…”Life and Fate,” an 850-page “great” novel by Vasily Grossman, a Russian war correspondent and novelist. It had been recommended by Adele’s brother and an ob/gyn at the health club, a couple decades apart, and I decided it was time to give it a try. It had been written, I learned, in the 1950s, and, in 1960, following its completion, the KGB had seized Grossman’s manuscript, carbon copies, notes, and typewriter ribbon. In 1974, a decade after Grossman’s death, a microfilmed copy was smuggled out of the USSR and published in the west six years later.
L&F centers around the battle of Stalingrad, but chapters occur in Moscow and other cities, on the steppes, within a physics lab, inside a Russian prison and labor camp, a German concentration camp, and a train to — and inside — a gas chamber as the pellets drop. There are more than 150 “Chief Characters,” and I was referring to their list until the end to keep them straight. (It did not help that among these characters were Krymov, Karimov, Kirilov, Kolikov, Khmetkov, Karpov, Krylov, and Klimov.) There are explorations (and debates about) individualism and totalitarianism, freedom and fascism, Hitlerism and Stalinism, fate and divine judgment, society and prison. There are passages of poetry and power, love and hopelessness, anguish and courage.
Like I said, “great.”
If you can make the commitment, do. The only downside is that “normal” novels — even contemporary prize-worthy ones — pale before it. I have tried two since finishing and put both down.