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The Last Great Classic.
on 22 April 2010
Grossman has created a truly stupendous work. To structure the enormous events portrayed in the book so that they flow elegantly and enticingly forward, to maintain throughout the entire telling a narrative tension that often makes the book difficult to put down: these are the traits of a great writer. Life and Fate deals in 900 pages with a most insalubrious juncture in the progress of the human race, and in writing it the author has deservedly earned himself the right to be counted amongst the lasting heavyweights of Russian and world literature. Grossman was a war journalist, and was one of the first outsiders to see at first hand to what lengths the Nazi regime had gone in its rabid and all-consuming need to seek out enemies and then turn its people against them. His descriptions and accounts of (the Hell of) Treblinka were used at the Nurnberg Trials. It is not only the Nazi regime that is scrutinized. Viewed in context, the book is very brave. Like his own character in Life and Fate, the Jewish scientist Shtrum (before his compromise), Grossman also refused to be quieted, but insisted, come what may, on his version of the truth. This truth is a substantiated cry against the destructive and mindless anti-Semitism on all sides of the divide and equally a narrative documentary of the staggering excesses of the Soviet system in its blind battle for survival; not so much against the Nazis as against its own stupidity and gratuitous cruelty. Over 500 000 men lost their lives on the front, summarily executed as traitors. Hundreds of thousands fell, the victims of at best ill-considered and often idiotic edicts, issued by bungling party bureaucrats but not countermanded by the military experts for fear of reprisals. These things are brought to light as never before. The descriptions of both Stalin and Hitler in their moments of doubt and triumph are revelations and further testimony to Grossman's immense perception and writing genius. The book, completed in 1959, was immediately banned notwithstanding the thaw following Stalin's death. Grossman was told that it would not be published in the next 300 years, such was its threat to the Soviet version of history. Suslov, whose prediction this was, was out by some 280 years: unfortunately, 16 years after Grossman's death, the book saw the light of day in Switzerland in 1980 thanks to the deviant behavior of some very well known Soviet dissidents.
How it has not found a central and eminent place in the canon of 20th Century Russian and European literature is almost as difficult to understand as the events it portrays. Having read it first in English, I then set out to find a copy in Russian. I was shocked at how difficult this was. Friends of mine from Grossman's native Ukraine had to send to Moscow. I discussed the book with many Russians and Ukrainians, educated ones at that, and was equally disappointed to find that, although the name was somehow familiar, hardly anyone had much to say about him, and even fewer people have actually read this, or any other of his books.
If you have got this far, and haven't already guessed, let me put it more succinctly: Buy it. Buy it now. Buy it and read it. Don't wait for anything. The opening couple of pages should be enough to engender in any sentient reader a tantalizing presentiment for the grandiosity of what is to follow. And from then on it just gets better, becoming bigger, deeper and more resonant as it progresses, acquiring with reading an almost flawless quality. The hotel business has woken up to the inadequacy of the five star-system, I have done the same. This book deserves Six. The more people that read the book, the greater the likelihood that it will one day achieve the status it most certainly deserves. The Nazis were overcome, Communism has fallen: now it is time to complete the work by getting Grossman the recognition he deserves. Come on folks, stump up.