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) 


“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 (1982 BBC

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.