Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman - Lunchtime Lit with Mel

Updated on February 27, 2017
Mel reviews Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman from the horrors of his writing bunker
Mel reviews Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman from the horrors of his writing bunker | Source

The Blessings of Lunchtime Liberty

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, explores the theme of freedom. We would like to think that freedom is something near and dear to book reviewers, and people everywhere, even though most people don't like it when other people exercise their freedom by airing opposing opinions. Life and Fate takes place in a setting anathematic to this beloved freedom of ours, the brutal horrors of the Soviet Stalinist state during World War II.

Fortunately, I don't live in a totalitarian state, so I don't have arbitrary restrictions placed upon my activities. For instance, on my half hour (unpaid) postal lunch break, during which time I read the books reviewed here, I enjoy absolute freedom. I am allowed to go as far as I please during this (UNPAID) postal lunch break, as long as I stay within a half mile radius of my route. During my (unpaid) postal lunch break, I can also dine where I want, provided it is one of three locations listed on the route's delivery instructions. Another boon of my (**unpaid**) postal lunch break is that I am out of the watchful Big Brother eye of management, even though my spy-cam equipped scanner, with a GPS that is pinged 300 times daily, never takes a lunch break at all.

So what is freedom? Is it really just an illusion, a myth designed to keep us happy and buying things? Is it ever absolute? Is it a product of quantum mechanics, a random output from human societies that can only be averaged, like the vapor trails of charged particles? Is it possible to be happy and free in a bomb crater, especially when the horrors of the Lubyanka Prison lie beyond the lip of that bomb crater? Freedom is the primary issue that Life and Fate explores.

Thank God I live in America, so I don't have to speculate about how nice freedom can be, but can truly enjoy its bountiful blessings, as long as I don't deviate from my three authorized (but unpaid) lunch locations.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **

Estimated Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
On The Beach
The Last Temptation of Christ
Killing Patton
7/11/2016 (Slurpee Day)
The Winter of Our Discontent
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy
Kafka on The Shore
Life And Fate

*Three other titles, with a total estimated word count of 1,098,400 and 152 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

**Word counts are estimated by hand counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book.

I can't figure out why it look me the same amount of lunches to read 1Q84, at 425,000 pages, as it did to read Life and Fate, at about 310,000. Perhaps ponderous Russian novels make you sneak in little naps.

Lunchtime Lit Rules

The setting for Life and Fate is the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), where there stands an enormous monument named The Motherland Calls. I am also constructing a 300 foot monument to Lunchtime Lit beneath my lunch tree, on which this immortal rule will be set in stone - A Lunchtime Lit book can only be read during Mel's 30 minute lunch break, no removal from the lunch box for sneak readings in a bunker - etc. When completed, the word "etc." itself will be 20 feet wide.

The Motherland Calls at Volgograd, a statue only to be rivaled in the scope of its daydreaming by Mel's as yet unfinished Lunchtime Lit memorial.  Ya gotta admit she's got nice nips.
The Motherland Calls at Volgograd, a statue only to be rivaled in the scope of its daydreaming by Mel's as yet unfinished Lunchtime Lit memorial. Ya gotta admit she's got nice nips. | Source

The Real Mother of All Battles

On 60s sitcom Hogan's Heroes, General Burkhalter often threatened to send laughably incompetent Colonel Klink to the Russian front. Dire ultimatums such as these were not something a German soldier took lightly, even on a comedy show. Cold War era propaganda, including Hogan's heroes, convinced every schoolboy here in the West that the US and England pulled the Russian's nuts out of the fire in WWII, but this is not true. In fact, a strong case can be made that the brutal battles fought on the Russian front, by the armies of the Soviet totalitarian state, saved democracy. We can laugh about it now, especially since it wasn't our country, but military deaths for the USSR alone totaled 10.6 million, compared to about 700,000 for the United States in both the European and Pacific theaters. Nowhere is Russian bloodletting typified better than the battle of Stalingrad, the centerpiece around which Life and Fate is set.

Stalingrad is commonly regarded as the biggest battle ever fought, anywhere. This relatively minor municipality on the backwaters of the Volga River became important because of the allure of its name. Hitler wanted to seize the city to drive the last nail in the coffin of the humiliation of its namesake, Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator, obsessed with protecting the cloak of invincibility surrounding his cult of personality, was driven to be defend Stalingrad for the same reason - it bore his name. Basically for bragging rights, two million men converged on this heretofore unknown burg on the endless steppe, resulting in a battle that turned the tide against the Germans for good and changed the course of history for everybody on the globe.

Just like Tolstoy's War and Peace, a book with which Life and Fate is often compared, Grossman does not affix his focus completely on the Stalingrad battlefield, but explores both the big picture and the intimate details of life under Stalin's Soviet Union. He bounces from Russian soldiers in German POW camps to Russian prisoners in the Soviet Gulag, to Russian mothers searching for their wounded soldier sons, to an "Old Bolshevik" being denounced and tortured in Moscow's infamous Lubyanka prison, to a Soviet nuclear physicist accused of promoting science that is not in accordance with Leninist ideas. Particularly poignant is a scene describing Holocaust victims being sent into the gas chamber. All of these vignettes are brilliantly written and can be extremely moving, but the constant bouncing can leave the reader somewhat dizzy and confused. Unlike War and Peace ,we never really get to know the characters as intimately as we would like, and we don't wind up loving them and actually missing their company when the book ends.

Individual Stalingrad residences like this famous "Pavlov's House" became fortresses against invading Germans, and probably inspired Grossman's House 6/1 in the novel.
Individual Stalingrad residences like this famous "Pavlov's House" became fortresses against invading Germans, and probably inspired Grossman's House 6/1 in the novel.

Grossman's Life and Fate

Life and Fate author Vasily Grossman was born in Berdichev, Ukraine in 1905. He was a thoroughly Russified Jew from a city with a large Jewish population of some 30,000, most of whom were killed after the Nazi invasion. Grossman's own mother, poignantly memorialized as a character in Life and Fate, was one of these fatalities.

Although he was a trained chemist, Grossman realized from youth that writing was his true passion. His early novels gained him admission to the prestigious Union for Soviet Writers, even though Josef Stalin declared one of them to be "Menshevik" in sympathy before deleting the book from the list of nominees for the coveted Stalin's Prize. From the beginning Grossman was about as rebel as rebel could dare in the USSR, and ultimately Stalin's death in 1953 probably saved the author from being a purge victim himself.

When World War II broke out Grossman volunteered as a soldier, but instead was assigned to the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). As a journalist he covered the major battles of the war, including but not limited to Stalingrad. He gained the confidence of many across the wide spectrum of the war's participants, from starving widows in Ukranian huts to lofty generals at the high corridors of power. Part of the book's charm is this ability to slice neatly through a cross section of humanity, revealing the highest in the low and the lowest in the high. Grossman's analysis of the motivations of mankind does not respect rank. Thirsty soldiers drinking from a water heater in a Stalingrad basement, Red Army Generals having bad dreams as their bunkers are bombed, even Comrade Stalin himself is critiqued alongside these lesser lights, all with equal scrutiny.

Life and Fate's scathing condemnation of Stalinism proves that Grossman was not particularly intimidated by the Soviet security apparatus. Even though Stalin's death eased fears of The Gulag somewhat, Communist officials were still by no means allowing unchecked freedom of speech. As it turned out, Grossman avoided detention himself for writing the novel, but the book was "arrested," with all known copies being confiscated by the KGB. Even the typewriter ribbons Grossman used to write it were taken away.

Unknown to the Soviet security organs, two copies of the book survived this literary purge. In 1974, ten years after Grossman's death from stomach cancer, his poet friend Semyon Lipkin had a copy smuggled out of the country on microfilm. Life and Fate was finally published in 1980 in the West, but had to wait until Gorbachev's Glasnost in 1988 to see publication in its home country.

Grossman with the Red Army in Germany, 1945
Grossman with the Red Army in Germany, 1945 | Source

Tolstoy, Grossman, and Freedom

Vasily Grossman claimed that Tolstoy's War and Peace was the only book he could read while hunkering down in the rubble of the Stalingrad battlefield. Tolstoy's magnum opus was written around another failed invasion of Russia by a Western European power, that being Napoleon's France in 1812. It's not a reach to surmise that Grossman intended Life and Fate to be the WWII answer to Tolstoy, to become a literary analysis for this second failed invasion of the endless nation straddling Asia and Europe that has a tendency to swallow up invaders into its vastness, then chew them up and spit them out. Russia's seemingly indefensible flatness has always sorely tempted salivating military planners, who fail to recognize that the nation's very immensity is impossible to seize and then hold. Tolstoy recorded how Napoleon found this out the hard way in 1812, and Grossman recounted how Adolf Hitler learned nothing from Napoleon in 1941.

Grossman even mimicked Tolstoy somewhat in his approach, by centering his work around a single family and those marginally associated with it. The philosophical basis of both authors also appears similar, though a more careful reading indicates that Grossman could be taking jabs at his illustrious literary predecessor. Here is an example of where Grossman and Tolstoy appear to be on the same page:

Fascism has rejected the concept of separate individuality, the concept of 'a man', and operates only with vast aggregates. Contemporary physics speaks of the greater or lesser probability of occurrences within this or that aggregate of individual particles. And are not the terrible mechanics of Fascism founded on the principle of quantum politics, or political probability? - Life and Fate page 94

Quantum mechanics was an idea born long after Tolstoy's time, but the bearded Count also saw the great movements of history as a vast aggregate in which individuals were irrelevant. Tolstoy rejected the idea that thousands of Frenchmen marched off to invade Russia simply because Napoleon wanted them to. To him, Napoleon was merely the front man of historical forces. He called this "the swarmlike life, where man inevitably fulfills the laws prescribed for him." To Tolstoy Napoleon was simply the servant of history, the face of an enormous movement. Men are not supremely free, both the lowest soldier and the mighty Emperor of France are caught up in the swarmlike existence, and subject to its impulses and dictates.

On the other hand, Grossman seems to reject both the motivations behind Fascism and the historical determinism of Tolstoy by stressing that "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...Life is freedom, and dying is a gradual denial of freedom...Freedom engendered the Russian victory. Freedom was the apparent aim of the war...And:

I think there is a boundary limiting the infinity of the universe - life itself. This boundary's nothing to do with Einstein's curvature of space; it lies in the opposition between life and inanimate matter. In my opinion, life can be defined as freedom. Life is freedom. Freedom is the fundamental principle of life. - Life and Fate page 690

The axis around which the novel Life and Fate revolves is the concept of freedom rejected by Tolstoy. The Soviet soldiers risk their lives against the Germans under the false allure of freedom. The horrors of the brutal Stalinist purges of 1937 have been eased to allow a greater degree of freedom from fear. Imprisoned Generals have been freed to lead the Motherland to victory. But the tragedy pointed out by Life and Fate is that the idea of freedom was only used as a means to an end. As he rots inside the innards of Lubyanka prison, the Old Bolshevik Krymov reminisces about lying happy and free in a bomb crater. The Russians imprisoned by the Germans in the war merely swap one form of denial of freedom for another as they are shipped off to the Soviet Gulag to perform slave labor at war's end. Ultimately, freedom turns out to be a false hope, just another method of political control.

Tolstoy's War and Peace formed the model for its successor Life and Fate, but Grossman diverges from the Count's philosophy on the idea of freedom.
Tolstoy's War and Peace formed the model for its successor Life and Fate, but Grossman diverges from the Count's philosophy on the idea of freedom. | Source

The Life And Fate of Lunchtime Lit Continues...

French Emperors and German Fuhrers are pushed by the forces of history into invading vast, unconquerable Russian territory. Southern California mailmen are tricked by the forces of history into reading and reviewing vast, unconquerable Russian books. What will be the Life and Fate of Lunchtime Lit?

Despite its sometimes incomprehensible jumble of characters, Life and Fate is well worth the read. Whether you read it curled up in the damp pit of your favorite bomb crater, or during your severely restricted, closely monitored, and geographically restrained (UNPAID!!) half hour postal lunch break, it will make you think about the freedom you have, and the freedom you are lacking. Are we mere particle vapor trails that only become meaningful in the vast aggregate of space and time, or do the unique impulses of our tiny individual wills actually mean something? Life and Fate offers no definitive answers, perhaps because there just aren't any available to anyone, whether anyone is the mighty Count penning War and Peace from his estate in Tula, Russia, a dashing Red Star journalist jotting down Life and Fate in a rubble-strewn bunker, or just a lonely SoCal mailman scribbling out unread literary reviews from the sparse shade of his lunchtime tree.


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    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      It's only a half hour drive Larry buy it's a sacred one. After half an hour I'm asleep in the chair. The rest of my spare time I'm working Sudoku or farting around on my phone like everyone else. Thanks for dropping in, my friend.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      I wish I had the same drive to read that you did. Love your reviews.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California


      There's nothing that I'd rather do

      Then read a thick tome just for you

      Though I know that I don't rate a monument

      Reading fat Russian novels is time well spent

      If my boss tries to toss me some crap

      I'll just park it right here for a nap

      Blessings right back to you. Thanks for dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Linda. Here in America we like to consider ourselves more free than the Russians, but then we get a President that tries to suppress freedom of the press and freedom of assembly under the pretense of protecting us. Just goes to show that whether you live in Moscow or Washington DC, if you give someone the opportunity to become a dictator they will take it. Thanks for dropping in!

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      3 years ago from Texas

      Mel, thank you for keeping us well read during your lunch time breaks. You come up with some pretty good books.

      Keep on keeping on.

      Blessings my friend.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I enjoy reading all of your book reviews, Mel. Out of all the books that you've described, though, this is the one that I want to read most of all. Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but the nature of freedom interests me very much. I love your analysis of your own lunchtime "freedom".

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      I'm just trying to get funding, Mills. Just a couple billion more and I'll be there. They're still trying to carve Crazy Horse out of a mountain in South Dakota, and after 50 years or so I think they finally finished his nose. Hopefully my Lunchtime Lit monument will proceed more quickly. Thanks for dropping in.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      I think you'll like it Bill. It's all stark realism, no magical BS puff and fluff, which I know you detest. The only problem is you can't keep the characters straight without a scorecard, which is actually included by the author in the back, but who has time to keep flipping to the back. And then there are the Russian patronymic names, which further add to the confusion. Still interested? Thanks for checking in.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Okay, buddy, I'm going to do something I've never done before...I'm going to the library today and I'm going to check out this recommendation. If it sucks it's all your fault. LOL

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 

      3 years ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      This book certainly avoided the harshest fate, and I'm glad you're "volunteering" to share this with us Hubbers. Best of luck on the monument. I'm sure it will be a sight to see.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Sounds much more enjoyable than a "paid" lunchbreak, John. I am glad that American and Aussie English don't diverge enough that we can't make light of our fat finger mistakes.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      lol. I am glad an unintended typo can leave you smiling with a lasting image in your head. "unlaid" lunch, silly me.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you John. Just think that you read the book vicariously, through me. It's a real bummer that my lunch breaks are unpaid and unlaid, as you said. If the latter were to happen I would never retire, but I'd probably never retire, but I'd probably never read another book either. Thanks for reading, and for leaving a pleasant image in my head.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Another enjoyable "lunchtime literature" book review, Mel. Hmm an unpaid half hour doesn't seem fair. I'd go to your union to fight for at least a 45 minute unlaid lunch break. Life and Fate does sound like it would be worth a read but I rarely get enough time to read a few hubs let alone finish any book at the moment. Good job.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Too damned funny Mel. Your attitude is infectiously causing happy

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      That's called gravity, Eric, not obesity. Don't let your doctor tell you otherwise, because he is not qualified. He is not a physicist, just a physician.


      I wish I could get paid to eat. With your charm and wit, people probably always buy you lunch. Thanks for reading.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Another extremely interesting edition. What strange times this covers. Millions of soldiers lined up for battle mayhem? Those Russkies really do stay on the dark side.

      Unpaid lunch break? Personally I get paid to eat. Maybe that is why I am morbidly obese.

    • Mel Carriere profile imageAUTHOR

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you lions. He seemed to be a particular favorite of Stalin, in spite of his relative non-conformity, maybe because of it. All the same, Stalin was on an anti-Semitism kick after the war that led to the purging of many of his associates. Thanks for reading.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      3 years ago from PNW

      Great job, Mel. Grossman was a fascinating character. I was always shocked he did not get "purged" after the war.


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