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Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics)
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215 of 221 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2006
Format: Paperback
I confess Life and Fate devoured me. Tuesday, I had to stop work, stop my normal schedule, stop answering the telephone, and read it. And this was not my first, but my second time through its pages.

Life and Fate's main action takes place from the fall of 1942 until the spring of 1943. It reaches forward in history to the 1950s and reaches back to the Bolshevik revolution itself. it covers every aspect of the Soviet-German war from Stalin and Hitler's offices, to devastated huts inhabited by soldiers and refugees, from the halls of the scientific academies to the dark quarters of the Gulag and the gas chambers of the Nazi death camps.

While there is a lot of action in this book in the smoke and fire of Stalingrad, in the dungeons of Stalin's prisons, and in the death camps of Hitler , the strength of this book is how it covers an important part of history, but also shows the life, loves, yearnings, hearts and minds of real people struggling through the Second World War in the Soviet Union.

Grossman's political target is what he calls the "totalitarian" State. He sees symmetry between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Mostly he frames Nazi Germany as being identical to the Stalinist Soviet Union, a depiction that harms the accuracy of his depiction of Germany. Like many around the world of his generation, Grossman asserts the strength of the human spirit and the struggle for freedom and socialism against these twin horrors. Yet, Grossman appears too much in awe of Stalin and Hitler, and does not realize that their brutality flowed from their weaknesses, not strength.

Even people I know who should know better, see the heroic defense of the Russian Revolution's conquests against Hitler only through the fantasies produced by Stalinist propaganda. Grossman shows you how this fight was muzzled by Stalin's regime whose abominations did not cease, but grew during the Second World War. Grossman points to the growth of Russian Chauvinism, anti-Semitism, oppression and prejudice against non-Russian nationalities throughout the war.

While he depicts the bravery of the Red Army, Grossman is honest about its real character. We see its brutality--generals slapping and beating up subordinate officers and soldiers, NKVD officers persecuting generals for military decisions, a commissar plans to have heroic frontline soldiers completely surrounded by the Germans disciplined for living in a spirit of equality between officers and men, behind it all Stalin threatening to and sometimes imprisoning or executing generals. We see the corruption of the most celebrated of Red Army commanders: with their special privileges in food and drink, their pastime of preying sexually on women attached to their armies, and their concern for their own fame, and their reveling in Stalin's readoption of the regalia and customs of Tsarist militarism. We see the way science is subordinated to the bureaucracy's whims and how integrity and survival are in conflict in Stalinist Russia.

For many in the USSR the idea of Soviet victory brought forth dreams of a better day for the peoples of the Soviet Union, but the Stalinist bureaucracy had to break those dreams had to be broken and the dreamers throttled. Grossman gives you the feeling of the dreams for socialist democracy, the end of forced collectivization, and scientific freedom held by his characters and their friends are crushed by the Stalin regimes growing persecution, by its growing identification with the rotten legacy of Tsarist racism, discrimination, and prejudice.

Vasily Grossman was in a position to know. A former engineer who became a writer in the 1930s, he was one of the greatest war correspondents of the Soviet Army. His realistic depictions of the war made him widely popular with the front line troops and allowed his articles and dispatches to carry grimy accurate truth that the censors removed from the work of other correspondents.

Vasily Grossman was one of the first correspondents to document that Nazi extermination of the Jews. His article "The Hell of Treblinka" in _A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945_, a collection of his war correspondence and diaries, is one of the great works of modern literature. The passages in Life and Fate on the death camps rise to this level of brilliance, truth, and beauty.

Likewise, Life and Fate has a marvelous chapter modeled after the murder of the tens of thousand of Jews in the town where Grossman was born, the town where his mother lived and died during the war, the chapter centered on a character modeled on the Grossman's mother. Like so much in this book, this chapter could stand on its own as a masterpiece.

But a great novelist like Grossman must do more than teach history. He must give us characters we care about well enough to struggle its many pages with.

Grossman's characters are full humans, with flaws, with weaknesses, with needs, with enjoyment of little personal desires, with fears, and even crimes they perform to stay themselves. Somehow he can explain not only the hideousness of Stalinism and the terror of war, but the strength of our need for love from family, from colleagues, for romance.

What is missing is any full depiction of the USSR's everyday working class, its peasants, and its rank and file soldiers. All Grossman's major characters are military officers, industrial leaders, party functionaries, scientists, and intellectuals. To be sure, we see the suffering and struggle of ordinary soldiers, workers, and peasants as they cross the lives of his characters, but not through their own lives

Grossman was not allowed to finish this book from him. The NKVD took the book from him. He believed until he died that all the copies of the book had been destroyed. Fortunately, copies survived. One was smuggled out of the USSR and published after his death.

This book suffers from some of the normal problems of a final draft of a great novel has before being edited. In places it is too wordy, we do not know what happens to characters for long sections of the narrative, and Grossman's great digressions distract us from the narrative. For this we can blame the NKVD, not Grossman

Life and Fate is one the great works of Literature. It becomes part of your life beyond the moments its pages are in front of you. We develop such a strong feeling for the lives, hopes, and dreams of his characters that when we finish this book we cannot say "Farewell" to them. We think about their lives and struggles like we do our own. We need to revisit them by reading this book again.
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92 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2006
Format: Paperback
Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, the classic epic novel of WWII Russia, centers on the Shaposhnikova family and their life in totalitarian Stalinist Soviet Russia, and in particular on the Battle of Stalingrad, but there are literally dozens of characters in a multitude of settings.

The tale is unrelentingly grim. Nearly every character dies, is betrayed to the Soviet authorities, or simply suffers - and no ordinary suffering, but genuine Slavic deprivation. With a few temporary exceptions, universal hunger and material deprivation prevail. Hunger ranges from ever-present to starvation. Political betrayal runs rampant across every class of Stalinist Soviet society with mind-boggling inefficiency. Grossman also describes the very beginnings of the Nazi Holocaust at Treblinka and other extermination camps, including a blood-chilling scene with Eichmann having dinner at the camp to celebrate its opening.

Grossman's characters engage in extensive internal dialogue about their suffering and especially about their political punishments. Grossman recreates the frustration of not knowing why one has been accused of infidelity to the Revolution. Often the victim doesn't know by whom or of what they have been accused.

Grossman was a decorated Soviet military journalist who moved gradually toward the dissidence that flowers in his epic novel. What is remarkable, and a matter of some debate today, is how Grossman ever imagined that his book would be published in the Soviet Union - as he proposed during the thaw under Nikita Khrushchev. Instead, while Grossman was not molested, his book was taken "under arrest" by the KGB in 1961. Fortunately, Grossman kept two undeclared copies that were smuggled out to the West in 1980 and published in 1985.

Life and Fate is not an easy book to read on several levels. It is long - some 871 pages. It is ceaselessly grim and gritty. Keeping track of the characters and various plot lines is a challenge (The book contains a handy listing of the main characters in an 8-page appendix. For the Western reader, the Russian surnames are hard to keep straight. I recommend keeping an extra bookmark in place at the Appendix). Grossman's characters engage in lengthy intellectual dialogue.

For some of these same reasons, the book is also vastly rewarding. As the excellent introduction to the New York Review of Books edition puts it, Life and Fate is "almost an encyclopedia of the complexities of life under totalitarianism" and the pressures brought to bear on the individual. Absolutely the highest recommendation. Five stars don't do it justice.
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141 of 147 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Vasily Grossman submitted his manuscript for Life and Fate in 1960 at the height of Khrushchev's post-Stalinist cultural thaw. Subsequent to a review of the manuscript Grossman was advised that the book was being arrested. The book could not be published for at least 200 years. All copies of the manuscript were rounded up and sent to party headquarters for safekeeping. The manuscript was arrested because it dared to imply that Hitlerism and Stalinism bore more similarities than differences. Grossman made this point obliquely by putting these words into the mouth of a despicable SS death camp commandant. Nevertheless this was too much for both Khrushchev and the apparatchiks at the National Union of Writers and the book was banned. Life and Fate was eventually published because a manuscript remained at large. The author Vladimir Voinovich helped smuggle a copy to Switzerland where it was published in 1980, 15 years after Grossman's death in 1965. The book was published in the USSR in 1989 to sensational results. Nevertheless, Grossman remains relatively obscure outside Russia and that is a great pity.

Grossman was born in 1905. Although Jewish by birth, Grossman was never particularly religious and his family supported the 1917 revolution. After receiving a degree in chemistry Grossman found work in the Donbass coal mines. Encouraged by Maxim Gorky, Grossman began writing short stories and plays. Grossman adopted Stalin's maxim that writers were engineers of human souls and his work was firmly rooted in the rather tedious school of socialist realism. Grossman's play "If You Believe the Pythagoreans" attacked the philosophical rants of intellectuals and argued that they were garbage not "worth a good worker's boot." For all intents and purposes, Grossman was a true believer. How and why did this change? Life and Fate begins to answer that question.

Grossman volunteered for the front after the German invasion in 1941 and worked as a reporter for Red Star, an army newspaper known for its forthright reports from the front lines. Grossman received national fame due to his reporting from the front lines. Grossman was the first reporter to write first hand accounts of German concentration camps and his experience there had a devastating impact on his world view. Grossman learned after the war that his mother, who he failed to move from Berdichev to Moscow after the invasion perished in Hitler's genocide. It was the death of his mother and the post war anti-Semitic campaigns of Stalin that may have led Grossman to challenge his own acceptance of Soviet orthodoxy and set him to work on Life and Fate and his other major work, Forever Flowing.
Life and Fate is a remarkable novel despite its occasional unremarkable prose that contains a trace of Grossman's earlier socialist realism style. The book's emotional core involves humanity's struggle for freedom in an unfree world. Josef Skvorecky put the central question of Life and Fate thusly: "Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and world wide triumph of the dictatorial state is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian state is doomed."

The scope of the story and the cast of characters are vast and in the tradition of both Tolstoy and Pasternak. This edition contains a list of characters and their geographic location during the story. The central characters include Viktor Shtrum, a scientist, and his extended family. Other central figures include Captain Grekov, the leader of a group of soldiers doing battle with the Nazi's in a bombed out apartment building in Stalingrad. Grekov is an iconoclast doing battle not only with the Nazis but the political commissars that spent more time concerned with political orthodoxy than fighting. Key scenes in the book also take place in a German concentration camp and a Russian labor camp.

Life and Fate is a wonderful book. Grossman's assertion towards the end of his work that we can be slaves by fate but not slaves by nature is an important concept to keep a hold of today.

L. Fleisig
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2005
Format: Paperback
I've worked in used bookstores for more than fifteen years and have read voraciously for all of that time, and I hope you will believe me when I say that this is simply the best novel I've ever read. When you also consider that it is a translation, that's really saying something. The book is an easy read, the language is very straightforward, yet I was blown away every time I sat down to read it. The book entertains while being profoundly moral, like a Kurosawa film. Along with Lowry's Under The Volcano, with its fantastically beautiful prose (and serious shortage of plot), this sits at the very top of my stack. So don't let its length bother you - instead, be grateful that such a such a killer read isn't over too soon.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2000
Format: Paperback
A splendid novel and a fine translation. Those who would like to learn more about the novel and its author, Vasily Grossman, might wish to check the biography we published: The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman (Free Press, 1996). And for more about the Eastern Front, see a book we edited: World War 2 and the Soviet People (St. Martin's Press, 1993). Sadly, the first is out of print, and the second may be too. We are pleased so many readers share our high opinion of Grossman's novel and of the Russian achievement in defeating Nazi Germany, which Grossman chonicled as the leading Soviet frontline correspondent in the Second World War. His dispatches from Stalingrad, translated into English during the war (before he fell out of favor with the Soviet authorities), have been widely used in the West, usually without any acknowledgment of his authorship. And words he wrote are also inscribed inside the dome of the massive Soviet war memorial at Stalingrad, also without his name. It's good see that Vasily Grossman is at last getting some long overview credit and the attention of readers.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 29, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The preeminent Soviet war correspondent of World War II wrote this sweeping novel, modelled on "War and Peace", about the epic battle of Stalingrad and the Russian war experience. He finds Nazism and Communism to be essentially the same thing, which is why this book was banned by the Soviets and had to be smuggled out to the West. (They actually "arrested" the book itself, one of only two books ever accorded that honor in the USSR, and tried to destroy every manuscript.) Grossman describes every walk of Soviet life and how it was affected by both the war against the Germans and by the terror at home. He finds some bitter ironies, including Russians being motivated to fight the Germans not by internationalist Communism but by Russian nationalism. And while the turning of the war's tide was a positive outcome, the nationalism was bad for all the non-Russians - Jews and other minorities - who were turned on as a result. The war briefly unleashes a sense of liberty in soldiers at the front and civilians living in makeshift circumstances after being evacuated, but that liberty is squelched as the Russians turn the tide and Stalin regains control. Scenes among Soviet POWs in German concentration camps, Jews being taken to death camps and political prisoners in Russian gulags, are vivid and powerful. Grossman was the first journalist to cover Treblinka when the Russian advance overtook the site, his journalistic dispatches were the first things written about it and his death camp scenes here among the best things ever written about it. Also stunning is the surreal interrogation of an old Bolshevik, now a POW in a concentration camp, by an SS leader who argues adroitly that war between fascism and communism is a tragedy - each being, in his mind, the closest natural ally of the other.

Grossman writes about every aspect of Russian life; his characters - most of them linked somehow to the middle-class Shaposhnikov family - developed with subtlety. This may be the best book ever on what life under Stalin felt like. Solzhenitsyn's books are focused strongly on the experience of political prisoners, because prison and internal exile were all he knew, but Grossman, having avoided that fate, is able to write about the lives of peasants, soldiers, civilians, workers, commissars and scientists with a detail that is utterly convincing. He is strongest in unsparingly penetrating the compromises nearly every citizen, including himself, made to avoid arrest and death.

Rarely is a new classic born overnight, but that's what happened here. You may have never heard of this book; only now is the reading public becoming aware of it. Go read it now.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This is one of the mightiest books I've ever read -- mighty in the sense that it truly covers life and fate from a myriad of aspects and a depth of authenticity. The book focuses mainly on one family during a fateful time in the history of the Soviet Union -- World War II, with a heavy emphasis on the Battle of Stalingrad. This book reveals the Soviet Union in all its perfidy, and the sheer danger of being a Soviet citizen under Communism. The cruelty and madness of the Communist institution is laid bare; but so is the patriotism and bravery of the common Russian citizen. Also revealed in searing detail is the insanity and inhumanity of the Nazis. No book I've ever read so achingly illustrates the terror of Jews as they enter the ovens. Few books I've ever read have so vividly described the daily horror of war, to both the warrior and the civilian. The book is so profound on so many fronts over its 800-plus pages that one feels it should be required reading around the world. Vasily Grossman has written one of the best books of the Twentieth Century. You'll never forget it: you'll never view the Soviet Union, Communism, the war in Russia the same again. The title, Life and Fate, says it all.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2002
Format: Paperback
There's a decent proportion of readers whose reaction to a Russian epic over 600 pages called "Life and Fate" is to snicker. If that's you, probably best to pass on. That would be a shame however, because this is a book about people in a situation which is everything ours is not. Where we are safe, prosperous and secure, the characters in this book are all constantly at risk.
Grossman's magnificent acheivement is to allow us to empathise with these characters and explore a war of the bad with the worse. The pages do not "fly by" - but they do stay with you long after the book is finished. Grossman was a Soviet war journalist, and his coverage of everything from the battle of Stalingrad to the gulag is utterly gripping. It is not a feelgood book, or a "testament to the triumph of the human spirit". It is a beautiful, memorable tribute to how ordinary people cope with impossible situations. If you have any interest in life in an utterly different situation, this book is a purchase you should really, really not pass up. I cannot praise it highly enough.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2004
Format: Paperback
While longer and thus a little more patchy than his other masterpiece, Forever Flowing, Life and Fate is perhaps the greatest novel of, and from, the Soviet Union. That it was locked away in a draw by the author and then confiscated by the KGB, and that the author died thinking it was lost forever gives this momentous work a measure of tragedy as well.

Like Tolstoy's War and Peace the novel tells the story of family living through dark times. In this case Stalinism and WWII. Especially vivid portrayals of the battle for Stalingrad (the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime) combine with human tales of the everyday domestic life of the characters. Over this are, again Tolstoy like, commentaries and asides about history, philosophy and meaning.

The more you know about the Soviet Union during the period, and about the Soviet's role in the war (basically the war in Europe was primarily one between Germany and the USSR, the stuff in the West was almost peripheral) the more you will pick up on and appreciate. However, even without that knowledge I suspect this book will sweep you away if you let it.

This is also a novel far more in the grand 19th century tradition, narrative, description and commentary all flow together. Its very long but you'll probably be sad to finish it, and it will stay with you a long time.

You might also want to compare it with some of the great American novels that came out in the 1950s dealing with the experience of the war. For example, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones' The Thin Red Line or From Here to Eternity. Another Soviet book that readers who enjoyed this might also like is Anatoli Rybakov's Children of the Arbat.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 24, 2006
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Vasily Grossman was a scientist, a respected novelist during the Stalin era, a Jew, a widely admired war correspondent for the Soviet army newspaper, and, in the later years of his life, a dissident writer whose works were banned by the Soviet state. He brings all of his experiences to bear in this monumental novel of Russian society under siege during World War II. The book has a sweep and power and humanity that make most other novels seem trivial by comparison.

The book's episodic, multi-layered structure deliberately evokes Tolstoy's War and Peace. The plot revolves around the members, relatives and friends of the Shaposhnikov family. The main action centers on the battle for Stalingrad during the winter of 1942. Other locales include a Ukrainian village where thousands of Jews were slaughtered, a Russian labor camp housing the victims of Stalin's purges, a German prisoner of war camp, a Nazi concentration camp, and a Soviet institute for advanced physics.

Theoretical physicist Viktor Shtrum is the character Grossman uses to explore the ethical and emotional difficulties of living in a totalitarian state. Viktor is devoted to the ideal of scientific truth, and understands that intellectual freedom is a necessary prerequisite for scientific discovery. Viktor resists bureaucratic control over his thought processes with a heedless egoism that is heroic on one hand, but damaging to his family, colleagues and research on the other. For Viktor, the most enervating aspect of Stalin's Russia is the fog of moral ambiguity that blankets everything: independence equals disloyalty; integrity means selfishness; courage implies anti-social recklessness. Fear of state punishment leads to a mass form of voluntary censorship. What freedoms the secret police don't crush, citizens crush within themselves.

Grossman tried to publish this book in the early sixties during the political thaw of the Khrushchev regime. The manuscript was confiscated by the KGB, down to the carbons used to make copies. Its revelations that the USSR was complicit in the slaughter of Jews during World War II, and that Stalin's political commissars hindered the officers in charge of the Soviet armed forces subverted commonly held myths about the Great Patriotic War. The novel's ultimate heresy may have been its assertion that Stalinism and Nazism were mirror images of each other, totalitarian empires organized to suppress individual freedom in order to ensure their own perpetuation. Fortunately two copies of the novel survived, and one was smuggled to the west. Life and Fate was finally published in the 1980s, long after Grossman's death.

This book puts Grossman in the pantheon of Russia's greatest novelists. The scenes of women and children confronting their deaths in the concentration camps rival Dostoievsky at the peak of his powers. Although Grossman was not as polished a writer as Chekhov, he writes with a humanity and fine-grained particularity Chekhov would have admired. The texture of the battle scenes is astonishing, down to the feel and smell of hunkering down in bunkers during an aerial bombardment. Life and Fate can stand up to a comparison with War and Peace. Grossman may not have Tolstoy's magical ability to make words stand in for real life, but he's a deeper social thinker. The novel's only structural flaw is in the chapters where Viktor is working out the moral implications of his work and his love life. They go on too long, probably because the author was struggling to work out his own attitudes towards these issues. To be fair, Grossman never got to do a final edit on the galleys.

Grossman had a ringside seat during the climatic struggle between the twentieth century's most malign political monsters. He had the courage and the skill to see the story clearly, to bring back reports from the living, and to bear witness for the dead. In its explorations of suffering, understanding of history, and affirmation of the human spirit, Love and Fate has to be ranked as one of the twentieth century's greatest novels. Seldom in world literature have words been used to such powerful effect.
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