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4.6 out of 5 stars142
4.6 out of 5 stars
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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 Grossman was told that it would not be published in the next 300 years, such was its threat to the Soviet version of history.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.
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VINE VOICEon 30 March 2007
This is a monumental novel, worthy of the description that has sometimes been applied to it of being the twentieth century's War and Peace. It details a range of suffering and cruelties, both large and petty, on all sides. Many of the day to day details of Stalinism are here: the constant presence of denunciations and the way small events can make or break someone's life, such as the central character of Viktor Shtrum falling due to his contacts with non-Russian scientists and then rising after a telephone call from Stalin praising his work, or Krymov being arrested and beaten up despite his years of loyal service and belief in the cause. Other particularly memorable sequences include the gas chamber scenes and the dialogue between a Nazi officer and Soviet prisoner Mostovskoy as the former tries and nearly succeeds in convincing his captive that Nazism and Communism are marching in the same direction.

I generally find descriptions of actual battle scenes fairly tedious to read, but they are there as they should be and due attention is paid to the significance of Stalingrad as the turning point in leading to the defeat of Nazism.

From the Soviet regime's point of view it is hardly surprising Suslov told Grossman it could not be published for 200 years as it goes well beyond criticism of Stalin and destroys the whole raison d'etre of the Soviet regime. In this respect it goes beyond the much better known Doktor Zhivago, an excellent novel but probably more famous in the West very largely because of the superb David Lean film. For me, Life and Fate tops Pasternak's novel as the best Russian novel of the Soviet era.
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on 11 November 2003
I was always of the view that, thanks to the PhD industry, there weren’t any neglected masterpieces out there. Life and Fate has proved me wrong. What I loved about this book was its scale, its ambition, and its earnestness. Grossman has something of passionate importance to tell the world. The book could just as easily have been entitled Good and Evil, Freedom and Slavery, or War and Peace.
Despite the book’s settings - German concentration and Russian labour camps, the Lubyanka, Stalingrad - it’s not fundamentally grim. Grossman is as interested in the nature of Good as he is of Evil. A 50 year old woman doctor ‘adopts’ a small boy as the doors of the gas chamber shut. The commander of a tank battalion spares his men by holding fire for ten minutes with Stalin breathing down his neck.. A Russian woman comforts a dying German soldier.
Grossman believed in the individual and the individual’s essential humanity. This is easy to say and seems sententious when made written down but he also believes in literature with a capital L. The task he sets himself is to create characters and settings that demonstrate this humanity.
Fabulous stuff. Be warned. Clever postmodernist novels are going to look pretty trivial after this.
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on 7 February 2006
I can't really add much to the previous reviews, as this is an exceptional novel and truely gripping all the way through (no mean feat for nearly 900 pages). If you're familiar with other Grossman writings (e.g. his diaries) then you can see that many of the characters and situations are taken from real experiences and people that he encountered during his war reporting. To me that makes it an even better read, as whilst a novel, it is based soundly on real life.
One tip, check out the character index at the back of the book, before you start reading. Unless you're good with Russian names, it can be a bit hard to follow at first. The index (which I only discovered three quarters of the way though) really helps with identifying who is who.
No question that this is a five star book.
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on 6 July 2011
This really is a remarkable book, billed as the 20C War and Peace it is set against the siege of Stalingrad in 1941. This edition comes with a helpful introduction by Linda Grant. In many ways the novel is grim. It describes life in German concentration camps and the lead up to the gas chamber in poignant detail. Grossman draws the parallel between the German camps and Russian labour camps set up to deal with dissidents, criminals and Jews. There is little difference between communism and fascism. We read about the torture in the Lubyanka, about the rise and fall and rise again of a Jewish scientist in Russia. There are many examples of how the whims of life and fate change people. One minute, a party official has power over his peers, the next he is interrogated and incarcerated himself, because someone, anyone it seems, has denounced him as an enemy of the people.

There are stories of grasping, selfish individuals who are corrupted by the state, interspersed with stories of great individual courage and defiance. There is the tank corps commander who delays his attack for a few minutes to protect his men and make victory more likely. He is assured enough to stand against the orders of his commanders, but will he too be denounced and reduced? Will he share a similar fate to the manager of the power station who sticks to his post whilst under siege for all but the last day when the battle is finally won?

The scope of the work is immense, but it is very readable. Perhaps it could have benefitted from tighter editing, but the vast canvas gives it credibility and depth. It is essentially about the life and fate of people against the huge power of the state. Many die. Many are wasted. Many are small and petty-minded, but in some, the human spirit lives on, and this is Grossman's message.

Much of the book is grim, but there is a thread of humour and strong theme of humanity. Grossman died before the publication of his masterpiece. Thus, he shared the fate of many of his contemporaries whose work was stifled by the state. The irony is that the battle for Stalingrad was the battle for freedom, yet the freedom won did not allow the publication of this novel. Peerless! But beware, contemporary novels seem thin a vapid in comparison.
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on 23 March 2012
Prepare for a difficult read, in every sense of the word. Grossman's novel, never published in his lifetime, is huge and sprawling, with a overloaded cast list (17 pages in my Kindle edition) of Russians and Germans with confusing, exchangable and sometimes maddeningly similar names, and a plot like an untidy ball of twine with strands appearing out of knots and disappearing into ravels. And searingly difficult on the emotions, tortured most in the hauntingly detailed death-camp scenes, but pricked at every turn as the chief characters in the story love, hurt, deceive and misunderstand each other while they scrabble or hunker down to survive the ravages of war amid the secrecy, paranoia and distorted values of Stalin's Russia.

So why four stars? Because this is almost a great book, or rather the rough diamond of a great book, with certain characters and episodes that will lodge in your mind and live in your memory as they do in great books. I think Grossman must have had it in mind to write a War and Peace for his time (note the associative title) and if he does not quite achieve that in the round there is enough in the particular to give him a deserved place not so far below Tolstoy and Russia's other truly outstanding writers.

I came to this novel through first listening to the BBC's audio adaptation broadcast across a week in the autumn of 2011. Necessarily, the radio version cut out many of the characters and sub-plots of the novel, leaving the essence of Life and Fate, most memorably: the harrowing journey of Sofya Levinton and the boy David to the gas chamber; the betrayal, imprisonment and torture of the `Bolshevik' commissar Nikolay Krymov; the tribulations of the Shaposhnikov family, especially the head of the household, physicist Viktor Shtrum.

It is important to remember that Grossman never had the opportunity to edit his book for publication. The manuscript was `arrested' by the Soviet authorities in 1961 - even Grossman's typewriter ribbon was confiscated along with his typescript. Though the author (who had shown himself in the past a good Party man) escaped jail, he was told his book would not be published in 200 years, and it may not have been but for the smuggling out of the country of a microfilm of his last draft, which was published in English in 1985. The excellent translation I read is by Robert Chandler.

So, buy the book and put plenty of time aside to read it with your fullest attention. Best of luck with the names - my head is still reeling, but it's reeling too with the sheer power of this extraordinary novel.

Reviewer David Williams blogs as Writer in the North.
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on 28 March 1999
This is one of the finest books I have translated, a novel of extraordinary depth. Impounded by the KGB and first published twenty years after the author's death, the novel provides a remarkably complete picture of Stalin's Russia. Grossman writes with equal authority about front-line soldiers, the Russian and German high commands, Russian and German concentration camps, academic life and the life of ordinary civilians. The chapters dealing with the holocaust are a moving lament for the whole of European Jewry. One of the great realistic novels of the century. Grossman's gifts are his powers of observation and his compassion.
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on 5 April 2008
This is an outstanding book. Epic in its ambition, it manages to completely evoke not just a place and time but to give a shattering insight into the nature of Soviet Russia. There are not only incidents and passages in this book which will stay with me forever (some described by other reviewers) but also ideas and insights about war and totalitarianism as well as the complexity of people themselves.

Much of the contemporary fiction I have read in recent years seems pretty shrivelled and worthless in comparison to this.
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on 6 October 2009
An awesome novel. Brilliantly constructed, written and translated, and sweeping in its wisdom and overview of the trauma of the Second World War. Richly-studded with profound insights into the psychology of terror and compliance in both Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. As a long-time student, resident, reporter, admirer and critic of both Soviet Russia and of Germany, I could scarcely recommend a more gripping and informative novel about the lived and felt reality of a war and of two systems which defined the last century. On a par with Tolstoy's War and Peace - without the boring bits.
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on 2 September 2010
A stunning and brialliantly written book. Grossman, a Jewish writer, was a war correspondent for the Soviets. As such he saw the slaughter and unavoidable wartime oddities, at close hand. Post war he worked on a detailed account of the Nazi treatment of the Jews which was surpressed due to the late Stalinist anti-Semitic campaign. These experiences, and the inevitable political paranoia of life under Stalin, underlie this novel. As a result the accounts of daily warfare at the front and away from it ring true. The operation of a gas chamber is portrayed in a way which, though less visual than TV, is claustrophobically more graphic. And behind everything the unpredictable operations of the state and its security organs cause everybody to live with one eye looking behind them.

When you cannot know who your friends really are, how can humanity survive both malicious and accidental betrayals? Is there any sense in showing courage before totalitarianism? Grossman answers by illustrating simple acts of human kindness which expose the inherent misanthropy of both Nazism and Communism, and even occasional acts of near suicidal bravery. And yet, behind all this one wishes Grossman could have understood why the Baptists' prayers in the Gulags gave them a reason for hope as well as for kindness.

Do make frequent use of the cast list in the back of the book. You will need to keep reminding yourself who is who. I read most of the book on a week's holiday and it benefitted from being read in a short, intense span.
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