If you listen to any BBC radio, it was hard to miss the big splash made a few months back by the Radio 4 serialisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic twentieth century masterpiece Life And Fate. So I endeavoured (rashly) to read it before listening to the programmes (which were issued as podcasts at the time). So I’ve started … and to be frank, it has taken a bit of work to get into – I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through the 850+ pages. Set around the time of the bloody battle for Stalingrad (Aug 1942-Feb 1943), Grossman traces the impact on what became known as Russian’s Great Patriotic War on ordinary men and women (the Soviet Union suffered the greatest losses of any of the 2WW’s belligerents – in the region of 10 million). He uses the lens of one extended family – the Shaposhnikovs; but the book’s scope is panoramic and overwhelming. I’d be completely at sea if it were not for the 8-page list of main characters at the back (not least because of my ignorance of the intricacies of Russian names).
The parallels with, and debt to, Tolstoy’s War and Peace are obvious: the epic scale, the personal touch, the portrayal of global history through Russians suffering in wartime. What Tolstoy did for era of Napoleon’s march on Russia, Grossman has done for Hitler’s attack of the Soviet Union.
What makes the book a widely acknowledged masterpiece is its humanity. Having been an official journalist during the Stalingrad battle, Grossman had seen first-hand what it was like. He completed his book in 1960 – only to find it confiscated by the K.G.B. It was eventually smuggled to the West in 1980 when it was published. And it is heart-rending in the depths of its compassionate insight into human suffering.
But I wanted to quote the extended passage which really shook me and has forced me to keep reading. Here Lyudmila Shaposhnikova has made a difficult journey to the hospital where her son, Tolya, is being treated for his many injuries. She gets there only to discover he had already died on the operating table.
Dr Mayzel explained why Dr Rodionov had been against the operation. He seemed already to know everything Lyudmila wanted to ask him. He told her about his conversations withLieutenant Tolya before the operation. Understanding Lyudmila’s state of mind, he described the operation itself with brutal frankness.
Then he said he took a fatherly tenderness towards Lieutenant Tolya. As he spoke, a high, plaintive note slipped into his bass voice. Lyudmila looked for the first time at his hands. They were peculiar; they seemed to live a quite separate life from the man with mournful eyes. His hands were severe and ponderous, the dark-skinned fingers large and strong.
Mayzel took his hands off the table. As though he had read Lyudmila’s thoughts, he said: ‘I did all I could. But, instead of saving him from death, my hands only brought his death closer.’ He rested his huge hands on the table again.
Lyudmila could tell that every word he had said was true.
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 I her feel a certain antagonism towards him.
As she said goodbye, she said she was certain he had done everything possible to save her son. He gave a deep sigh. She could see that her words had comforted him – and realized that it was because he felt he had a right to hear these words that he had wanted the meeting.
‘And on top of everything else, they even expect me to comfort them!’ she thought.
After the surgeon had left, Lyudmila spoke to the commandant, a man in a Caucasian fur-cap. He saluted and announced in a hoarse voice that the commissar had given orders that she was to be taken by car to the cemetery, but that the car would be ten minutes late since they were delivering a list of civilian employees to the central office. The lieutenant’s belongings had already been packed; it would be easier if she picked them up on her return from the cemetery.
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.
The commissar felt guilty because men were dying in his hospital. Until Lyudmila’s visit this had never disturbed him; it was what was to be expected in a military hospital. The quality of the medical treatment had never been criticized by the authorities. What he had been reprimanded for was failing to organize enough political work or to provide adequate information about the morale of the wounded…
Now, however, in front of the mother of the dead lieutenant, the commissar felt himself to blame for the fact that three patients had died the day before – while he himself had taken a shower, ordered his favourite dish of stewed sauerkraut from the cook and drunk a bottle of beer from the store in Saratov. And Sister Terentyevna felt guilty because her husband, a military engineer, served on the army staff and had never been to the front; while her son, who was a year older than Shaposhnikov, worked in the design office of an aviation factory. As for the commandant, a regular soldier, he was serving in a hospital back in the rear, sending home felt boots and good quality gabardine while the uniform that had been passed on to the dead lieutenant’s mother was made of the very cheapest material.
Even the thick-lipped sergeant-major with the fleshy ears, the man responsible for the burial of dead patients, felt guilty before the woman he was driving to the cemetery: the coffins were knocked together out of thin, poor-quality boards; the dead were laid out in their underclothes and buried in communal graves – extremely close together unless they were officers; the inscriptions over the graves were in an ugly script, un unpolished board and in paint that would not last…. the sergeant-major felt guilty about his poor-quality timber as the lieutenant’s mother questioned him about he 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.
He looked gloomily into the rectangular mirror in front of the driver: in it he could see the reflection of the man’s bright, mocking eyes. ‘Well, the sergeant-major’s certainly had a good time,’ they said.
Everyone feels guilty before a mother who has lost her son in a war; throughout human history men have tried in vain to justify themselves.
Life and Fate (pp131-134) my highlights
And, as Grossman concludes this chapter, none of us can ever justify ourselves in the face of our guilt.