One of the hundreds of seemingly minor characters in Vasily Semyonovich Grossman’s novel Life and Fate (trans. Robert Chandler, 1985) speaks for his creator:
“Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness—with people of every estate, every class, every age. More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all
these people—as a Russian democrat . . . 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. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we’ll never get anywhere.”
Readers and critics most often liken Life and Fate to War and Peace, and Grossman acknowledged reading Tolstoy’s novel twice while working as a war correspondent for the Red Army during World War II. But his sensibility has always seems to me closer to Chekhov’s. The individual is always his focus. The novel’s most memorable scene begins with Sofya Osipovna Levinton being transported by train to a Nazi death camp. A doctor without children of her own, she befriends a little boy, David. On arrival at the camp, a German officer orders all doctors to step forward. Sofya Osipovna ignores the command and chooses to stay with David and the others, who are herded into a gas chamber. Grossman takes us inside the gas chamber to witness their deaths:
“This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.
“`I’ve become a mother,’ she thought.
“That was her last thought.
“Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David, now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.”
The effect on the conscious reader is devastating, especially when Grossman switches to the second-person plural and addresses his readers directly: Sofya Osipovna “felt pity for all of you.” Grossman writes not of the six million but of two, as Chekhov might have done. Chekhov’s grand theme, covert and otherwise, was individual human freedom. He respects the individual in ways that are almost shocking. In the passage about Chekhov quoted above, Grossman might have had in mind the well-known letter his predecessor wrote to the radical poet and editor Aleksey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev on Oct. 4, 1888. That year, Pleshcheyev published Chekhov’s “The Steppe,” the story that announced his arrival as a major Russian writer (previously he had written dozens of mostly humorous sketches – light fare, though often amusing and suggestive of better things to come). In his letter Chekhov writes:
“The people I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all of their forms . . . Pharisaism, dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”
Earnest twits like Pleshcheyev are still with us. But twits, given enough power, can turn into censors and worse. Grossman was born on this date, Dec. 12, in 1905, in Berdichev (then in Russia, now in Ukraine). He died on Sept. 14, 1964, never seeing Life and Fate in print.
[The passage by Chekhov is from Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), translated by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky.]