggle through something not realizing tha..."

I'm reading a different edition but it also has the list which is a great help.


message 9: by Roger (last edited May 24, 2014 10:10AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roger | 16 comments I finished Part One a few days ago, still sorting out my thoughts. I was struck by the utilitarian nature of the prose bordering on thinness. No long descriptive passages or in depth character analysis to be digested. As such, the short chapters moving quickly from home front, front lines, prison camps were a bit disorienting. I was happy when a chapter prolonged the character group from the previous chapter to get some continuity.

The plot being snapshots of familiar war time story lines yet they were still compelling to me. How did people manage to survive such calamities? I'm also expecting that all the disparate plot threads will lead to powerful conclusions.

I found the scenes in which the characters in the camps or back home express their reaction to their Soviet government to be the most interesting - bemoaning the pre-war purges of top level soldiers and government officials who would have been so valuable in the War effort; how to justify the purges or the starvations of 1937 for those who still managed to believe in Stalin's methods. We're showing that we're not kidding around, we play hardball, say the believers. Others expressing dissatisfaction with the methods, always wondering if their trusted friends are not to be trusted.

Much of this reflects Grossman's own intellectual struggle with the communist ideals he once admired. His humanist philosophy is a bit rudimentary in the those chapters that he devotes to it, but the aim is to never forget what mankind is capable of inflicting upon itself. I need a brief break before continuing, sample the comic vision in the interim - Tristram Shandy and Martin Chuzzlewit to recharge.


Jonathan | 232 comments Roger wrote: "I finished Part One a few days ago, still sorting out my thoughts. I was struck by the utilitarian nature of the prose bordering on thinness. No long descriptive passages or in depth character anal..."

I think you've summarised Part One brilliantly Roger. I've also taken a little break from it but I'm looking forward to getting back to Part Two. By the end of the section I was getting in to it more.

I expect a western novelist tackling a similar subject would have more descriptive material - I think it's this that I miss most.


Seana | 407 comments It's funny that I seem to be a little out of sync with the rest of you so far in that I've really enjoyed and been impressed with the book from the get go. I had just finished Anthony Trollope's long novel The Way We Live Now for an offline reading group I'm in, and though ultimately I was happy to have read it, along the way I'd found it a bit of a slog and oppressively long. So I wasn't looking forward to reading another long book, especially one I had assumed would be depressing given the era and even thought I'd read something short and light in between. But I decided to at least open it, and found I was sucked right in. I suppose in one way it's that the stakes are so much higher in the story than they were in Trollope's story, and I find it fascinating to hear each person's thoughts about how they are going to live through the "Wolfhound Century", and all the many ways that fear, love, grief accompany them. It would be nice to have more notes, as I don't really have the history of the Russian front of the war in my head, but I find that you gather enough to be getting on with.

And I seem to have found the book far more descriptive than others as well. Some of the passages about landscape are stunningly beautiful. And though the characters may seem sketched in economically, Grossman seems to have an eye for the telling detail.

It's also interesting to me to be reading this now, with all its references to Ukraine. In some ways, the second world war seems so distant from us now, but you can see that it is near enough in history for those who live in a place that felt it's impact that old issues would spring up again.


message 12: by Roger (last edited May 27, 2014 05:22PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roger | 16 comments Great post Seana! I am well into Part Two and it's becoming hard for me to put down. The storytelling is so engrossing even when I'm not sure who the characters are connected to.


message 13: by Seana (last edited May 27, 2014 08:45PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Seana | 407 comments Glad to know it's holding up, Roger, as we still have a long way to go.

There ARE a lot of characters. I think for me, it helps me to look up which group we're with in the cast of characters whenever Grossman shifts groups. And I think in a way it's more a group of interlinked short stories, because he does stick with each group until he's done with that segment. Although they do have links to other groups.


message 14: by Chuck (last edited May 28, 2014 08:05AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chuck LoPresti | 17 comments A bit late to the group but I should get up to pace soon. I've read Everything Flows and The Road and have been waiting for the time to read this - that time is now. I really love all the Grossman I've read so far and rank him only below Platonov among his contemporaries. On about page 100 now and I'm not sure I've read a more touching episode than the mother writing to her son...of course we know this is Grossman reconciling his unresolved agony of his mother's loss. I strongly suggest that other readers check out his letter to his mother that appears in The Road as the companion piece to this section. I'm not familiar with a more visceral and touching telling of the love between a mother and her son than this. Grossman's prose is a bit restrained here but appropriately so. Check out the later passages in The Road where he takes a more musical, hence more Platonov-like lyrical tone. Grossman CAN write that way - but I understand his restraint in getting his voice of the way in such passages. This is a man writing for a generation and a threatened race as we all know. A stunning book for certain.


Seana | 407 comments I wouldn't worry about being late to the group,Chuck--I think we'll be going on with this for awhile.

I'm struck by the high value Grossman places on the freedom to speak one's heart and mind in a situation where anything said might come back to haunt you. I wonder if anyone else has been made more aware of their own little evasions and duplicities of speech by reading this, and has wondered why we don't try harder for authentic speech when we don't face death camps or execution but only someone's else's ridicule or condescension at worst.


Chuck LoPresti | 17 comments "What constitutes the character of a nation—I believe—is the character of many individual human beings; every national character is, in essence, simply human nature. Every nation in the world, therefore, has much in common with every other nation in the world."

I think this quote from An Armenian Sketchbook helps explain why Grossman chose to introduce over 150 characters with detail that develops with increasing clarity as the book progresses. I have not seen any lack of detail in his settings, sure he's not going to walk you though the woods like Turgenev but when he chooses to expound on nature his prose is as eloquent as it needs to be, for me at least.

Again - the letter his mother writes to him in Life and Fate is answered in The Road and IMO should have been included as an afterward in Life and Fate - the pieces are inseparable IMO.


Jonathan | 232 comments Chuck wrote: "I think this quote from An Armenian Sketchbook helps explain why Grossman chose to introduce over 150 characters with detail that develops with increasing clarity as the book progresses. I have not seen any lack of detail in his settings..."

I'm back reading 'Life and Fate' after a bit of a break...I'm not sure if the break was a good thing or not. I agree with your comment Chuck that the characters 'develop with increasing clarity'. It's a bit like watching an old polaroid photo develop in front of your eyes or like watching someone draw a figure starting from a rough pencil outline through to a full portrait..at least I hope it goes that way!

I would still say that the prose lacks detail; by this I mean physical details. There's nothing about the cities in which the events take place, the houses or rooms where people live, physical details of the characters, any battle scenes etc. (I'm about 40% into it). This isn't to say that there should be any of these things - this is Grossman's story to tell after all and he can do it however he pleases. I'll admit though that it's an interesting way to develop the narrative; purely through the interactions and development of the many characters in the book.


Chuck LoPresti | 17 comments Your polaroid example is perfect. It reads like Laibach covering Kodachrome. It's hard for me to read this without getting The Road, Ledig's Payback and Shalamov's Kolyma Tales out of my head. Although this book is nowhere near as stark as Shalamov - nothing can be - or as visceral as Ledig - also not possible - I think it's quite interesting that fate or fatelessness (in Kertesz's term) seems to be the heart of the narrative - conditions are magnified over individuals - absolutely opposite of Tibor Dery's technique as read in Nikki, portraying the horrors of war by focusing on personal development and letting the conditions calcify in response to personal interactions. I've just finished the 1st part and I'll agree that the narrative is a bit...uh...gauzy at times. It's as if the book is recharging after the intensity of the sections that served as autobiographical relief. I'm bracing myself for the next time I meet David...ugh.


Jonathan | 232 comments Chuck wrote: "Your polaroid example is perfect. It reads like Laibach covering Kodachrome. It's hard for me to read this without getting The Road, Ledig's Payback and Shalamov's Kolyma Tales out of my head. Al..."

I may have to check out The Road - I've just read the blurb and your review and it looks intriguing. Back when I was going through a bit of a Russian-phase I came across Kolyma Tales but never got round to reading it...maybe I should.


Chuck LoPresti | 17 comments The Road is a mandatory accompaniment to Life and Fate IMO. Kolyma Tales is grim and bleak, like Platonov with none of the crepuscular beauty that oozes off the page - I love Platonov - as did Grossman. Grossman sort of "goes Platonov" in sections of The Road - he could be quite lyrical when he chose to do so. Most known from the Road is Hell of Treblinka which along side Kolyma Tales is the most harrowing exposition of human cruelty I've read outside of Albert Fish's biography.


Jonathan | 232 comments Chuck wrote: "The Road is a mandatory accompaniment to Life and Fate IMO. Kolyma Tales is grim and bleak, like Platonov with none of the crepuscular beauty that oozes off the page - I love Platonov - as did Gro..."

So, would you agree that Life and Fate is quite tame by comparison to the other books you mentioned? I must admit that my (limited) prior knowledge of the Battle of Stalingrad was that it was a particularly harrowing and grim part of the war. I was expecting quite an intense book. Life and Fate is quite mild...so far.


Chuck LoPresti | 17 comments Extremely tame. I know nothing that compares to the horror of Treblinka, Kolyma Tales or Ledig's Payback. Treblinka will reduce most people to quivering in horror.


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Nicholas During | 7 comments I'm coming in to this discussion a bit late but since I started reading the book because of this figure I should follow through and participate. We haven't yet discussed Tolstoy, which seems to me the strongest comparison. I read War and Peace a long time ago and don't remember the details, but the moving from historical events and persons to the more traditional fictional characters and their lives has to be inspired by War and Peace. Though of course they are very different writers, and while I agree with Jonathan and others that sometimes the psychological insight into these characters lives, decisions, feelings are his strongest suit, and not as good as Tolstoy did at his most lyrical best, I think some of this has to be accounted for that Grossman is a committed Communist and believes in an aesthetic that focuses on forces of history, class consciousness, revolutionary action, etc. Tolstoy is much more centered on an individuals place in a grander narrative, still similar to Grossman but the aim is different. Perhaps it's something that Grossman is struggling with here. What is important to write about? What is happening to a human being caught up in currents of global history? Or attempting to describe the movement of history itself, including the people in it (high and low) but more as a detail of time than the fous?


Seana | 407 comments I think it's in the introduction that Grossman read War and Peace twice during the course of the war, and it was in some sense his model. I think one difference is that the war and the peace of Tolstoy's time are not the war and peace of Grossman's. The peace of Grossman's time and place is horrifying. Whether or not he is as good at character as Tolstoy, character is hardly the same thing in the two eras. The people of Russia and Germany are attempting to live out an abstract and inhuman idea. So much of the books power and beauty for me is the ways that people try to live out their human life under the weight of a crushing and inescapable force. Yet everywhere in the book are small free acts even in the face of the worst of this. I was going to mention an example, but I think it might be in part two.


Seana | 407 comments I thought some of you might enjoy an older review at the Guardian by Martin Kettle of the experience of reading this book, which mirrors my own and puts it more aptly than I can.


message 26: by Lois (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments So I am coming to this very belatedly, but having just finished Part 1 I thought it would be a good idea to share some thoughts for my own sake, even if no one is interested in reading them anymore!

I tend to agree with Seana regarding this book, and I particularly liked your line about how the beauty of the book comes through in the small details of everyday human lives lived under an oppressive force. I don't know if it's just because I *did* read the introduction before starting the text itself, and that takes quite a focus on this aspect of the book's power. However, I also think the sparseness of the language—which I am actually thoroughly enjoying—helps with this, because rather than giving you a colourful window filled with descriptions and adjectives through which to view the story's world, it simply shows you the facts, the details that you might actually notice if you were standing in that bunker with them, or hiding in that attic, or sitting in that dank peasant's hut, or lying on that prison bedboard. To me, this gives the prose a transparency and immediacy that brings the story itself to life in a way that allows us to understand what should be incomprehensible to those who haven't experienced it. Indeed, the simplicity and forthrightness of his language might be seen to echo that kind of 'authentic speech' referred to above—he is not hiding behind literary tricks and linguistic curlicues. Plus it has the added benefit of making the text immensely quotable! I have over 115 highlights already, just in Part 1 :/

I also was rather surprised by the relative ease I found in reading the book, emotionally speaking. Again, however, I think this is a deliberate choice—just as those living in the times couldn't always exist in a psychically heightened state of horror or fear, so we are brought between war and everyday life, absolute horror and quaint mundanity. This ability to focus on the seemingly trivial, to temporarily forget the grand scheme of things, to deny or to pretend to deny the likelihood of our impending demise, is the key to surviving. As the book says: 'People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It's impossible to say whether that's wise or foolish—it's just the way people are'.

The combination of the direct prose and this unexpectedly light atmosphere means that the book has been much funnier than I ever would have expected—mostly because I wouldn't have expected it to be funny at all! But there are several times when I have laughed out loud, at some of the characters' awkward moments or curious foibles. I think this is important in keeping the book relevant and readable. It helps us connect to the story and the characters, see them as just as silly or banal as our own lives can be, and makes the book's message about the hidden potentialities of humanity, and of individual human beings, all the more terrifying and all the more encouraging. Because these people were the same as us, and look what happened to them, and what they did in response.

Of course, all this could change as I read over the next couple of parts...


message 27: by Lois (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments Also, perhaps you discussed this in the boards for Parts 2 and 3, but I think it would be interesting to compare which vignettes people enjoyed the most. Personally, my favourite from Part 1 was the accountant Naum Rozenberg—funny and utterly horrifying, absurd and terrifyingly real—although David is of course the most purely heartbreaking story.


Seana | 407 comments I loved your notes on this, Lois. I wish that as I'd read I had actually collected quotes as it would have been so helpful for the sake of discussion.

I'm also a bit handicapped by the fact that I didn't really read it in parts but, as I had a window in time, I plowed on through, which was fine, except for the fact that I don't remember what came precisely where.

I think as I look back on the experience, it isn't so much the military aspect that stays with me as the civilians' story. And I don't really remember whether I've already said this up thread, but I think what may linger longest is the way Grossman is attuned to the animals' plight. One part was where he was talking about the cat who was dying in the midst of trying to deliver the last kitten and the way she looked into her master's face. I really thought this was a brilliant rendering of the way we as humans wish to ease suffering but can't always or even often help except by mere presence and witnessing.

As I write that, I find that I am surprised that Grossman wasn't more hardened by his wartime journalist's role. He saved experience up within himself somehow.


Jonathan | 232 comments Lois wrote: "Also, perhaps you discussed this in the boards for Parts 2 and 3, but I think it would be interesting to compare which vignettes people enjoyed the most. Personally, my favourite from Part 1 was th..."

I'd forgotten about Rozenberg...I just found it and remembered finding it darkly amusing. Some of my favourite vignettes came in parts two & three, such as the 'questionnaire' and 'Eichmann's tea'. But in part one Viktor's mother's letter is particularly moving.

Seana: I also thought that the civilian stories were better than the military & concentration camp parts - I think it would have worked better as a shorter book more focused on Viktor et al and with the war rumbling on in the background.


message 30: by Seana (last edited Jul 06, 2014 02:31PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Seana | 407 comments I don't think I separated them out so much as you did, Jonathan, as so many characters seemed to be living out personal lives in the midst of war. I found the war scenes a lot easier to read than what I remember of Tolstoy's. I suppose that as he modeled the book on War and Peace, he would have had a hard time leaving the war out, especially as he had so much first hand material.

But I do think for me that his greatest achievement was his portrayal of life under the Stalinist regime, what the mindset was, how people coped. I think that the way Grossman portrays Viktor's reaction to the various pressures he faces is brilliant. It isn't just the crushing weight of the Soviet regime, it is how everyday social dynamics were turned against them. Although it's not part of this section, the temptation that Viktor succumbs to is absolutely understandable and it didn't happen at all the way he or we would have suspected.


message 31: by Lois (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lois (literanarchy) | 113 comments I agree with you both that the civilian stories are the most compelling; however, I think the military/camp stories are a necessary counterpoint, and I imagine they were absolutely vital to Grossman's vision of the book. I like how they seem to emphasise the similarities between the situations, rather than the differences—once again because the focus is on the people in those situations more than anything else, and people are all equal. Actually, I think this quote about the Russian army (chapter 53) could apply equally well to Grossman's extensive cast of characters and the humanist story he wanted to tell:

'This vast reserve of intelligence, labour, bravery, calculation, skill and anger, of all the different endowments of these students, schoolboys, tractor-drivers, lathe-operators, teachers, electricians and bus-drivers—all this would flow into one, would coalesce. And once united, they were certain to conquer. They were too rich not to conquer.'

Perhaps Grossman hoped that the united force of all his characters would help the reader conquer the dehumanising effects of war, communism, fascism, anti-individualism, ignorance, propaganda, and lies.


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