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.footnote1 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.footnote2

In contradiction with narrative stands metaphor, which is a kind of denarrativization, and within the novel as a form there is always a tension—and a dilemma for the novelist—between poetic perception and narrative interest and attention. Grossman squares this circle by inserting the stray ‘poetic’ sentence in passing, where you might not notice it at all. So it is that ‘the gravestones stood there like a crowd of unloved, unwanted old men’. So also the body of a soldier, ‘so full of his own death’, and the war knocking ‘obstinately at the door of the bunker’; or ‘the heavy male looks that bear down’ on Katya, the only female in House 6/1; let alone the landscapes: ‘from the pines rose a sharp note of turpentine, an octave higher’; ‘now and then a tree would shake, frightened by a bad dream’.footnote3 However, these heightened perceptions are not mere aesthetic decoration or adornment; they are there to remind us that the entire narrative is not a matter of action and the notation of facts and ‘realistic’ events, but rather the organization of so many perceptual and thereby potentially poetic unities. Hosts of short chapters are organized into larger sequences, each of which is a kind of small world in its own right, with its own tonalities and rhythm, its own temporality and affective logic, distinct, and different from all the others. Bravura pieces: yes, we can only do justice to Grossman by grasping the way in which his whole novel is composed of just such pieces bound together inextricably by the war and by a network of characters themselves bound together by life and fate.

Lyudmila Shaposhnikova’s doomed mission to her wounded son, Tolya, is only the most seemingly distinctive of these narrative monads. (Auschwitz is another, and House 6/1 in Stalingrad yet another.) She bears within herself an undying resentment at her husband’s indifference to this son of an earlier marriage, to whose hospital she must take the Volga steamer, surrounded by the fur coats and white fur stoles of the wives of important bureaucrats. Tolya, who is a pleasant boy, well-liked by all the nurses and staff, dies after his third operation, before his mother arrives. The hospital is not prepared for this headstrong formidable woman, who does not, however, waste her time in recriminations but gives herself to the delirium of her own grief, lying overnight on his grave. This extended episode is both a meeting place of a host of sharply individualized characters, and the long, subjective, well-nigh surrealist nightmare of a single central protagonist.

Sometimes, indeed, this enclave-form shrinks temporality into a present that is wholly self-sufficient: not the present without a future of the gas chambers, or the empty one of waiting, fear, isolation and uncertainty, but a full present, a full temporality of battle as such, in which everything in the world, materiality and force, your own body, contracts into an intensity properly beyond time itself, insofar as you have no idea how long it lasts, whether the words short and long have any meaning any more. But this happens by alternation rather than by some mysterious or mystical intensification:

One sense almost entirely lost during combat is that of time. After dancing all night at a New Year’s ball, a girl will be unable to say whether time passed quickly or slowly . . . The night at the ball is full of looks, smiles, caresses, snatches of music, each of which takes place so swiftly as to leave no sense of duration in the girl’s consciousness. Taken together, however, these moments engender the sense of a long interval of time that contains all the joys of human existence . . . The distortion of the sense of time during combat is something still more complex. Here there is a distortion even in the individual, primary sensations. One second can stretch out for eternity, and long hours can crumple together. The sense of duration is linked to such fleeting events as the whistle of shells and bombs, the flashes of shots and explosions. The sense of quickness on the other hand is linked to protracted events: crossing a ploughed field under fire, crawling from one shelter to another. And as for hand-to-hand fighting, that takes place quite outside time.footnote4

Yet this nameless dialectical distinctiveness of combat is only one of the unique ground-tones with which Grossman must endow each of his narrative enclaves.

It is this inseparability of the objective and the subjective that we must admire in Grossman, the extraordinary skill with which a network of fully realized personalities is endowed with the unity of affect—what Heidegger might have called Stimmung—that is at one and the same time the mimesis of an action. I would want to insist that we find the same formal mastery in the long political or scientific discussions, which may seem like so many pages from some standard ‘novel of ideas’ until we appreciate to what degree the moment of awkwardness, the political gaffe, the embarrassing mention of a forbidden topic or personality, transforms the whole exchange into an event in its own right, a whole, or a mimesis of a completed action, as Aristotle might have put it.