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Sunday, 29 January 2023

Spring Snow: some jottings on characters

Spring Snow I think is a book that may appeal to different kinds of readers. If you’re interested in style, Mishima is a great stylist and uses striking metaphors, as my last two blog posts have demonstrated. If you’re interested in ideas, the book discusses love, dreams, tradition vs modernity, Western influence, history, reincarnation, duty, etc. (without touching on fascism or nationalism, for which the author’s notorious). If you’re interested in characters, Spring Snow also has interesting characters.

No wonder it’s often named among the greatest novels of the 20th century Japan. 

At the centre of Spring Snow is Matsugae Kiyoaki (name in Japanese order), who comes from a nouveau-riche family and who is raised among the Ayakuras, a poor aristocrat family, in order to become cultured and elegant. His good looks and elegance are reminiscent of the main character in The Tale of Genji. The love affair between Kiyoaki and Ayakura Satoko also seems to be partly inspired by one story in The Tale of Genji: Suzaku’s Third Princess (Genji’s last, neglected wife) and Kashiwagi (To no Chujo’s eldest son). 

One thing I find interesting is that Mishima mostly focuses on Kiyoaki’s perspective and sometimes gets into the minds of Honda (his best friend) and Iinuma (his tutor and retainer) but never switches to Satoko’s point of view, except a brief moment when he tells us that she’s desperately waiting and hoping for a letter from Kiyoaki. That creates the same effect as in Proust—the beloved is only seen from outside—though compared to Proust, we are here more distanced from the lover because Spring Snow is written from the third person’s point of view. 

I like what Mishima does with Kiyoaki however. I see that some people on the internet have called the characters star-crossed lovers, but they’re no Romeo and Juliet—their love story is doomed mostly because of the lovers themselves, because of their little games, especially on Kiyoaki’s side. He is spoilt and solipsistic and impulsive. He is in some ways similar to Proust’s narrator. And yet somehow Mishima gets us to feel for him and find their story tragic. 

I also like the characterisation of Count Ayakura (Satoko’s father) and Tadeshina (Satoko’s maid, an accomplice in the affair). The Count, compared to many other characters including the Marquis (Kiyoaki’s father), is barely there for most of the book, but he becomes a distinct character in the last part, and more interestingly, the reveal makes us see in a completely different light not only him but also Tadeshina, and to some extent, the Marquis. I always love it when a writer does that—it’s not easy to achieve. 

Spring Snow is part of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which I believe is loosely connected. I will definitely read more Mishima—he’s much more interesting than Tanizaki and Kawabata—but not yet, Runaway Horses will have to wait. 

Thursday, 26 January 2023

Spring Snow: “continually changing patterns within a kaleidoscope”

I haven’t written about the characters in Spring Snow, not having much to say so far. But I’m very much enjoying Mishima’s style (translated by Michael Gallagher). 

For example, this is how he writes about a key (from the perspective of Iinuma, Kiyoaki’s retainer and tutor): 

“It lay on the palm of his thick, blunt hand, blue and metallic like a dragonfly with its wings torn off.

Afterwards Iinuma would recall this moment time and again. How torn and naked the key seemed, like a ravaged body as it lay in his palm.” (Ch.14) 

I love metaphors, I love details, and Mishima has an interesting way of seeing and describing things. 

“The small room bathed him in cozy warmth, making him feel as if he were wrapped in a huge, opaque cocoon of glowing white.” (Ch.16) 

He compares facial expressions to something concrete: 

“He had become especially adept with Kiyoaki, with whom he had daily contact and whose expressions reminded him of the whirling fragments of colored glass that settled into continually changing patterns within a kaleidoscope.” (Ch.20) 

And: 

“The Marquis and Marquise, whatever their intrigues, wore their emotions like clothes that were dyed in the vivid primary colors of the tropics. Kiyoaki’s emotions, however, were as subtly complex as the layer upon layer of color in the dresses of the court ladies; they were constantly merging—the drab brown of an autumn leaf shading into crimson, the crimson dissolving into the green of bamboo grass.” (Ch.21) 

He also compares thoughts to something concrete: 

“Those who lack imagination have no choice but to base their conclusions on the reality they see around them. But on the other hand, those who are imaginative have a tendency to build fortified castles they have designed themselves, and to seal off every window in them. And so it was with Kiyoaki.” (Ch.23) 

Spring Snow is full of visual descriptions and exquisite details: 

“In summer, when the cloud formations were at their peak, the whole thing seemed to be transformed into a huge theater, with the villa for the spectators and the smooth expanse of the bay becoming the vast stage on which the clouds performed their extravagant ballets.” (Ch.31) 

I have thought of 20th century Japanese novels as a distinct tradition, quite different from Western novels, but Mishima’s metaphors are reminiscent of Proust’s and Flaubert’s. 

I’ve noted that the thread imagery appears a few times, though probably won’t call it a motif. 

Sometimes it’s simply a description: 

“Though the sky was still bright, the slope was in deep shadow, and the heavy growth of trees and shrubbery on the ridge stood out blackly against the white glare of the sky. However, the light was breaking through here and there like silver thread skillfully woven into an otherwise dark tapestry. Behind the trees, the western sky was like a sheet of isinglass. The bright summer day had been a gaudy scroll which was tapering off into blankness.” (Ch.35) 

Other times it’s a metaphor: 

“His pride was hurt when he realized that this was all he had to rely on as the fierce pain and agony of love spun their coil. Such pain ought to be fit material for weaving a magnificent tapestry, but Kiyoaki had only a tiny domestic loom with nothing but pure white thread at his disposal.” (Ch.15) 

When Kiyoaki’s best friend Honda goes to court and watches a woman on trial: 

“The spectators stared at this small woman in fascination, as if she might perhaps have the translucent body of a silkworm that had somehow excreted a thread of inconceivable complexity and evil.” (Ch.29) 

Mishima writes another thread metaphor when a character receives a farewell letter: 

““… before I cut the slender thread that binds this wretched creature to life…”” (Ch.39) 

Stylistically Mishima is very, very good. I don’t think I’m going to like him as much as Soseki or Akutagawa, but he’s definitely better and much more interesting than Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Murakami. 

Saturday, 21 January 2023

Spring Snow: Mishima and Proust

I can’t be the only person thinking of Proust whilst reading Spring Snow

““I can’t tell you why,” she answered, deftly dropping ink into the clear waters of Kiyoaki’s heart. She gave him no time to erect his defenses.

He glared at her. It had always been like this. Which was why he hated her. Without the slightest warning she could plunge him into nameless anxieties. And the drop of ink spread, dull and gray, clouding everything in his heart that had been pellucid only a moment ago.” (Ch.4) 

Does Kiyoaki not make you think of Proust’s narrator? 

“Kiyoaki was so capricious that he tended to exacerbate the very worries that gnawed at him. […] Perhaps this was why Satoko deliberately sowed the seeds of dark and thorny flowers, rather than brightly colored ones, knowing what an unhealthy fascination they held for Kiyoaki. Indeed he had always been fertile ground for such seeds. He indulged himself, to the exclusion of all else, in the cultivation of his anxiety.” (ibid.) 

Kiyoaki is especially reminiscent of Proust’s narrator when he writes an angry letter to Satoko. I mean: 

““… I have no doubt that your emotional whims have driven you to do this to me. There has been no gentleness in your method, obviously no affection whatever, not a trace of friendship. There are deep-seated motivations in your despicable behavior to which you are blind, but which are driving you toward a goal that is only too obvious. But decency forbids me to say anything further…”” (Ch.6) 

Then he tells her to burn the letter unread, and invites her to the theatre. 

“… she was nevertheless like fine silk disguising a sharp needle, or rich brocade that hid an abrasive underside.” (Ch.8) 

But it’s not just the obsession, the anxiety, the little games…—Kiyoaki, like Proust’s narrator, is introverted, sensitive, elegant, dreamy, and an aesthete.

Spring Snow is full of interesting images. 

“Their white faces, powdered even more meticulously than usual for the occasion, were dappled in violet, as though some exquisite shadow of death had fallen across their cheeks.” (Ch.1) 

Interesting metaphors and similes. 

“… this fleeting angle of the Princess’s face—too slight to be called a profile—made Kiyoaki feel as if he had seen a rainbow flicker for a bare instant through a prism of pure crystal.” (ibid.) 

There are more striking metaphors in Mishima than in Kawabata or Tanizaki, that’s my impression. 

“The hot sun struck the backs of their close-shaven necks. It was a peaceful, uneventful, glorious Sunday afternoon. Yet Kiyoaki remained convinced that at the bottom of this world, which was like a leather bag filled with water, there was a little hole, and it seemed to him that he could hear time leaking from it, drop by drop.” (Ch.2) 

This is the scene of the ritual on the 17/8 when Kiyoaki’s 15—a water basin is placed in the garden to catch the reflection of the moon, and the belief is that if the moon isn’t seen in it, the boy has misfortunes for the rest of his life: 

“He could not bring himself to look up into the sky at the moon itself, the origin of the image in the water. Rather he kept looking down into the basin and into the water contained by its curved sides, the reflection of his innermost self, into which the moon, like a golden shell, had sunk so deep. For at that moment he had captured the celestial. It sparkled like a golden butterfly trapped in the meshes of his soul.” (Ch.5) 

Both the sensitivity, the overthinking of the character and the simile make me think of Proust.

More than other Japanese writers I have ever read, except perhaps Abe Kobo, Mishima uses lots of unusual metaphors. For example, when he says that Kiyoaki’s parents, the Marquis and Marquise, never have crises or storms of passion, he says: 

“Their expressions blank, innocent of foreknowledge, they glided downstream like twigs hand in hand on clear waters mirroring blue sky and clouds, to take the inevitable plunge over the crest of the falls.” (ibid.) 

He compares a voice to an object:

“And her voice on this cold winter night was as warm and ripe as an apricot in June.” (Ch.6) 

He compares arrogance to a tumour: 

“This time, Satoko’s forceful methods did not wound his pride. On the contrary, he felt a sense of relief, as though her scalpel had skillfully cut out a malignant tumor of arrogance.” (Ch.11) 

This description, when Kiyoaki hangs out with Satoko, also makes me think of Proust: 

“Kiyoaki had brought a green tartan blanket that now covered their legs. Since those forgotten days of childhood, this was the first time that they had ever been so close together, but Kiyoaki was distracted by the pale light flooding through the cracks in the bonnet of the rickshaw that narrowed and widened as a stream of snow filtered through them, by the snow itself turning to water on the green blanket, by the loud rustle of the snow pelting down on the hood as if onto dry banana leaves.” (Ch.12) 

Proust would perhaps write more clauses, more complex sentences, but the sensitivity and the notice of the light wouldn’t be out of place in Proust. 

The translation is by Michael Gallagher. 

Saturday, 14 January 2023

100 latest films and plays I've watched [updated]

From February 2022 to January 2023 

In bold: films/ plays that I think are good 


1/ The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) 

2/ Louis Theroux's Forbidden America: Extreme and Online (2022) 

3/ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) 

4/ Louis Theroux's Forbidden America: Rap's New Frontline (2022) 

5/ Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) 

6/ Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) 

7/ Meet the Parents (2000) 

8/ Meet the Fockers (2004) 

9/ Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso - Italy, France- 1988) 

10/ Louis Theroux's Forbidden America: Porn's MeToo (2022) 

11/ The Lost Daughter (2021) 

12/ Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, The Wrath of God- West Germany, Mexico, Peru - 1972) 

13/ Dispatches: Britain's New Build Scandal (2019) 

14/ Forensics: Catching the Killer: Murder at the Wedding (2021) 

15/ Forensics: Catching the Killer: A Killer in the Family (2021) 

16/ Forensics: Catching the Killer: The Murder of Little Miss Nobody (2021) 

17/ Forensics: Catching the Killer: Murder by the Lake (2021) 

18/ Theatre of Blood (1973) 

19/ Boobs (2022) 

20/ Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) 

21/ Cymbeline (BBC 1982) 

22/ Forensics: Catching the Killer: The Freezer Murders (2021) 

23/ Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Britain's Rape Crisis (2022) 

24/ The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) - again

25/ 죽여주는 여자 (The Bacchus Lady - South Korea- 2016) 

26/ Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on Daytime (2022)- 2 episodes 

27/ Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story (2022) - 2 episodes

28/ Dispatches: Cadbury Exposed (2022) 

29/ Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) 

30/ Back to the Future (1985) 

31/ 青蛇 (Green Snake- Hong Kong- 1993) 

32/ 倩女幽魂 (A Chinese Ghost Story - Hong Kong- 1987) 

33/ 倩女幽魂 II:人間道 (A Chinese Ghost Story II - Hong Kong - 1990) 

34/ 倩女幽魂 III:道道道 (A Chinese Ghost Story III - Hong Kong - 1991) 

35/ Anna Karenina (Italy, France, Spain, Lithuania- 2013) 

36/ Unreported World: Fast Fashion's Toxic Legacy (2022) 

37/ Where Have All the Lesbians Gone? (2022) 

38/ Live and Let Die (1973) 

39/ The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) 

40/ お茶漬けの味 (The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice - Japan - 1952) 

41/ Dr. No (1962) 

42/ Panorama: Protecting Our Children: A Balancing Act (2022) 

43/ Dispatches: The Truth About Nike and Adidas (2022) 

44/ From Russia with Love (1963) 

45/ Goldfinger (1964) 

46/ Cyber Hell: Exposing an Internet Horror (2022) 

47/ Thunderball (1965) 

48/ Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen (2022) 

49/ The Queen: 70 Glorious Years (2022) 

50/ Pride and Prejudice (1995) - 6 episodes 

51/ Sense and Sensibility (1995) - again 

52/ Howards End (1992) 

53/ Persuasion (1995) 

54/ The Office (The UK- 2001-2003) - 14 episodes

55/ The First Great Train Robbery (1978) 

56/ House on Haunted Hill (1959) 

57/ James May: Our Man in Japan (2020) - 6 episodes 

58/ Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold/ Elevator to the Gallows - France - 1958) 

59/ Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist - France - 1960) 

60/ Macbeth (1948) 

61/ 곡성 (The Wailing - South Korea - 2016) 

62/ King Creole (1958) 

63/ The Merchant of Venice (1980 BBC) 

64/ The Winter's Tale (1999 RSC, ft. Antony Sher)

65/ King Lear (1982 BBC)

66/ Africa Eye: Racism for Sale (2022) 

67/ My Favourite Wife (1940) 

68/ Easter Parade (1948) 

69/ Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator - former Czechoslovakia - 1969) 

70/ Panorama: The Secret World of Trading Nudes (2022) 

71/ Journey to Italy (Italy, France - 1954) 

72/ Inside the Mind of a Cat (2022) 

73/ Pauline à la plage (Pauline at the Beach - France - 1983) 

74/ L'Ami de mon amie (My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, or Boyfriends and Girlfriends - France - 1987)

75/ La femme de l'aviateur (The Aviator's Wife - France - 1981)

76/ La Collectionneuse (The Collector - France - 1967) 

77/ Вий (Viy - Russia - 1967) 

78/ 彼岸花 (Equinox Flower - Japan - 1958) 

79/ Song Lang (Vietnam - 2018) 

80/ Maurice (1987) 

81/ Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle - France - 1987) 

82/ Jimmy in Saigon (2022) 

83/ Những đứa trẻ trong sương (Children of the Mist - Vietnam - 2021) 

84/ Deepfake Porn: Could You Be Next? (2022)

85/ The Hunt for the Worlds End Killers (2022)

86/ Mousehunt (1997)

87/ The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) - again 

88/ Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre - West Germany, France - 1979) 

89/ Airplane! (1980) - again 

90/ Mrs Harris Goes to Paris (2022) 

91/ Scrooge: A Christmas Carol (2022)

92/ Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) 

93/ Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022)

94/ War and Peace (1972) - 20 episodes 

95/ Panorama: Disaster Deniers: Hunting the Trolls (2022) 

96/ True Romance (1993) 

97/ Top Hat (1935) 

98/ The Menu (2022) 

99/ White Christmas (1954) 

100/ 헤어질 결심 (Decision to Leave - South Korea - 2022)

Thursday, 12 January 2023

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

How do you write about a book such as Everything Flows

It is about a man named Ivan Grigoryevich, who after Stalin’s death is released after nearly 30 years in the gulag. It is part fiction, part journalism, and part polemic. It is Vasily Grossman’s final testament after the Soviet authorities “arrested” his masterpiece Life and Fate, and a much angrier book. 

But don’t think the writing is dull and dry. There are plenty of great passages, as one finds in Life and Fate

“He had slipped away, out of people’s minds, out of cold hearts and warm hearts alike. He existed in secret, finding it ever harder to appear in the memories of those who had known him.

Time worked unhurriedly, conscientiously. First the man was expelled from life, to reside instead in people’s memories. Then he lost his right to residence in people’s memories, sinking down into their subconscious minds and jumping out at someone only occasionally, like a jack-in-the-box, frightening them with the unexpectedness of his sudden, momentary appearances.” (Ch.3) 

(translated by Robert Chandler) 

This is Ivan Grigoryevich thinking about his childhood, thinking about an area once occupied by the Circassians and now left to rot after they’re gone: 

“Here in the forest lay sullen, soot-blackened stones that were the remains of ruined hearths; in abandoned cemeteries were dark headstones that had already half sunk into the ground.

Everything inanimate—stones, iron—was being swallowed by the earth, dissolving into it with the years, while green, vegetable life, in contrast, was bursting up from the earth. The boy found the silence over the cold hearths especially painful.” (Ch.5) 

Ivan Grigoryevich wanders around Leningrad, looking at the changes and thinking about the past, and visits the Hermitage: 

“He visited the Hermitage—to find that it left him cold and bored. How could all those paintings have remained as beautiful as ever while he was being transformed into an old man, an old man from the camps? Why had they not changed? Why had the faces of the marvelous Madonnas not aged? How come their eyes had not been blinded by tears? Maybe their immutability—their eternity—was not a strength but a weakness? Perhaps this was how art betrays the human beings that have engendered it?” (Ch.6)

The writing, as you can see, isn’t dry. 

In Everything Flows, Vasily Grossman writes about the gulag, the Soviet system, the Holodomor (the famine caused by the Soviet government that killed millions of Ukrainians); he writes about tyranny, moral compromise, and guilt; he also dissects Lenin, Stalin, Russian history, and “Russian national character”. Some people may complain that it’s an unbalanced book, but it feels like a book that the author had to write—it takes such a form because the author had to write down the story and his ideas, his thoughts in such a way.

And it’s a book that stays with you. The chapters about the women’s camp and about the Holodomor are some of the most powerful and haunting chapters I have ever read. 

Here’s a sample:

““… As for the children—did you see the newspaper photographs of children from the German camps? They looked just the same: heads heavy as cannonballs; thin little necks, like the necks of storks; and on their arms and legs you could see every little bone. Every single little bone moving under their skin, and the joints between them. And draped over their skeletons was a kind of yellow gauze. And the children’s faces looked old and tormented—it was as if they’d been on this earth for seventy years. By the spring they no longer had faces at all. Some had the heads of birds, with a little beak; some had the heads of frogs, with thin wide lips; some looked like little gudgeons, with wide-open mouths. Nonhuman faces. And their eyes! Dear God! Comrade Stalin, by God, did you see those eyes?”” (Ch.14) 

But Everything Flows isn’t just a document from a journalist—Vasily Grossman is a novelist—he imagines what it feels like for a woman in a camp as she finally realises she will never see her husband and daughter again, or for a woman who has believed in the system but now sees people in Ukraine left to starve to death simply because they didn’t fulfil the quota dictated by the government. 

It is a very good book, a book I think everyone should read, especially now with the Ukraine war going on. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Life and Fate: P.3, Ch.28-61, control, hunger, final thoughts

1/ Viktor, who isn’t prominent in Part 1, becomes the main character in Parts 2 and 3.

In some ways he’s a type, so that we know what it feels like to live in a society where the government tries to control not only the actions but also the thoughts of its citizens, what it feels like to make significant contribution to one’s field only to be on the verge of losing everything over a trifle, what it feels like to live in constant fear and paranoia and be betrayed by one’s friends and colleagues. What saves Viktor from being merely a type is his marriage troubles and his love for Marya Ivanovna. These feelings give him more conflicts, and more dimensions. 

I also like the parallels between Viktor and Krymov. Whilst Viktor, during his downfall, thinks about all the conversations he has had, all the blunders he may have made, all the people who may have informed on him, Krymov discovers that nothing he does escapes the state: 

“An hour before, he had thought that his investigator knew nothing about him, that he had recently been promoted from some village. But time passed and the investigator kept on asking questions about the foreign Communists who had been Krymov’s comrades; he knew the familiar forms of their forenames, their nicknames, the names of their wives and lovers. There was something sinister in the extent of his knowledge. Even if Krymov had been a very great man, whose every word was important to history, it would still not have been worth gathering so many trifles, so much junk, into this great file.

[…] A mocking remark he had made about one of his comrades, a word or two about a book he had read, a comic toast he had made on someone’s birthday, a three-minute telephone conversation, an angry note he had addressed to the platform at a conference – everything had been gathered together into the file.” (P.3, ch.42) 

The interrogation scene is brilliant, especially when the investigator has a phone call with his wife in front of Krymov:

“There was something improbable about how very bourgeois and ordinary it all was: the more normal, the more human the conversation, the less the speaker seemed like a human being. There’s something ghastly about a monkey imitating the ways of a man . . . At the same time Krymov had a clear sense that he himself was no longer a human being – when had people ever had conversations like this in front of a third person . . . ? ‘Want a big fat kiss? No? Oh well . . .’” (ibid.) 

In an earlier blog post about Part 2, I mentioned Grossman arguing about free will. But in Part 3, he shows what tyranny does to a person.  

“Who else had signed the letter? […] He wanted to hide behind someone’s back. But it had been impossible for him to refuse. It would have been suicide. Nonsense, he could easily have refused. No, he had done the right thing. But then, no one had threatened him. It would have been all right if he had signed out of a feeling of animal fear. But he hadn’t signed out of fear. He had signed out of an obscure, almost nauseous, feeling of submissiveness.” (P.3, ch.54) 

I have seen many Westerners claim that they would have stood up against Nazis or slavery or tyranny, had they lived in such societies, but would they, really?   


2/ Vasily Grossman is very good at showing how hunger reduces all human beings to beasts. 

“All they ever spoke of was food and material things; the world they lived in had room only for objects. There were no human feelings in this world – nothing but boards, paint, millet, buckwheat, thirty-rouble notes. They were hard-working, honest people; the neighbours all said that neither of them would ever take a penny that didn’t belong to them. But somehow they were quite untouched by the wounded in hospital, by blind veterans, by homeless children on the streets, by the Volga famine of 1921.” (P.3, ch.30) 

These are the people who live in the same house with Alexandra Vladimirovna, mother of Lyudmila and Yevgenia. The whole chapter is excellent.

This is Stumpfe, a German soldier: 

“An enormous man with a vast appetite, he suffered more acutely from hunger than anyone else in the company. His constant hunger drove him out foraging early in the morning. He dug about in the ruins, begged, gathered up crumbs, hung around outside the kitchen. Bach had grown used to his tense, watchful face. Stumpfe thought about food incessantly; he searched for it even when they were fighting.” (P.3, ch.37) 

Grossman in fact writes a long passage about hunger: 

“Molecule by molecule, hunger squeezes out the fats and proteins from each cell. Hunger softens the bones, twists the legs of children with rickets, thins the blood, stiffens the muscles, makes the head spin, gnaws at the nerves. Hunger weighs down the soul, drives away joy and faith, destroys thought and engenders submissiveness, base cruelty, indifference and despair.

All that is human in a man can perish. He can turn into a savage animal that murders, commits acts of cannibalism and eats corpses.” (P.2, ch.50) 

That is a great passage. 

“Potato peelings, dogs, young frogs, snails, rotten cabbage leaves, stale beet, decayed horse-meat, cat-meat, the flesh of crows and jackdaws, damp rotting grain, leather from belts and shoes, glue, earth impregnated with slops from the officers’ kitchen – all this is food.” (ibid.) 


3/ How strange that I come across this passage at this time: 

“He had lived without her before. He could get over it! In a year or so he’d be able to walk straight past her without his heart so much as missing a beat. He needed her as much as a drunk needs a cork! But he understood all too quickly how vain these thoughts were. How can you tear something out of your heart? Your heart isn’t made out of paper and your life isn’t written down in ink. You can’t erase the imprint of years.

He had allowed her to share in his thoughts, in his work, in his troubles. He had allowed her to witness his strengths and his weaknesses . . .” (P.3, ch.50) 

You can’t accuse me of spoilers because I’m not saying who he and she are.

I like this passage about Viktor: 

“He felt quite shaken by the look on Lyudmila’s face. It was a look of utter exhaustion, touching helplessness, and shame – both on his behalf and on her own. On his way down the stairs, he thought that, if he were to break with Lyudmila and never see her again, he would remember that look until his dying day. He realized that something very important had just happened: his wife had informed him that she knew of his love for Marya Ivanovna and he had confirmed it.” (P.3, ch.53) 

These days I keep thinking about the same things: how do people fall in love? why do they fall out of love? why did Viktor fall for Lyudmila before that he now no longer loves her? 


4/ Life and Fate has a thesis about “senseless kindness”, written by Ikonnikov: 

“The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good.

[…] Even at the most terrible times, through all the mad acts carried out in the name of Universal Good and the glory of States, times when people were tossed about like branches in the wind, filling ditches and gullies like stones in an avalanche – even then this senseless, pathetic kindness remained scattered throughout life like atoms of radium.” (P.2, ch.15) 

Ikonnikov is the holy fool in the camp, who used to believe in God and used to be a Tolstoyan. 

“My faith has been tempered in Hell. My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” (ibid.)

This is a piece by Ikonnikov, but Vasily Grossman demonstrates it over and over again throughout the novel: in battlefields, in the camps, on the way to a gas chamber… One of the memorable examples of kindness is Sofya Levinton’s love for the boy David. Another one, which I think will stay with me, is when a Russian woman gets to her feet and strides towards some German prisoner as though to attack him and “[n]ot understanding what was happening to her, governed by a power she had just now seemed to control”, gives him a piece of bread.

Amidst all the horrors, all the cruelty and madness, there’s kindness, there’s hope, there’s resilience.

And in the final chapters of the book, the central idea is clear: we must live; life must go on. 


I have now finished reading Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (translated by Robert Chandler), after nearly a month.

It is a very good book, a very humane book. Despite having lived through and depicted some of the worst horrors of the 20th century, Vasily Grossman believed in dignity and strength and resilience and human kindness.

It’s a novel everyone should read. 

Saturday, 31 December 2022

Life and Fate: P.3, Ch.1-27, the hare, marriages

1/ Krymov, Yevgenia’s former husband, the fanatical communist who has no sympathy for “enemies of the people”, is now arrested and put in the Lubyanka. But for now, I don’t want to write about totalitarianism. 

Life and Fate isn’t only about ideas and politics. There are interesting images, like this: 

“The second was an old man. His hands were as white as paper, his skull was bald and gaunt, and his face was like a metal bas-relief. What flowed in his veins and arteries might have been snow rather than blood.” (P.3, ch.4) 

The man is called Dreling and he’s one of Krymov’s cellmates. 

“Not only his forehead, but his whole skull, his nose, his hands looked as if they had been carved from white bone. Even his words had a bony ring to them.” (P.3, ch.6) 

Vasily Grossman also includes details which almost seem irrelevant but which give life to a scene. For example: 

“Krymov was then transferred to the solitary cell. In the semi-darkness he made out a pot on the table. Next to it he could feel a hare moulded from the soft inside of a loaf of bread. The condemned man must have just put it down – it was still soft. Only the hare’s ears had had time to grow stale.” (P.3, ch.3) 

That’s a nice touch. And we see it again: 

“At dawn Krymov was taken back to the solitary cell. The hare was still standing beside the pot; its skin was now hard and rough.” (ibid.) 

This is the kind of detail one finds in Tolstoy and Chekhov. But Grossman doesn’t stop there. 

“‘We’ve all become as timid as hares,’ whispered Krymov’s neighbour. ‘It’s like in a fairy-tale. A sorcerer touches someone – and suddenly he grows the ears of a hare.’” (P.3, ch.4) 

The hare image reappears, but now as a metaphor. 

“… ‘But that’s all finished with,’ whispered Bogoleev. ‘Now I’m just a timid little hare.’” (ibid.) 

Life and Fate is translated by Robert Chandler. 


2/ Frankly, I don’t have much sympathy for Krymov. He supports the regime, he supports the collectivisation and the gulags, he supports the persecution of anyone seen as an enemy of the people—he supports it all unquestioningly, fanatically and never doubts, never reflects, never has sympathy for anyone until he himself falls victim to tyranny. 

But Vasily Grossman isn’t me. He depicts Krymov without judgment. 

“Why was he so appalled now by the word ‘denunciation’? Just because he himself was in prison as a result of a denunciation? He himself had received political reports from his informers in the ranks. The usual thing. The usual denunciations. […] 

Yes, Krymov had been a poor defender of his friends – even if he had hated these affairs, even if he had been afraid of them, even if he had done all he could not to get entangled in them. What was he getting so worked up about now? What did he want? Did he want the duty-officers in the Lubyanka to know about his loneliness? Did he want his investigators to commiserate with him about being abandoned by the woman he loved? Did he expect them to take into consideration that he called out for her at night, that he had bitten his hand, that his mother had called him Nikolenka?” (P.3, ch.6) 

Vasily Grossman has compassion for him, as he does for all of his characters in Life and Fate. He gives us access to Krymov’s thoughts, and also lets us see him through the eyes of Yevgenia: 

“She didn’t think she loved him. But is it possible to think so incessantly of someone you don’t love? […]

She no longer remembered his fanaticism, his lack of concern over people who had been arrested, the anger and hatred in his voice when he had talked about the kulaks. Now she only remembered his good side; she only remembered what was sad, touching and romantic about him. It was his weakness that gave him power over her. There had always been something helpless in the way he smiled, his movements were awkward and his eyes were those of a child.” (P.3, ch.22) 

I think Yevgenia’s relationship with her former husband Krymov and with her current lover Novikov is one of the best parts of Life and Fate. The book isn’t just about war and politics and totalitarianism. There’s also love and heartbreak and longing and anguish. There’s also an interesting contrast: Lyudmila and Viktor still live together but emotionally have drifted apart, whereas Yevgenia has left Krymov but they still think about each other all the time. 

I like the conversation between Lyudmila and Yevgenia, about Krymov, especially when Yevgenia, in a moment of anger, blurts out something hurtful to her sister. It reminds me of a quarrel between Kitty and Dolly in Anna Karenina.

I would say that Lyudmila is probably the most well-delineated character in the book. The other characters can generally be seen as types: fanatical communist or dissident or holy fool or “out-of-step” artist or semi-literate bureaucrat or fearful intellectual, and so on and so forth, but Lyudmila isn’t a type. I can see her. 

“‘But your Nikolay was so harsh. He was quite ruthless at the time of general collectivization. I remember asking what on earth was happening. And he just said: “The kulaks can go to the devil for all I care.” He had a lot of influence on Viktor.’

‘Lyuda,’ said Yevgenia, a reproachful note in her voice, ‘you remember only the worst about people and you always bring it up at the wrong moment.’

‘What do you expect of me? I’ve always been one to call a spade a spade.’

‘Fine,’ said Yevgenia, ‘but don’t imagine that’s always a virtue.’” (ibid.)

I can see her. Lyudmila always says the wrong things. That’s just how she is, she isn’t a type. And even though she always says the wrong things, especially to her husband, Vasily Grossman gets us to sympathise with her, to feel for her. 

“No one saw her crying there in the darkness. Yes, yes, she was callous; she had forgotten everything she had ever learnt; she was useless; no one would ever find her attractive again; she had grown fat; she had grey hair and high blood pressure; her husband no longer loved her and thought she was heartless. But if only Tolya were still alive! She was ready to admit everything, to confess to all the faults her family accused her of – if only he were still alive!” (P.1, ch.26) 


3/ The debates in Life and Fate are always fascinating. Viktor raises some good questions when he’s talking to Chepyzhin, who earlier resigned from the Institute: 

“‘… You say man will be able to look down on God – but what if he also becomes able to look down on the Devil? What if he eventually surpasses him? […] Do you think this man of the future will surpass Christ in his goodness? That’s the real question. How will the power of this omnipresent and omniscient being benefit the world if he is still endowed with our own fatuous self-assurance and animal egotism? […] What I want to know is – do you believe in the evolution of kindness, morality, mercy? Is man capable of evolving in that way?’” (P.3, ch.24) 

Do you? 


4/ I don’t have much to say about Viktor’s downfall at the Institute. But I do like Vasily Grossman’s depiction of Viktor’s love for Marya Ivanovna and his increasingly strained relationship with Sokolov. Viktor suffers from two kinds of loneliness at the same time: the loneliness of a man betrayed by the State and by his friends and colleagues, and the loneliness of a man who feels estranged from his own wife and loves a friend’s wife. 

“One thing was plain: he had lost his peace of mind for ever. Whatever happened, he would never know peace. Whether he hid his love for the woman beside him or whether it became his destiny, he would not know peace. Whether he was with her, feeling guilty, or whether he was apart from her, aching for her, he would have no peace.” (P.3, ch.26) 

The entire chapter is wonderful. 

“She got up from the bench and walked away without looking back. He sat there, thinking that for the first time in his life he had seen happiness, light – and now it had left him. This woman whose fingers he had just kissed could have replaced everything he had ever wanted, everything he had dreamed of – science, fame, the joy of recognition . . .” (ibid.) 

It feels Chekhovian. 



Happy New Year, everyone. Wishing you all peace and happiness.

Thursday, 29 December 2022

Brief thoughts on War and Peace (1972), starring Anthony Hopkins

This is without doubt the best Tolstoy adaptation I have seen so far.

I know some people now would complain that the series is too stagey and too slow-paced, but with 20 episodes, it has enough time to develop the characters and each scene has the right pace, allowing the characters to talk, to think, to feel, to interact with each other, to react to each other. There are no quick cuts, no random camera movements, no foolish fear of boring the audience.

The series is clearly made by people who understood Tolstoy’s novel, especially the screenwriter Jack Pulman. They keep the philosophy, they keep the thinking and talking, and above all, they get almost all characters just right. At first, the actors don’t quite look like the images I have in my head—how could they?—but they have the qualities of the characters.

The Rostovs for example are careless, squandering money away, but they have the love and warmth as Tolstoy describes in the book. Faith Brook is especially good as Countess Rostova: she can be foolish, she can be unreasonable, she can be cruel to Sonya and Nikolai, but we understand her and can’t help loving her. Rupert Davies and Joanna David are also good as Count Rostov and Sonya respectively, and Sylvester Morand, albeit a bit too old, portrays well the naïve idealism and noble character of Nikolai.

The Bolkonskys are, in a way, harder to get right. Angela Down is good as Marya, but I think it’s harder to nail the old Prince Bolkonsky and Andrei. Why do we love them, when the old Prince is an eccentric who can be unreasonable and likes to torment Marya, and Andrei can be cold and cruel towards his wife? I don’t know how Tolstoy does it in War and Peace. But I think Anthony Jacobs and Alan Dobie both get the Bolkonskys right. Alan Dobie’s Andrei, as in the book, a tragic figure.

I also like David Swift as Napoleon, and Donald Burton as Dolokhov and Neil Stacy as Boris are excellent. Boris Drubetskoy loses quite a bit because naturally many things must be cut when such a long book is adapted for the screen, but Neil Stacy does look right as the oily, opportunistic, and calculating Boris. He is more memorable than Colin Baker as Anatole, though to be fair, neither Colin Baker nor Fiona Gaunt has much to do as Anatole and Hélène. Donald Burton has room to develop as Dolokhov however, and he’s just right.

And Anthony Hopkins? He is Pierre. He is Tolstoy’s Pierre.

My only complaint about the series is that Morag Hood is dreadful as Natasha. It is such a pity because everyone else is good, so perfect in their role. Charm is something you either have or you don’t, you can’t act it, and Morag Hood doesn’t know what to do about Natasha so she tries to convey exuberance and vivacity by jumping up and down and putting on a childlike voice. A viewer who hasn’t read the book wouldn’t understand why both Pierre and Andrei love her, wouldn’t understand why Natasha is one of the most beloved characters in fiction.

But that’s my only complaint. The series is made by people who understand and respect the text, and respect the audience.

It really is the best Tolstoy adaptation I have seen. 


PS: See my blog posts about my rereading of War and Peace.

See my blog post about the 2013 Anna Karenina, starring Vittoria Puccini. 

PPS: I did not realise this post was published 2 days before his birthday. Happy birthday, Anthony Hopkins! Wonderful actor.

Wednesday, 28 December 2022

Life and Fate: P.2, Ch.32-63, free will, the questionnaire

1/ In the previous blog post, I had some complaint about Vasily Grossman’s depiction of German/ Nazi characters. As anyone who reads this blog regularly may expect, I have modified my opinion.

I’m still unsure about the character of Liss and his conversation with Mostovskoy, but later on Vasily Grossman gives us some sketches of a few men operating the gas chambers, and does so with such humanity. Having lost his own mother to the Nazis, he doesn’t see them all as heartless monsters. And the characters he depicts are all different.

“What did it matter what the two of them felt? If the job they did was the same, what did it matter if one felt happy and the other felt sad?” (P.2, ch.42)

From the portrayals of a few individuals, Grossman then raises bigger questions about the Holocaust, and about human beings and life in general. There’s a passage that seems to be a response to Tolstoy’s ideas in War and Peace

“If, on the day of judgment, Kaltluft had been called upon to justify himself, he could have explained quite truthfully how fate had led him to become the executioner of 590,000 people. What else could he have done in the face of such powerful forces – the war, fervent nationalism, the adamancy of the Party, the will of the State? How could he have swum against the current? He was a man like any other; all he had wanted was to live peacefully in his father’s house. He hadn’t walked – he had been pushed. Fate had led him by the hand . . .” (P.2, ch.43) 

Grossman goes on to argue against Tolstoy’s ideas: 

“There is divine judgment, there is the judgment of a State and the judgment of society, but there is one supreme judgment: the judgment of one sinner over another. A sinner can measure the power of the totalitarian State and find it limitless: through propaganda, hunger, loneliness, infamy, obscurity, labour camps and the threat of death, this terrible power can fetter a man’s will. But every step that a man takes under the threat of poverty, hunger, labour camps and death is at the same time an expression of his own will. Every step Kaltluft had taken – from the village to the trenches, from being a man-in-the-street to being a member of the National Socialist Party – bore the imprint of his will. A man may be led by fate, but he can refuse to follow. He may be a mere tool in the hands of destructive powers, but he knows it is in his interest to assent to this. Fate and the individual may have different ends, but they share the same path.” (ibid.)

The word “fate” from the title recurs throughout the novel, but now Vasily Grossman discusses the concept at length.

Personally I’m very curious about what Tolstoy would have thought about history, humanity, and free will, had he lived in the 20th century and seen what Vasily Grossman saw. The evils of the 20th century were much greater, much more horrible than anything he could have imagined.


2/ This is an interesting thought:  

“Before the war Sofya Levinton had once said to Yevgenia Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova, ‘If one man is fated to be killed by another, it would be interesting to trace the gradual convergence of their paths. At the start they might be miles away from one another – I might be in Pamir picking alpine roses and clicking my camera, while this other man, my death, might be eight thousand miles away, fishing for ruff in a little stream after school. I might be getting ready to go to a concert and he might be at the railway station buying a ticket to go and visit his mother-in-law – and yet eventually we are bound to meet, we can’t avoid it . . .’” (P.2, ch.47) 

In Part 1, we saw Sofya Levinton and the boy David and many other characters on the way to the extermination camp. In these chapters, they enter the gas chamber, and Vasily Grossman takes us into the gas chamber with them—till the very last moment. He doesn’t hold back. 

These are some of the bleakest, most haunting chapters in fiction, especially the relationship between Sofya Levinton and the boy.

“… with an intensity that burnt her fifty-year-old heart, she had felt ready to give up everything if only in some shabby, dark, low-ceilinged room she could be hugged by the arms of a child.

She had always loved children, but little David evoked some special tenderness in her that she had never felt before. In the goods-wagon she had given him some bread and he had turned his little face towards her in the half-light; she had wanted to weep, to hug him, to smother him with kisses like a mother kissing her child. In a whisper that no one else could hear, she had said:

‘Eat, my son, eat.’” (P.2, ch.46) 


3/ Here are some interesting images:   

“The transformers were still smoking. Little fangs of flame were playing lazily about them.” (P.2, ch.38) 

“The dim flames served more to obscure the way than to illuminate it. They seemed to be coming from the depths of the earth; or perhaps the earth itself had caught fire – the low flames were certainly heavy and damp enough.” (ibid.) 


4/ One of the depressing things about reading Life and Fate is seeing parallels not only between Soviet society and Vietnamese society under the communists, but also between Soviet practices and some aspects of life in the West now. 

For example, Viktor Shtrum has to complete a questionnaire. 

“The State was not concerned about the adequacy of Viktor’s mathematical equipment or the appropriateness of the laboratory apparatus for the complex experiments he was conducting; the State didn’t want to know whether the staff were properly protected from neutron radiation, whether Sokolov and Shtrum had a good working relationship, whether the junior researchers had received adequate training for their exhausting calculations…” (P.2, ch.43)

Instead, Viktor gets asked about his place of birth, his nationality, his social origin, his social position; he gets asked whether his relatives or his wife’s relatives have ever been arrested; he gets asked whether he has relatives living abroad and whether he keeps in touch with them, and so on and so forth. 

But why?

“It was all the same to him whether his future colleague was a Russian, a Jew, a Ukrainian or an Armenian, whether his grandfather had been a worker, a factory-owner or a kulak; his relationship with him would not depend on whether or not his brother had been arrested by the organs of the NKVD; it didn’t matter to him whether his future colleague’s sister lived in Geneva or Kostroma.” (ibid.)

I don’t need to say that the same thing happened in North Vietnam, and then in all of Vietnam after 1975. But I also see some parallels between that and the UK now: to apply for jobs in certain fields here (such as film and TV, journalism, university…), I get asked about my nationality and ethnicity; about my sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pronouns; about my religious views; I get asked whether I’m disabled; where I went to school; what professions my parents had when I was growing up…

Most of the time they state that it’s for equality monitoring, but sometimes my job applications ask if I’m happy to share these details with the hiring managers, and very often employers openly say they prioritise candidates from underrepresented groups. 

I’m with Viktor/ Vasily Grossman: 

“He would ask at what age someone had first become interested in theoretical physics, what he thought of the criticisms Einstein had made of Planck when the latter was an old man, whether he was interested only in mathematical theory or whether he also enjoyed experimental work, what he thought of Heisenberg, did he believe in the possibility of a unified field theory? What mattered was talent, fire, the divine spark . . .

He would like to know – but only if his future colleague were happy to say – whether he enjoyed long walks, whether he drank wine, whether he went to orchestral concerts, whether he liked Seton Thompson’s children’s books, whether he felt more drawn to Tolstoy or to Dostoyevsky, whether he enjoyed gardening, whether he went fishing, what he thought of Picasso, which was his favourite story of Chekhov’s.” (ibid.) 


5/ I do think Grossman’s depiction of the rift between Viktor and his wife Lyudmila is very good. Viktor finds more understanding and sympathy in Marya Ivanovna, the wife of his friend Sokolov, than in his own wife. There are a few scenes where Viktor and Lyudmila are talking to each other but each follows a different train of thought, and they both know they have drifted apart and it will never be the same, with Viktor blaming Lyumila for pushing away his mother and her blaming him for being hard on her son Tolya.

The depiction of Viktor’s feelings for his friend’s wife is also very good. 

At some point I should perhaps write about the relationship between Yevgenia and her former husband Krymov. 

Saturday, 24 December 2022

Life and Fate: P.2, Ch.1-31, the Nazis, Viktor

1/ There’s been something before, but in this part, Vasily Grossman writes more about the environment of deep distrust and paranoia (is this one a saboteur? is that one an informer?) and the culture of fear in the Soviet Union.

The quarrel between Viktor Shtrum and his daughter Nadya, as she points out his fear and hypocrisy, is an excellent scene.  

“The air was thick and heavy, almost unbreathable. Everything that lies half-buried in almost every family, stirring up now and then only to be smoothed over by love and trust, had now come to the surface. There it had spread out to fill their lives. It was as though there were nothing between father, mother and daughter save misunderstanding, suspiciousness, resentment and anger.

Had their common fate really engendered nothing but mistrust and alienation?” (P.2, ch.9) 

I find it interesting that he portrays Viktor as being scared and trying to deceive himself, to shield himself from the truth—Viktor I’ve been told is a self-insertion, like Tolstoy’s Pierre and Levin—was Grossman like this?

I also like the scene where Novikov, Lyudmila’s lover, is talking to Getmanov and blurts out something he’s not supposed to say—especially not to someone like Getmanov. On the scene level, Grossman is very good. 


2/ In this part, we get to see some German characters.

The scenes of the German soldiers in the hospital are perfectly fine, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something false, something unnatural in Peter Bach’s thoughts about Hitler and Nazism, and in the conversation between Mostovskoy (an Old Bolshevik and a prisoner in the concentration camp) and Liss (an SS representative on the camp administration). I think Grossman successfully depicts a wide range of views in Soviet society—Bolshevik, Menshevik, “good communist”, dissident, and so on—but when he tries to get in the head of a Nazi, it sometimes comes across as not very convincing. 

For example: 

“Liss looked at him and pursed his lips.

‘Do you think the world looks on us with horror and on you with hope and love?’ he asked. ‘No, the world looks on us both with the same horror!’” (P.2, ch.14) 

That is the conversation between Liss and Mostovskoy. 

“‘[…] What is the reason for our enmity? I can’t understand . . . Is it that the Führer is a mere lackey of Stinnes and Krupp? That there’s no private property in your country? That your banks and factories belong to the people? That you’re internationalists and we’re preachers of racial hatred? That we set things on fire and you extinguish the flames? That the world hates us – and that its hopes are centred on Stalingrad? Is that what you people say . . . ? Nonsense! There is no divide. It’s just been dreamed up. In essence we are the same – both one-party States. Our capitalists are not the masters. The State gives them their plan. The State takes their profit and all they produce. As their salary they keep six per cent of the profit. Your State also outlines a plan and takes what is produced for itself. And the people you call masters – the workers – also receive a salary from your one-party State.’” (ibid.)

I don’t buy that. It sounds false, coming from an SS officer.

The thoughts of Eichmann, a Nazi we later see, are more convincing:

“The owners and directors of the different firms and offices informed him that the post had already, unfortunately, been filled – and then Eichmann would hear on the grapevine that the job had been given to some putrid little man of obscure nationality, a Pole perhaps, or an Italian. He had wanted to enter Berlin University, but the same discrimination had prevented his application from being accepted. He had felt the examiners lose interest the moment they set eyes on his full face, his blond crew-cut, his short straight nose, his light-coloured eyes. They seemed interested only in people with long faces, dark eyes, narrow shoulders and hunched backs – in degenerates. Nor had he been alone in being rejected by the capital; it had been the fate of many.” (P.2, ch.29)


3/ Reviews of Life and Fate tend to focus heavily on the context of the book, the important historical events and social issues it covers, and Vasily Grossman’s ideas about the individual, creating the impression that the writing itself is boring and bland, but the descriptions are good and once in a while I come across an interesting sentence.

For example:

“Life went on like an iceberg floating through the sea: the underwater part, gliding through the cold and the darkness, supported the upper part, which reflected the waves, breathed, listened to the water splashing . . .” (P.1, ch.62) 

I like this: 

“Krymov slid down to the bottom of a bomb-crater and looked up: the blue sky was still over his head and his head was still on his shoulders. It was very strange; the only sign of other human beings was the singing and screaming death that came flying over his head from both sides. It was equally strange to feel so protected in this crater that had been dug out by the spade of death.” (P.2, ch.19) 

I especially like “the singing and screaming death”. 

This is an unusual image: 

“It began to get light, but not over the factory . . . It was as though the earth itself were belching out black dust, smoke, thunder, lightning . . .” (P.2, ch.22)

The entire scene is so good—Vasily Grossman makes you see and feel everything that is happening, he makes you feel as though you’re there. 

“Time no longer flowed evenly. It had gone insane, tearing forward like a shock-wave, then suddenly congealing, turning back on itself like the horns of a ram.” (ibid.) 

Sometimes Grossman may describe a character and the image jumps out at you: 

“[Suslakov] had the tired face of a man who works at night and his cheeks seemed to have been kneaded from grey dough.” (P.2, ch.25) 

Life and Fate is translated by Robert Chandler. 


4/ In my previous blog post, I wrote that the main characters of the novel, meaning the Shaposhnikovs and Viktor Shtrum (married to Lyudmila Shaposhnikova), felt like supporting characters.

In Part 1, which is more than 1/3 of the book, the Shaposhnikovs are not particularly more prominent than other characters—Grossman does include a long letter from Viktor’s mother and write at length about Lyudmila’s grief and Yevgenia’s struggle with the bureaucrats—but they’re absent for such long sections that they don’t feel central. Viktor especially is barely there in Part 1.

Then at the end of Part 1, he makes an important discovery at work, and in Part 2 becomes more prominent in the story, as he and his colleagues and their families return to Moscow from Kazan and Grossman writes more about Viktor’s work. Now we know more of Viktor’s thoughts: about work, about politics seeping into his lab, about fear and submission, about his friends and colleagues, about Lyudmila, about his marriage, about Sokolov’s wife Marya Ivanovna, and so on. 

But I still feel like Viktor isn’t an interesting character in his own right, with (the illusion of) an independent existence, with his own thoughts and feelings. I still feel like he’s a character created so we know what it feels like to be a Jewish physicist under Stalin’s regime, what it feels like to live in a society where the totalitarian regime controls all aspects of life and everyone can denounce anyone and everyone submits out of fear.

All these themes are important and the way Vasily Grossman handles them is very good, I just wish Victor were more interesting and compelling as a character.


I haven’t written much, as I’ve been having an awfully sad Christmas.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas though.