ON RE-READING LIFE AND FATE
To claim that Life and Fate is a war novel is to reawaken all the old comparisons with War and Peace, as well as to confine Vassily Grossman’s great book to the limits of a genre, and a predictably repetitive one at that: Stalingrad here means something else, as I will try to show. Nor is it satisfactory to add it to the burgeoning list of holocaust literature, a genre of which much the same could be said but which is historically anachronistic as a label for a book written in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the translator has taken innumerable diatribes on freedom in the novel to justify the characterization of Grossman as a dissident, forgetting Adorno’s maxim that the ideas in a work are its raw material and not its meaning, and also ignoring the historical emergence of this term only later, in the 1960s, when it was borrowed from the Western languages. It would be desirable, if possible, to dissolve such inevitable Cold War accretions by taking a more formalist approach to this historical novel about the years 1942–43. For now, let us note that the crematoria at Auschwitz entered into operation in September 1941, some three months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Soviet government was evacuated to Kuibyshev in October of that year—Stalin himself remaining behind and sleeping at night in the deepest level of the Moscow metro. The German army, on its way to new sources of energy in the oil-fields of the Caucasus, arrived at the Volga city of Stalingrad on 23 August 1942. The action of the novel takes place within these three coordinates.
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