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)
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.