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. 

Sunday 18 December 2022

Life and Fate: P.1, Ch.43-71, War and Peace, ideas, the novel’s power

 1/ Life and Fate is even more closely modelled on War and Peace than I thought. 

Like Tolstoy’s book, Vasily Grossman’s book has a large canvas, painting a picture of the entire society in a particular period of history. Like Tolstoy’s book, Grossman’s book depicts a big war in which Russia’s invaded. Like Tolstoy’s book, Grossman’s book has hundreds of characters—War and Peace has 4 families (the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and the Drubetskoys) in the centre, reviews say Life and Fate has the Shaposhnikovs in the centre though right now they also seem like supporting characters to me. 

More interestingly, Life and Fate also has some essays, interrupting the narrative—perhaps not as often, perhaps not as long as in War and Peace, I cannot say—but they are there. And within the narrative itself, Vasily Grossman often includes a line or two about fascism, totalitarianism, or human nature. 

One of the questions which bothered Tolstoy and which he explored in War and Peace was why millions of people went to war and killed each other. 

“… to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.” (Vol.2, P.1, ch.1)

(translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude, revised by Amy Mandelker) 

Vasily Grossman also had questions he wanted to examine in his own novel, and his questions were much more horrible. 

“… when people are to be slaughtered en masse, the local population is not immediately gripped by a bloodthirsty hatred of the old men, women and children who are to be destroyed. It is necessary to prepare the population by means of a special campaign. And in this case it is not enough to rely merely on the instinct for self-preservation; it is necessary to stir up feelings of real hatred and revulsion.

It was in such an atmosphere that the Germans carried out the extermination of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian Jews. And at an earlier date, in the same regions, Stalin himself had mobilized the fury of the masses, whipping it up to the point of frenzy during the campaigns to liquidate the kulaks as a class and during the extermination of Trotskyist–Bukharinite degenerates and saboteurs.” (P.1, ch.50)

(translated by Robert Chandler) 

These things are much more horrible to contemplate, much more difficult to understand. 

“… And it wasn’t merely tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, but hundreds of millions of people who were the obedient witnesses of this slaughter of the innocent. Nor were they merely obedient witnesses: when ordered to, they gave their support to this slaughter, voting in favour of it amid a hubbub of voices. There was something unexpected in the degree of their obedience.” (ibid.) 

Vasily Grossman doesn’t just depict the horrors of the 20th century—he raises questions and tries to find the answers. 

“The violence of a totalitarian State is so great as to be no longer a means to an end; it becomes an object of mystical worship and adoration. How else can one explain the way certain intelligent, thinking Jews declared the slaughter of the Jews to be necessary for the happiness of mankind? That in view of this they were ready to take their own children to be executed – ready to carry out the sacrifice once demanded of Abraham? How else can one explain the case of a gifted, intelligent poet, himself a peasant by birth, who with sincere conviction wrote a long poem celebrating the terrible years of suffering undergone by the peasantry, years that had swallowed up his own father, an honest and simple-hearted labourer?” (ibid.) 

He is deliberately drawing comparisons between Nazism and communism. But Life and Fate is not only about fascism or communism or the 20th century, but about the poison of ideology and the destruction of totalitarianism in general. 

“Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.” (P.1, ch.53) 

You can tell what Vasily Grossman would think about identity politics, were he alive today. 

2/ This is Sofya Osipovna Levinton, on the way to gas chamber: 

“She realized with surprise that although the process of evolution had taken millions of years, these people had needed only a few days to revert to the state of cattle, dirty and unhappy, captive and nameless . . .” (P.1, ch.43)  

Life and Fate stirs strong emotions in the reader. 

“As she listened to people’s cries and mutterings, she realized that their heads were filled with painfully vivid images that no words could ever convey. How could these images be preserved, how could they be fixed – in case men remained alive on earth and wanted to find out what had happened?” (ibid.)

These chapters are haunting. Grossman doesn’t hold back.  

3/ One complaint I do have is that I can’t keep track of the characters very well—they’re not individualised enough.

Perhaps I’m spoilt, having read Tolstoy and Proust earlier this year. Perhaps I’m distracted by work and personal problems. But I do think that, even though a few characters stand out (such as Lyudmila, her sister Yevgenia, Lyudmila’s former husband Abarchuk, Getmanov…), the majority aren’t distinct enough: Vasily Grossman adds more details, more information over time but he has to move between different groups of people and the details aren’t striking, aren’t memorable enough so a lot of the characters, especially in the army scenes, get blurred together.

Somehow Life and Fate, despite the scope, doesn’t feel epic in the way that War and Peace is (or is it too early to say?). It feels more like a series of vignettes.

But many of the vignettes are very, very good. 

For example, in a scene, the Soviet soldiers are gleefully boasting about the Germans they have killed, and Krymov is listening:

“There was something terrible about the reports of these snipers. Krymov had always scorned lily-livered intellectuals, people like Shtrum and Yevgenia Nikolaevna who had made such a to-do over the fate of the kulaks. Referring to 1937, he had told Yevgenia: ‘There’s nothing wrong with liquidating our enemies; what’s terrible is when we shoot our own people.’

Now he felt like saying that he’d always, without the least hesitation, been ready to shoot White Guards, to exterminate Menshevik and SR scum, to liquidate the kulaks, that he had never felt the least pity for enemies of the Revolution, but that it was wrong to rejoice at the killing of German workers. There was something horrible about the way these soldiers talked – even though they knew very well what they were fighting for.” (P.1, ch.55) 

Krymov is Yevgenia’s former husband and he’s a fanatical communist. It’s an interesting moment because the soldiers only see people in terms of nationality, or side in a war, and Krymov only sees people in terms of class—neither see humanity, neither see the individual. But Grossman doesn’t comment on it, he presents the characters as they are, the way Chekhov would have done. 

The sequence about Katya, a young female radio operator entering a space full of lonely, desperate soldiers, is good. 

“She already knew who would start showing her letters and photographs tomorrow, who would look at her in silence and sigh, who would bring her a present of half a flask of water and some rusks of white bread, who would say he didn’t believe in women’s love and would never fall in love again . . . As for the bearded second lieutenant, he would probably start pawing her.” (P.1, ch.55) 

This is an interesting bit: 

“… But as [Grekov] looked at Katya’s thin little neck, at her lips, at her half-lowered eyelashes, he saw an all-too-vivid picture of a broken neck with pearly vertebrae poking out through lacerated skin, of two glassed-over, fish-like eyes, and of lips like grey, dusty rubber.

He was longing to seize hold of her, to feel her life and warmth while they were both alive, while this young being was still full of grace and charm. He thought it was just pity that made him want to embrace the girl – but does pity make your temples throb and your ears buzz?” (ibid.) 

Grekov is a captain, the “house manager” of house 6/1. 

I like the flirtation between Darensky and Alla Sergeyevna: 

“She said this very quietly, as if to let him know, or rather feel, how easily a conversation could develop between the two of them, a conversation that would send shivers up their spines, a conversation of the only kind that matters between a man and a woman.” (P.1, ch.66) 

I have no idea if and how it’s going to develop, but the episode feels very Chekhovian in its subtlety, its melancholy and inconclusiveness. 

Vasily Grossman is also very good at selecting striking images: 

“The day before, Klimov had left some dirty washing with an old woman who lived in a cellar together with her granddaughter and a goat; he had promised to come back for it later when it was ready. […] 

Klimov crawled through the ruins along paths known to him alone – only to find that the old woman’s dwelling had just been destroyed by a Russian bomb. There was nothing left of the old woman, her granddaughter or the goat – or of Klimov’s pants and shirt. All he found among the splintered beams and lumps of plaster was a kitten, covered with dirt. It was in a pitiful state, neither complaining nor asking for anything, evidently believing that life was always just a matter of noise, fire and hunger.” (P.1, ch.58) 


“He flung his thin arms around his son’s neck. There was such pain in this plea for help, such trust, that Yershov could find only one response: he burst into tears.

Soon afterwards they visited three graves. Yershov’s mother had died during the first winter, his elder sister Anyuta during the second winter, and Marusya during the third.

[… ] That night his father told his story. He spoke calmly and quietly. What he described could only be spoken about quietly; it could never be conveyed by tears or screams.” (P.1, ch.70) 

For context, Yershov’s father was denounced as a kulak and the family was sent to the Northern Urals. 

The power of Life and Fate, I think, lies in images like these. And the way they make us feel. 

4/ Grossman’s depiction of the relationship between Viktor and Lyudmila is very good. It’s related to a thought I’ve been having recently: each of us is so wrapped up in our own problems that we cannot understand other people, and we can never know what goes on in another person’s head. 

5/ As one may expect from a Russian-language novel, Life and Fate is filled with ideas and debates.

Chapter 63 has a long debate about the Soviet system, and includes a fantastic speech from Madyarov about freedom of the press. Chapter 64, following the same conversation, turns into a debate about 19th century Russian writers and their ideas, and Madyarov makes a superb speech about Chekhov. Here’s a snippet: 

“‘… He said – and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy – that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! He said something no one in Russia had ever said. He said that first of all we are human beings – and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers. Do you understand? Instead of saying that people are good or bad because they are bishops or workers, Tartars or Ukrainians, instead of this he said that people are equal because they are human beings. […] Chekhov said: let’s put God – and all these grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we’ll never get anywhere. That’s democracy, the still unrealized democracy of the Russian people…’” (P.1, ch.64) 

Life and Fate is compared to War and Peace because of its scope, but in terms of worldview and temperament, Vasily Grossman is closer to Chekhov. 

The Soviet system is again debated in chapter 67, between a Bolshevik (Mostovskoy) and a Menshevik (Chernetsov). Grossman goes even further, not only exposing that the Soviet system has been cruel and inhuman from the very beginning (not only from Stalin’s time as many foolish people now think), but also stressing the pact with Hitler and invasion of neighbouring countries. He’s a fearless, admirable man.  

Artistically Life and Fate cannot compare to War and Peace, but it has three advantages over Tolstoy’s book. One, because it’s more recent, the ideas and debates in it are of more interest (some people would say “more relevant”, but I don’t particularly like that word). Two, Grossman was a reporter and directly saw many things he wrote about; he also openly criticised the totalitarian regime he was living under. Three, even when a novelist withholds judgment and presents the characters as they are, we can still feel their personality, and Grossman has a much more pleasant, likable personality than Tolstoy. 

6/ Just so you don’t think Life and Fate is dry as dust, here’s a passage about the steppe: 

“… the boundary between air and earth, between water and salt, has been erased. The mind of a thirsty traveller can transform this world with ease: the scorching air becomes elegant, blueish stone; the lifeless earth is filled with the gentle murmur of streams; palm trees stretch out to the horizon and the terrible sun blends with the clouds of dust to form the golden cupolas of temples and palaces . . . In a moment of exhaustion, a man can transform this sky and this earth into the world of his dreams.

But there is another, unexpected side to the steppe. It is also a noble, ancient world; a world where there are no screaming colours or harsh lines, but only a sober grey-blue melancholy that can rival the colours of a Russian forest in autumn; a world whose soft undulating hills capture the heart more surely than the peaks of the Caucasus; a world whose small, dark, ancient lakes seem to express the very essence of water more truly than seas or oceans.

Everything passes; but there is no forgetting this huge, cast-iron sun shining through the evening mist, this bitter wind laden with the scent of wormwood . . .” (P.6, ch.66) 

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Life and Fate: P.1, Ch.26-42, language, a mother’s grief

1/ Each language—or your experience of each language—has its own associations. Two words that mean the same thing in different languages can never be completely the same. 

Reading Life and Fate in English (in Robert Chandler’s translation), I can’t help wondering how I would feel, were I to read it in a Vietnamese translation. Words such as “the Party”, “comrade”, or “bourgeois” may not evoke or provoke anything in English, but “Đảng”, “đồng chí”, or “tư sản” has lots of associations. I feel I’m at one remove from the Soviet slogans, rhetoric, and propaganda talking points in the novel as they’re filtered through English, but I know in Vietnamese they would make my skin crawl.

Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m reading it in English, the novel is already too relatable. 

(I actually have no idea if Life and Fate has been translated into Vietnamese—does anyone know?) 

Those of you who feel strongly about spoilers should be warned that I will discuss plot points in this blog post (but would you remember anything, in all honesty, unless you’re reading this book right now and/or have read Stalingrad?). 

2/ In my previous blog post, I wrote that Ikonnikov, after seeing the persecution of 20,000 Jews, “understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist”—is Vasily Grossman the same? 

“As she was dying, she had crawled up to Viktor and cried, staring at him with wide, bright eyes. But who was there in this vast empty sky, on this pitiless, dusty earth – who was there to beg or entreat?” (P.1, ch.20)

The image of the empty sky recurs later, when Lyudmila’s on the way to visit her son Tolya in the hospital. 

“During the night Lyudmila walked up and down the deck. The river looked icy cold and there was a pitiless wind blowing from downstream out of the darkness. Up above shone the stars; there was neither comfort nor peace in the cruel sky, the sky of ice and fire, that arched over her unhappy head.” (P.1, ch.26)

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, nor explain it, but there’s something about these passages that makes me think of Chekhov. 

3/ A prejudice one may have before picking up Life and Fate is that Vasily Grossman could just describe the horrific things he witnessed, as a WW2 reporter, a Jew, and a Soviet citizen, and it would already stir strong emotions. However, he’s better than that, and there’s lots of subtlety in the novel. 

“[Shimansky] felt sad about the dead lieutenant and sorry for his mother; for that very reason, he felt angry with both of them. What would happen to his nerves if he had to give interviews to every dead lieutenant’s mama?” (P.1, ch.30) 

Lyudmila’s meeting with the doctor is even more poignant. I especially like that Lyudmila notices his hands and thinks “they seemed to live a quite separate life from the man with mournful eyes”, then he takes his hands off the table, as though knowing her thoughts. It’s one of those irrational, seemingly trivial details that add life to a novel. 

“Everything he said, passionately though she had desired to hear it, had tortured and burnt her. But there was something else that had made the conversation difficult and painful: she sensed that the doctor had wanted this meeting not for her sake, but for his own. This made her feel a certain antagonism towards him.” (P.1, ch.31) 


“All Lyudmila’s requests were met with military precision and correctness. But she could feel that the commissar, the nurse and the commandant also wanted something from her, that they too wanted some word of consolation or forgiveness.” (ibid.) 

That is so good. Grossman moves between the grieving mother’s perspective and other characters’. 

“… the sergeant-major felt guilty about his poor-quality timber as the lieutenant’s mother questioned him about the conduct of burials, asking how they dressed the corpses, whether they buried them together and whether a last word was spoken over the grave.

Another reason he felt awkward was that before the journey he had been to see a friend in the store; he had drunk a glass of diluted medical spirit and eaten some bread and onion. He was ashamed that his breath made the car stink of onions and alcohol – but he could hardly stop breathing.” (ibid.) 

That’s another great detail. 

The chapter of Lyudmila at the grave is heartbreaking—Vasily Grossman’s depiction of her grief is not at all inferior to Tolstoy’s depiction of Countess Rostova’s grief after the death of Petya. 

“The sky seemed somehow airless – as though all the air had been pumped out and there was nothing but dry dust over her head. And the pump was continuing its work: together with the air, faith and hope had now disappeared; nothing was left but a small mound of grey, frozen earth.” (P.1, ch.33) 

4/ The novel isn’t despair from beginning to end though. Sometimes there’s a moment like this: 

“Everything – the river, the fields, the forest – was so beautiful, so peaceful, that hatred, betrayal and old age seemed impossible; nothing could exist but love and happiness. The moon shone down through the grey mist that enveloped the earth. Few pilots spent the night in their bunkers. On the edge of the village you could glimpse white scarves and hear quiet laughter.” (P.1, ch.38) 

5/ The chapters about Abarchuk (Lyudmila’s first husband, Tolya’s father) in the Soviet prison camp are excellent. 

“[Stepanov] was proud of the fact that, unlike the majority of the political prisoners, he was there for a reason…” (P.1, ch.40) 

How ironic.

Grossman paints a vivid and horrifying picture of the camp and its politics, and also sketches the character of Abarchuk. But Grossman’s no cynic, and he doesn’t only give us despair: Abarchuk overcomes his fear and stands up for the truth and acts like a mensch. 

That’s what I like about Grossman. There’s still courage and goodness in the book. 

These chapters are also interesting because Abarchuk, despite everything that happened to him, continues clinging to his ideals, to his faith in the communist cause. That is something I recognise (not in myself, naturally). 

Relatability is not necessarily something I look for in fiction, but I can’t deny that Life and Fate is relatable, uncomfortably so. 

At some point I should compare Life and Fate and War and Peace. But not yet. 

Sunday 11 December 2022

Life and Fate: P.1, Ch.1-25

1/ For years I have wanted to read Life and Fate, the Soviet War and Peace, but often hesitated, partly because I felt unready to immerse myself in a novel about the horrors of the 20th century, and partly because the quotes people often used to promote the book gave me the impression that the writing was dry and flat.

That turns out not to be the case.

For example, see this passage of the oil tanks on fire (translated by Robert Chandler): 

“It seemed impossible to escape from the liquid fire. It leaped up, humming and crackling, from the streams of oil that were filling the hollows and craters and rushing down the communication trenches. Saturated with oil, even the clay and stone were beginning to smoke. The oil itself was gushing out in black glossy streams from tanks that had been riddled by incendiary bullets; it was as though sheets of flame and smoke had been sealed inside these tanks and were now slowly unrolling.

The life that had reigned hundreds of millions of years before, the terrible life of the primeval monsters, had broken out of its deep tombs; howling and roaring, stamping its huge feet, it was devouring everything round about. […]

The columns of flame and smoke looked at one moment like living beings seized by horror and fury, at another moment like quivering poplars and aspens. Like women with long, streaming hair, the black clouds and red flames joined together in a wild dance.” (P.1, ch.9) 

That’s an interesting image. 

This is a battle scene: 

“Dim figures appeared out of the darkness, rifles flashed, red and green eyes gleamed momentarily, and the air was full of the whistle of iron. He seemed to be looking into a vast pit full of hundreds of poisonous snakes that were slithering about in confusion, hissing and rustling through the dry grass.” (P.1, ch.10) 


“It was as though a huge black cauldron were boiling and Krymov were immersed, body and soul, in its gurgling, bubbling waters. He could no longer think or feel as he had ever thought or felt before. For a moment he seemed to be in control of the whirlpool that had seized hold of him; then a thick black pitch seemed to pour into his eyes and nostrils – there was no air left to breathe, no stars over his head, nothing but this darkness, this ravine and these strange creatures rustling through the dry grass.” (ibid.) 

Vasily Grossman has a plain, straightforward style, like Tolstoy and Chekhov—his sentences don’t draw attention to themselves—but it’s neither dry nor flat, and the book is engrossing. 

2/ Vasily Grossman’s main idea—his hatred of Big Ideas and the concept of The Greater Good—is established quite early on. 

“‘[…] On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed – women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist…’” (P.1, ch.4) 

That is said by Ikonnikov, one of the Russian prisoners in the German camp. 

“This was a long-cherished dream: he had believed that communist agricultural labour would bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

During the period of all-out collectivization he had seen special trains packed with the families of kulaks. He had seen exhausted men and women collapse in the snow, never to rise again. He had seen ‘closed’ villages where there wasn’t a living soul in sight and where every door and window had been boarded up. He remembered one ragged peasant woman with an emaciated neck and swarthy hands. Her guards had been staring at her in horror: mad with hunger, she had just eaten her two children.” (ibid.) 

He used to believe in God, and used to be a Tolstoyan—but not anymore.

This is the important passage: 

“‘[…] I saw the sufferings of the peasantry with my own eyes – and yet collectivization was carried out in the name of Good. I don’t believe in your “Good”. I believe in human kindness.’

‘So you want us to be horrified when Hitler and Himmler are strung up on the gallows in the name of Good? You can count me out!’

‘You ask Hitler,’ said Ikonnikov, ‘and he’ll tell you that even this camp was set up in the name of Good.’” (ibid.) 

Ikonnikov is talking (to Mostovskoy, an Old Bolshevik), but you can tell that that view is shared by the author himself. And this is something I too feel strongly: I have seen what one Big Idea did to my country, and now in the West I can see the way Big Ideas kill reason and nuance, destroy prestigious institutions, and make many people no longer see others as individuals. 

I wonder what Nabokov would have thought about Life and Fate—the book was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and not published till 1980, 3 years after Nabokov’s death—he and Vasily Grossman both strongly advocated for freedom and the individual.  

3/ I think at the beginning of the novel, Vasily Grossman isn’t very good at helping the reader remember and keep track of characters. Tolstoy for example usually pins down a detail or a gesture, then repeats it, and he follows a character long enough to make an impression. Life and Fate, at least at the beginning, is more episodic and seems to move more quickly from one group of characters to another. 

It’s different when he introduces the main character, Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, in chapter 15, together with Viktor’s wife Lyudmila, her mother Alexandra Vladimirovna, and Viktor and Lyudmila’s daughter Nadya. They’re all distinct, and Grossman very quickly conveys the relationships between the characters—the strains, the difficulties, the conflicts. It’s very good, especially his depiction of the strained relationship between Viktor and Lyudmila.

And when I’ve read Viktor’s mother’s letter, which is heartbreaking, I have no doubt that Life and Fate would be a powerful novel. 

“And what a lot of children like that there are! […] Though sometimes they do begin laughing and fighting and romping about; then, rather than feeling happier, I am seized with horror.

They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren’t going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goose-necks – this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear for ever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won’t be here, we will have vanished – just as the Aztecs once vanished.” (P.1, ch.18)

There are many books and films about the Holocaust that feel false and hollow, even exploitative; many books and films that make one think the authors set their works against such a horrifying backdrop as an easy way to shock, to move, to haunt the audience, without having to work for it.  

Life and Fate isn’t one of them.

I think it’s partly because it’s personal to Vasily Grossman (he was a war reporter and his mother was killed by the Nazis), and partly because he retains the “coolness” of a journalist—there’s nothing excessive or mawkish when he writes about those horrors.

It’s also powerful because Grossman has a large vision: he depicts anti-Semitism, and also writes about anti-German sentiments during the war, even towards Germans in the Soviet Union who are against Hitler; he describes human suffering, and also includes a haunting story about a cat… This may just be my first impression, but Life and Fate seems to be a very humane novel. 

4/ Like War and Peace, Life and Fate has War scenes and Peace scenes. The difference is that the Peace scenes in Vasily Grossman’s novel don’t really have the warmth, the joy found in Tolstoy’s novel: because the characters are living in a totalitarian society. 

“He spoke straightforwardly and openly, seemingly as straightforwardly as the manager of a knitwear factory or a teacher at a technical institute might talk about their work. But they all understood that this openness and freedom were only apparent – he knew better than any of them what could, and what could not, be talked about. Getmanov, who also loved to shock people by his boldness and candour, was well aware of the depths concealed beneath the surface of this animated and spontaneous conversation.” (P.1, ch.21) 

Then Getmanov’s brother-in-law makes a blunder.

“The void surrounding Nikolay Terentyevich grew still more unpleasant. He had spoken about something that should never be mentioned, even in jest.” (ibid.) 


“The explicitness of Getmanov’s reproach was a sign that he would think no more of Nikolay Terentyevich’s blunder. Sagaydak and Mashuk nodded approvingly.

Galina’s brother understood that this stupid, trivial incident would be forgotten; he also understood that it would not be forgotten entirely.” (ibid.) 

I can see that Life and Fate would be much darker than War and Peace—and of course, Grossman writes about fascism, communism, and the Holocaust.

“The sacrifices made by Getmanov in the name of Party loyalty were sometimes cruel. In this world neighbours from the same village or teachers to whom one had been indebted since youth no longer existed; love or sympathy were no longer to be reckoned with.” (ibid.) 

But Vasily Grossman isn’t simplistic. In the following chapter, he lets us see Getmanov in a different setting—when he’s looking at his sleeping children—and he appears in a different light:

“He felt a piercing ache of tenderness, anxiety and pity for them. He desperately wanted to embrace his son and daughters and kiss their sleeping faces. He was overwhelmed by a helpless tenderness, an unreasoning love; he felt lost, weak and confused.” (P.1, ch.22) 

5/ The chapters about Lyudmila’s sister Yevgenia and her struggle to get a residence permit are interesting (and relatable), but I won’t write about them.

Instead, here’s an interesting image about Yevgenia’s neighbour:  

“If Shargorodsky turned round abruptly, it looked as though his big, grey, alabaster head would come off his fine neck and fall to the ground with a crash.” (P.1, ch.25) 

In a very realistic, very sober novel such as Life and Fate, that unusual image rather jumps at me. 

Monday 28 November 2022

In Search of Lost Time: something missing in Proust?

Yesterday I was talking to a friend, and he told me that his brother had been rereading Proust. 

“He said there's something missing in Proust. Throughout all serious literature, characters who are deeply drawn have some conflict between desire and duty - what they want to do, and what they ought to do. And yet, despite being stuck in the narrator's head for thousands of pages, there is no sense there of duty, of "ought": he perceives the whole world purely in terms of his desires.

And since we aren't allowed to see anything beyond his perceptions, we get a very lop-sided view.

We get merely a sequence of desires, and of frustration of his desires.

He says it's all very witty and charming; the evocation of sensual effects are breathtaking; and so on. But there's always a sense of something missing.” 

I find that an interesting observation. 

When I think about it, the conflict between what one wants to do and what one ought to do is depicted in Flaubert, in Dickens and Thackeray, in Jane Austen and George Eliot, in Henry James and Edith Wharton, in Tolstoy and Chekhov, in Nabokov, in Muriel Spark, in Natsume Soseki, and so on, but not really in Proust—at least not in the 2 volumes I have read.

What do you think about this observation?

And if you agree, which other major novelist also doesn’t explore the conflict between duty and desire?

Wednesday 2 November 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: the girls at Balbec; the narrator being repellent

In Part 2 of Within a Budding Grove, the narrator goes to Balbec. Here he forms a friendship with Robert de Saint-Loup, comes across his Jewish friend Bloch, meets Baron de Charlus, befriends the painter Elstir, and meets a group of girls at the seaside, one of whom turns out to be Albertine.

The final section, about the girls at Balbec, is particularly good. For example, this is the moment the narrator approaches and gets to know Albertine, after looking at her and the group from afar for a while: 

“… I realised what a conjuring trick had been performed, and with what consummate sleight of hand, and how I had talked for a moment or two with a person who, thanks to the skill of the conjurer, without actually embodying anything of that other person whom I had for so long been following as she paced beside the sea, had been substituted for her. I might, for that matter, have guessed as much in advance, since the girl on the beach was a fabrication of my own.” (Vol.2, P.2)

The other girls are called Andrée, Gisèle, and Rosamonde.

I have written more than once about Proust’s techniques for characterisation so I won’t repeat myself, but the depiction of Andrée is fascinating.

When he first sees the band of girls, Andrée creates on him a strong impression when she gleefully jumps over a terrified old man lying in the sun. Then he gets to know her: 

“This Andrée, who had struck me when I first saw her as the coldest of them all, was infinitely more refined, more affectionate, more sensitive than Albertine, to whom she displayed the caressing, gentle tenderness of an elder sister.” (ibid.) 

She now seems like a different person. Then he gets to know her some more: 

“But when one knew her a little better one would have said it was with her as with those heroic poltroons who wish not to be afraid and whose bravery is especially meritorious; one would have said that deep down in her nature there was none of that kindness which she constantly displayed out of moral distinction, or sensibility, or a noble desire to show herself a true friend.” (ibid.) 

Again, the perception changes. This fits what Tom wrote below my last blog post “People are not what they seem, or, more often, they are just what they seem but are also something else.” 

“She was charmingly gentle and sympathetic, and spoke in sweet and sorrowful terms, when one expressed pity for Albertine’s poverty, and took infinitely more trouble on her behalf than she would have taken for a rich friend. But if anyone were to hint that Albertine was perhaps not quite so poor as people made out, a just discernible cloud would overshadow Andrée’s eyes and brow; she seemed out of temper. And if one went on to say that after all Albertine might perhaps be less difficult to marry off than people supposed, she would vehemently contradict one, repeating almost angrily: “Oh dear, no, she’ll be quite unmarriageable! I’m certain of it, and I feel so sorry for her.”” (ibid.) 

This echoes a passage the narrator earlier wrote about Françoise: 

“… particular regard was due to the little sewing-maid, who was an orphan and had been brought up by strangers to whom she still went occasionally for a few days’ holiday. Her situation aroused Françoise’s pity, and also her benevolent contempt. […] And since this girl hoped, on Assumption Day, to be allowed to pay her benefactors a visit, Françoise kept on repeating: “She does make me laugh! She says, ‘I hope to be going home for the Assumption.’ Home, says she! It isn’t just that it’s not her own place, it’s people as took her in from nowhere, and the creature says ‘home’ just as if it really was her home…”” (ibid.) 

That’s the phrase: “benevolent contempt”. 

Andrée is a more interesting character than Albertine perhaps because I can see her better. Albertine, like Gilberte, is more opaque. Proust has foreseen my criticism—this is how he justifies himself: 

“And perhaps [the novelist] would be expressing yet another truth if, while investing all the other dramatis personae with distinct characters, he refrained from giving any to the beloved. We understand the characters of people to whom we are indifferent, but how can we ever grasp that of a person who is an intimate part of our existence, whom after a while we no longer distinguish from ourselves, whose motives provide us with an inexhaustible source of anxious hypotheses, continually revised?” (ibid.) 

Frankly, I think that’s horseshit. 

Albertine is opaque—when the narrator writes about her, it’s him that we see, not her—and he is repellent.

For example, when Andrée lies to him that they cannot meet the next day because her mother’s unwell:

“Although this falsehood was of no real significance since Andrée knew me so slightly, I ought not to have continued to seek the company of a person who was capable of it.” (ibid.) 

But when he himself doesn’t want to see Saint-Loup, preferring to spend time with the girls: 

“Each time I wrote back to say that he was on no account to come, offering the excuse that I should be obliged to be away myself that very day, having some duty call to pay with my grandmother on family friends in the neighbourhood. No doubt he thought ill of me when he learned from his aunt in what the “duty call” consisted, and who the persons were who combined to play the part of my grandmother.” (ibid.) 

But that’s trivial, compared to this: 

“In the week that followed I scarcely attempted to see Albertine. I made a show of preferring Andrée.” (ibid.) 

He plays games with Albertine and Andrée. 

“When I spoke of Albertine to Andrée I affected a coldness…” (ibid.) 

When he wants to meet Albertine’s aunt Mme Bontemps: 

“In order to remove from Andrée’s mind the idea that I was interested in Mme Bontemps, I spoke of her thenceforth not only absent-mindedly but with downright malice, saying that I had once met that idiot of a woman, and trusted I should never have that experience again. Whereas I was seeking by every means in my power to meet her.” (ibid.) 

As someone who doesn’t play games and doesn’t like men who play games, I find that abhorrent. His behaviour is even worse when he tries to kiss Albertine and she doesn’t let him. Obviously the likability of a narrator or a main character is not a criterion of literary merit—I myself don’t read novels in order to get imaginary friends—but I can still judge them and Proust’s narrator is repellent. 

Here I have another complaint—perhaps the fault is mine—I have very vague ideas about how old the characters are and it slightly gets in the way of me understanding the characters. I know that when the narrator asks M. de Norpois about Gilberte, she is said to be about 14-15 though we’re not told how old the narrator is. I assume they’re around the same age. This is around the time they wrestle at the park, and before he enters the Swanns’ house. 

Then he penetrates Gilberte’s circle and frequents the house, but I’m not sure for how long this goes on till he discovers that Gilberte has a boyfriend. A year? 2 years? Then 2 years after he stops seeing Gilberte, he goes on holiday at Balbec and meets Albertine. 

How old is he at Balbec? What about her?  

When he wants her to introduce him to her friends, she says “What on earth can a lot of kids like them mean to a man like you?”. Is he 19-20? She talks about taking exams, so she could be 16, but she could also be 15 or 14. Perhaps Proust’s contemporaries would have known her age by the exam questions she gets, but the only thing I know with certainty is that Albertine is a couple of years younger than Gilberte, because Gilberte has said so in Part 1. 

Does it make a difference? It does, in the scene where the narrator tries to kiss Albertine in her hotel room. 

I’d like to hear your thoughts. 


The translation I’ve read is by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright. 

After more than 5 weeks, I have now finished reading Within a Budding Grove. It is, even if trying at times, a great book. 

Thursday 27 October 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.2: Proust’s method of characterisation

Before I picked up Proust, one of my preconceptions or expectations was that he would enter his characters’ heads and inhabit their minds. 

Turns out, he doesn’t. Proust’s characters are mostly seen from the outside, making him more like Jane Austen, Dickens, Cao Xueqin… than Tolstoy, Henry James, George Eliot, Flaubert, Murasaki Shikibu… I’m about 4/5 of my way through Within a Budding Grove and so far, apart from the narrator’s, we only know Swann’s thoughts, and he is similar to the narrator’s—Swann’s obsession with Odette is later mirrored by his obsession with Gilberte and Albertine.

Proust however adds life, adds depth to his characters in different ways. His characters appear real and multifaceted because Proust depicts them from different angles, in different environments, in different roles. 

For example, when we first see Swann, he’s a friend of the narrator’s family, a guest who interrupts the goodnight kiss ritual, a man who never seems to speak his real opinions, and so on. Then we see Swann in society, with other people, and see Swann in love, obsessive, jealous, pathetic. Then we see Swann as the father of Gilberte, when the narrator becomes infatuated with her. At that point in Volume 1 and at the beginning of Volume 2, Swann appears as a barrier between the narrator and his object of desire, no longer a friend of the family, but he appears different again when the narrator starts frequenting their house and having tea with Gilberte. 

It’s the same with Odette Swann, née de Crécy: we see her differently as a courtesan, as the lady in pink, as the woman who holds Swann captivated and torments him, as Mme Swann, and as the mother of Gilberte. The narrator sees her differently in these different roles, and thus gets us to see her differently. 

He also says: 

“… A consultant more discerning than M. de Norpois would doubtless have been able to diagnose that it was this feeling of shame and humiliation that had embittered Odette, that the infernal temper she displayed was not an essential part of her nature, was not an incurable disease, and so would easily have foretold what had indeed come to pass, namely that a new regimen, that of matrimony, would put an end with almost magic swiftness to those painful incidents, of daily occurrence but in no sense organic.” (Vol.2, P.1) 

That is interesting. 

Proust lets his characters unfold over time, through different roles, and sometimes drops a surprising detail, such as Elstir’s portrait. Placed next to Proust, many writers would appear quite crude—for instance, Cao Xueqin’s characters, except Wang Xifeng, are generally quite consistent, in different circles and towards different people (though the interesting question that arises is: how does Cao Xueqin still make his characters feel so believable, so real?). 

Proust doesn’t always have to portray the characters in different roles, he can remove the layers and let his characters unfold over time: in an earlier blog post about Swann’s Way, I have written about Françoise and aunt Léonie. Françoise continues to unfold in Volume 2, when they’re at Balbec:  

“… Françoise—who on the day of her arrival, when she still did not know anyone, would set all the bells jangling for the slightest thing, at hours when my grandmother and I would never have dared to ring, and if we offered some gentle admonition would answer: “Well, we’re paying enough for it, aren’t we?” as though it were she herself that would have to pay—now that she had made friends with a personage in the kitchen, which had appeared to us to augur well for our future comfort, were my grandmother or I to complain of cold feet, Françoise, even at an hour that was quite normal, dared not ring, assuring us that it would give offence because they would have to relight the boilers, or because it would interrupt the servants’ dinner and they would be annoyed. And she ended with a formula that, in spite of the dubious way in which she pronounced it, was none the less clear and put us plainly in the wrong: “The fact is …” We did not insist, for fear of bringing upon ourselves another, far more serious: “It’s a bit much …!” So that what it amounted to was that we could no longer have any hot water because Françoise had become a friend of the person who heated it.” (Vol.2, P.2) 

Françoise is probably the most delightful character in In Search of Lost Time (is it too early to say?). 

“She had presently, with respect to Saint-Loup, whom she worshipped, a disillusionment of a different kind and of shorter duration: she discovered that he was a Republican. For although, when speaking for instance of the Queen of Portugal, she would say with that disrespect which is, among the people, the supreme form of respect: “Amélie, Philippe’s sister,” Françoise was a Royalist. But above all a marquis, a marquis who had dazzled her at first sight, and who was for the Republic, seemed no longer real. And it aroused in her the same ill-humour as if I had given her a box which she had believed to be made of gold, and had thanked me for it effusively, and then a jeweller had revealed to her that it was only plated. She at once withdrew her esteem from Saint-Loup, but soon afterwards restored it to him, having reflected that he could not, being the Marquis de Saint-Loup, be a Republican, that he was just pretending, out of self-interest, for with the Government we had it might be a great advantage to him. From that moment her coldness towards him and her resentment towards me ceased. And when she spoke of Saint-Loup she said: “He’s a hypocrite,” with a broad and kindly smile which made it dear that she “considered” him again just as much as when she first knew him, and that she had forgiven him.” (ibid.) 

(This is, I can’t help saying, my favourite Proust: funny Proust, comedy of manners Proust). 

Proust’s characters also appear multifaceted because he depicts them through the eyes of different characters. 

For example, this is the Princesse de Luxembourg: 

“… I saw, in the distance, coming in our direction, the Princesse de Luxembourg, half leaning upon a parasol in such a way as to impart to her tall and wonderful form that slight inclination, to make it trace that arabesque, so dear to the women who had been beautiful under the Empire and knew how, with drooping shoulders, arched backs, concave hips and taut legs, to make their bodies float as softly as a silken scarf about the rigid armature of an invisible shaft which might be supposed to have transfixed it.” (ibid.) 

This is how the judge’s wife sees her at Balbec:

““Just listen to this. A woman with yellow hair and six inches of paint on her face and a carriage which reeked of harlot a mile away—which only a creature like that would dare to have—came here today to call on the so-called Marquise!”” (ibid.) 

Especially interesting is the way he introduces Charlus. I wonder if Proust has calculated that In Search of Lost Time would get to the point of being so well-known that most people picking it up would have heard of the name Charlus and had some preconceptions about him, that he introduces him under a different name and surprises us later: 

“Saint-Loup told me that even in the most exclusive aristocratic society his uncle Palamède stood out as being particularly unapproachable, scornful, obsessed with his nobility, forming with his brother’s wife and a few other chosen spirits what was known as the Phoenix Club.” (ibid.) 

Robert de Saint-Loup also says: 

““One day, a man who is now one of the brightest luminaries of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, as Balzac would have said, but who at a rather unfortunate stage of his early life displayed bizarre tastes, asked my uncle to let him come to this place. But no sooner had he arrived than it was not to the ladies but to my uncle Palamède that he began to make overtures. My uncle pretended not to understand, and took his two friends aside on some pretext or other. They reappeared on the scene, seized the offender, stripped him, thrashed him till he bled, and then in ten degrees of frost kicked him outside where he was found more dead than alive; so much so that the police started an inquiry which the poor devil had the greatest difficulty in getting them to abandon…”” (ibid.) 

One can’t help thinking back of that passage when one later realises that uncle Palamède and Baron de Charlus are the same person. 

This is the first time (or is it?) the narrator meets Saint-Loup’s uncle: 

“… I turned my head and saw a man of about forty, very tall and rather stout, with a very black moustache, who, nervously slapping the leg of his trousers with a switch, was staring at me, his eyes dilated with extreme attentiveness. From time to time these eyes were shot through by a look of restless activity such as the sight of a person they do not know excites only in men in whom, for whatever reason, it inspires thoughts that would not occur to anyone else—madmen, for instance, or spies. He darted a final glance at me that was at once bold, prudent, rapid and profound, like a last shot which one fires at an enemy as one turns to flee, and, after first looking all round him, suddenly adopting an absent and lofty air, with an abrupt revolution of his whole person he turned towards a playbill in the reading of which he became absorbed, while he hummed a tune and fingered the moss-rose in his button-hole.” (ibid.) 


“He gave me the impression of a hotel crook who, having been watching my grandmother and myself for some days, and planning to rob us, had just discovered that I had caught him in the act of spying on me. Perhaps he was only seeking by his new attitude to express abstractedness and detachment in order to put me off the scent, but it was with an exaggeration so aggressive that his object appeared to be—at least as much as the dissipating of the suspicions he might have aroused in me—to avenge a humiliation which I must unwillingly have inflicted on him, to give me the idea not so much that he had not seen me as that I was an object of too little importance to attract his attention. He threw back his shoulders with an air of bravado, pursed his lips, twisted his moustache, and adjusted his face into an expression that was at once indifferent, harsh, and almost insulting. So much so that I took him at one moment for a thief and at another for a lunatic.” (ibid.) 

That whole passage sounds very much like something out of Dostoyevsky.

Charlus is fascinating, I expect him to become more fascinating as we follow him throughout the 7 volumes. 

In In Search of Lost Time, Proust continually makes the point that we can never truly know another person: the narrator doesn’t know Gilberte, Swann doesn’t know Odette, nobody truly knows anybody. So he doesn’t convey anyone’s thoughts (he enters Swann’s mind in Volume 1, only when Swann is in love, but doesn’t in Volume 2), and all the characters are seen from the outside—through the eyes of the narrator or other characters.

But they’re all complex, multifaceted, and forever capable of surprising us. They feel utterly real.