The man who wrote the supreme novel of World War II didn’t live to see the book into print. In 1964, Vasily Grossman died of stomach cancer among the non-persons of the Soviet Union, an unhappy category that presented one consolation: It placed him in excellent company. In 1960, Grossman completed the manuscript of Life and Fate, submitted it for publication, and waited. Grossman was unaware that his editors were terrified. The novel depicted not only Nazi brutality but also the ineptness and butchery of the Soviet regime. Stalin himself makes a memorably frightening appearance in the novel via a telephone call.
On Valentine’s Day 1961, three senior KGB officers seized the manuscript from the apartments of Grossman and his typist. They took the carbons and the ribbons from the typewriter. The Politburo’s ideology czar, Mikhail Suslov, told Grossman the novel could not be published for at least 200 years – a brilliant stroke of literary criticism, attesting to the power of Life and Fate.
Grossman had given another copy of the manuscript to a friend who left it in a canvas satchel hanging under coats in his dacha. The papers were later discovered and copied onto microfilm, apparently by Andrei Sakharov. The novelist Vladimir Voinovich smuggled the microfilm out of the USSR into Switzerland, where Life and Fate was published in 1980, 16 years after Grossman’s death. Robert Chandler’s translation into English was published in 1985, and New York Review Books returned it to print in paperback last year.
Grossman modeled his novel, even its title, on War and Peace. He claimed to have read Tolstoy’s novel twice during the war, when he served as a reporter for the Red Army newspaper, The Red Star. Grossman spent more than 1,000 days at the front, between 1941 and 1945. He covered the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. He also covered the ethnic cleansing of the Ukraine and Poland and the liberation of the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps, writing some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust.
Much of Grossman’s nonfiction, taken from his notebooks, letters and journalism, is included in A Writer at War, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Beevor, by the way, is the author of the excellent Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall, 1945. In October 1941, as the Nazis advanced on Moscow, Grossman found himself in Tula, 100 miles south of Moscow, when he noticed a sign for Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate:
“I suggested we take a look at it. The Emka turned off the panic-stricken highway, and the Noah’s Ark followed. One could see the green roofs and white walls of the houses amid the curly gold of the autumnal park. The gate. Chekhov, when he first came here, only managed to walk up to this gate and then turned away, intimidated by the thought that he would meet Tolstoy in a few minutes. He walked back to the station and returned to Moscow. The road leading to the house is paved by countless red, orange and yellow leaves. This is so beautiful. The more lovely the surroundings, the sadder one feels in times like these.
“There’s an angry, pre-departure confusion in the house. Piles of boxes. Bare walls. Suddenly I feel with a terrible intensity that this place has turned into Lysye Gory, which the old and sick Prince is about to leave [Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peaces flees his house, Lysye Gory, as Napoleon’s army approaches]. Everything has combined to produce an entirely new image, the events that occurred a century ago and those happening today, and what the book tells with such strength and truthfulness about the old Prince Bolkonsky now seems to refer to the old Count Tolstoy himself and has become inseparable from reality.”
Grossman meets Sofya Andreevna, Tolstoy’s granddaughter. She frets over the fate of Yasnaya Polyana, and they reminisce about Moscow and old friends. Grossman writes:
“Then we discuss the theme that everyone is now talking about with pain, bewilderment and sorrow: the retreat.”
Later, Grossman adds: “Tolstoy’s grave. Roar of fighters over it, humming of explosions and the majestic calm autumn. It is so hard. I have seldom felt such pain.” The next occupant of Yasnaya Polyana (“bright clearing” or “clear glade”) was General Heinz Guderian, commander of the XXIV Panzer Corps.
A detour to Tolstoy’s estate in the face of the German army must have seemed like insanity to Grossman’s colleagues. For him it was a literary and patriotic pilgrimage, a paying of respects to a master, and probably an obligation. Critics have often noted that Grossman, in Life and Fate, while echoing Tolstoy in terms of epic scale, also owes a debt to Chekhov. The monumental sweep doesn’t compromise Grossman’s attentiveness to individual lives, sad and funny, humble and looming. A character in the novel seems to speak for Grossman when he says:
“But Chekhov said: let's put God, and all these grand progressive ideas, to one side. Let's begin with man. Let's be kind and attentive to the individual man - whether he's a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin islands or a waiter in a restaurant ... That's democracy, the still unrealised democracy of the Russian people.”