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Courtesy: Robert Chandler (September, 2006)

The Russian writer's novel "Life and Fate"—often compared with "War and Peace"—was first published in English in the mid-1980s. But only now is interest taking off among a wider public

It is easy for a translator to exaggerate the importance of what he is working on. In the early 1980s, while I was translating Life and Fate—Vasily Grossman's epic novel about the second world war and totalitarianism—I was certain that it was a very great work. As the years passed and few people either in Russia or the west seemed to be paying much attention to it, I began to doubt my judgement. It was a joy, therefore, to reread the novel last winter, for the first time in 20 years, and realise that I had underestimated Grossman's greatness. Life and Fate is not only a brave and wise book; it is also written with Chekhovian subtlety.

Collins Harvill published my translation of Life and Fate in 1985. The reviews were mostly positive but sales were disappointing, especially in view of the fact that the book had been a bestseller in France; one of Grossman's central themes—the identity of fascism and communism—was clearly a more pressing concern in a country where communism was still a significant political force. And there were English critics who thought Grossman dull. Anthony Burgess, for example, seemed irritated by George Steiner's judgement that "novels like Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheel and Life and Fate eclipse almost all that passes for serious fiction in the west today." Burgess accused Grossman of lack of imagination—a surprising thing to say of a writer able to describe so convincingly the last moments of a child dying in a Nazi gas chamber.

When Igor Golomstock, the émigré art critic, first showed me a copy of the original Russian edition of Life and Fate, published in Lausanne in 1981, and suggested I try to persuade a publisher to commission a translation, I laughed. I did not read books of that length, I said, let alone translate them. A month later, Igor gave me the texts of four radio programmes about the novel that he had made for the BBC Russian service. To my surprise, I was gripped, and soon I was translating a sample chapter. The huge number of characters and sub-plots make Life and Fate seem daunting, but once one starts reading, its clarity and compassion make it quite accessible.

Grossman is in many respects an old-fashioned writer, and perhaps for that reason literary critics have shown little interest in him. For many years it was historians—above all, Antony Beevor and Catherine Merridale—who affirmed his importance. Beevor's recent translation of Grossman's war diaries (A Writer at War, from which several quotations in this article are taken) has done more than anything to bring the writer to a wider public. Since publication of the diaries last year, sales of Life and Fate in Britain have grown from around 500 copies a year to 500 a month. And in March, a Guardian article by Martin Kettle praising Life and Fate led to it briefly becoming the second most popular book at Amazon UK.

Grossman is a steady writer; he never sets out to dazzle the reader. So it is perhaps appropriate that his recognition has come about only gradually. Nevertheless, it has been clear for some time that Life and Fate is finding its place in the world. Since 2005, the centenary of Grossman's birth, there have been two new editions of his classic in English. And in the 1990s two biographies in English were published: Frank Ellis's Vasiliy Grossman: The Genesis and Evolution of a Russian Heretic and John and Carol Garrard's The Bones of Berdichev. The latter emphasises Grossman's importance as a witness to the Shoah. There is perhaps no more powerful lament for east European Jewry than the letter that Anna Semyonovna, a fictional portrait in Life and Fate of Grossman's mother, writes to her son and smuggles out of a town occupied by the Nazis. The Last Letter, a one-woman play based on this letter, has been staged by Frederick Wiseman both in Paris and in New York. A Russian version was staged in Moscow in December 2005.

Grossman will be remembered not only for his evocation of wartime Stalingrad and his accounts, both journalistic and fictional, of the Shoah. He has also left us one of the most vivid accounts of famine in world literature; his last major work, the unfinished novel, Everything Flows, includes an account of the 1932-33 terror famine in Ukraine. It is typical of Grossman that Anna, the sympathetic narrator of this chapter, is herself implicated, as a minor party official, in the implementation of measures that exacerbate the famine. We cannot help but identify with Anna and so we too feel guilty; Grossman does not allow the reader the luxury of indignation. Everything Flows also includes an extraordinary mock trial: the reader is asked to pronounce judgement on four informers. The arguments Grossman gives to both prosecution and defence are lively and startling; as a reader, one is constantly changing one's mind.

Grossman is still not widely read in contemporary Russia. Nationalists cannot forgive him for a long meditation in Everything Flows on "the slave soul" of Russia. Many Russians have simply not yet had time to digest the vast amount of previously forbidden literature that was first published in the late 1980s. The Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov, for example, has told me that he read so much during those years that he can no longer remember who wrote what. And then, after the collapse of communism, Russians were thrown into a world so unfamiliar and frightening that they had little time or energy to think about their Soviet past.

But many other groups of readers are now being drawn to Grossman: Ukrainian émigrés, who value him for his writing about the terror famine; Jews, who value him for what he has written about the Shoah; people with an interest in the history of the second world war and the relationship between communism and fascism; journalists, who see him as an exemplary war correspondent. It is interesting that a recent European conference celebrating the centenary of Grossman's birth was held at a Catholic centre in Turin and that several of the writers, critics and journalists who most admire Grossman—Gillian Slovo, Martin Kettle and John Lloyd among others—are ex-Marxists. Both Catholics and Marxists tend to expect art not only to be a source of joy, but also to provide moral guidance and a greater understanding of reality.

Vasily Semyonovich Grossman was born on 12th December 1905 in Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was home to one of Europe's largest Jewish communities. His parents were Jews and they originally named their son Iosif, but this obviously Jewish name was later russified to Vasily; the family was well off and assimilated. At some point in his early childhood, his parents separated. From 1910 to 1912, the young Grossman and his mother lived in Switzerland, probably in Geneva. His mother, Yekaterina Savelievna, was later to work as a French teacher. From 1914 to 1919 he went to secondary school in Kiev and from 1924 to 1929 he studied chemistry at Moscow State University. There he realised that his vocation was literature. He never, however, lost interest in science; Viktor Shtrum, the central figure of Life and Fate and in many respects a self-portrait, is a nuclear physicist. (Primo Levi, another great witness to the Shoah, worked as an industrial chemist. Like Grossman, he is a master of precise description.)

After graduating, Grossman moved to the industrial region of the Donbass, in east Ukraine, working as an inspector in a mine and a chemistry teacher in a medical institute. In 1932 he returned to Moscow, and in 1934 he published both "In the Town of Berdichev"—a short story that won the admiration of writers as different as Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaak Babel—and a novel, Glyukauf, about Donbass miners. In 1937 Grossman was admitted to the Union of Soviet Writers. His novel Stepan Kol'chugin was later nominated for a Stalin prize.

Critics often divide Grossman's life into two parts. Tzvetan Todorov, for example, says that "Grossman is the only example… of an established Soviet writer changing his spots completely. The slave in him died, and a free man arose." But it is wrong to draw so clear a distinction between the "conformist" writer of the 1930s and 1940s and the "dissident" who wrote Life and Fate and Everything Flows in the 1950s. Glyukauf may seem dull today, but it must once have had the power to shock: in 1932 Gorky criticised it for "naturalism"—a Soviet codeword for presenting too much unpalatable reality. At the end of his report Gorky suggested that the author should ask himself: "Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph?" Even then such a cynical attitude to truth would almost certainly have been anathema to Grossman. It is hard, however, not to be impressed by Gorky's intuition about Grossman as a potential heretic. In 1961, after the manuscripts of Life and Fate had been confiscated, Grossman wrote to Khrushchev: "I have written in my book what I believed, and continue to believe, to be the truth. I have written only what I have thought through, felt through and suffered through."

Grossman was not a martyr; nevertheless, he showed considerable courage during the years of the great terror. In 1938, when his second wife, Olga Mikhailovna, was arrested, Grossman adopted her two sons by her previous husband, Boris Guber, who had himself been arrested the previous year; but for Grossman's action, the boys might have been sent to a camp. Grossman then wrote to Nikolai Yezhov, the notorious head of the NKVD, pointing out that Olga was now his wife and that she should not be held responsible for her former husband, with whom she had broken completely; later that year she was released. Grossman's friend, Semyon Lipkin, commented, "All this may seem normal enough, but only a very brave man would have dared to write a letter like this to the state's chief executioner."

Grossman's move towards dissidence was a gradual one. During the war years he appeared to feel no fear of either the Germans or the NKVD; in 1952, however, as Stalin's anti-Jewish campaign gathered pace, Grossman agreed to sign an official letter calling for the harshest punishment of the Jewish doctors allegedly involved in a plot against Stalin. It is possible that this was an aberration; like most people he acted inconsistently. Indeed, Life and Fate is an encyclopedia of the complexities of life under totalitarianism, and no one has articulated better than Grossman how hard it is for an individual to withstand its pressures: "But an invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating… Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment—with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest."

Grossman did not try to hide from his own faults. He condemned himself, above all, for his failure to get his mother evacuated from Berdichev after the German invasion in 1941. He also, however, blamed his wife, who did not get on with his mother. Shortly before the war, Grossman had suggested they invite his mother to live with them in Moscow—and Olga said there was not enough room. In September 1941, Yekaterina Savelievna was killed by the Germans, along with most of the 30,000 Jews of Berdichev. Years later, after Grossman's death, an envelope was found among his papers; in it were two letters he had written to his dead mother in 1950 and 1961, on the ninth and 20th anniversaries of her death, along with two photographs. In the first letter, Grossman writes, "I have tried… hundreds of times, to imagine how you died, how you walked to meet your death. I tried to imagine the person who killed you. He was the last person to see you. I know you were thinking about me… during all that time." One photograph shows his mother with Vasily as a child; the other, taken by Grossman from a dead SS officer, shows hundreds of naked dead women and girls in a large pit.

Grossman may have looked on the war as a chance to redeem himself. He volunteered as an ordinary soldier, despite his poor health. Assigned instead to Red Star, the red army newspaper, he quickly won acclaim as a courageous war correspondent. He covered all the main battles, from the defence of Moscow to the fall of Berlin, and his articles were valued by soldiers and generals alike. Groups of frontline soldiers would gather round while one of them read from a copy of Red Star; the writer Viktor Nekrasov, who fought at Stalingrad, remembers how "the papers with Grossman's and [Ilya] Ehrenburg's articles were read and reread by us until they were in tatters."

No other journalist wrote with the same regard for what Grossman called the "ruthless truth of war." What he wrote in his notebooks, however, was still more uncompromising; many passages, had they been seen by the NKVD, could have cost Grossman his life; some reflect badly on important commanders, others deal with such taboo matters as desertion and collaboration with the Germans. The notebooks are full of unexpected detail: in an early note he refers to "the usual smell of the front line—a cross between that of a morgue and that of a blacksmith."

Perhaps afraid of intimidating people, Grossman never took notes during interviews, relying instead on his remarkable memory. He could win the trust of people from all walks of life: snipers, generals, fighter pilots, soldiers in a Soviet penal battalion, peasants, German prisoners, or teachers who had guiltily carried on working in German-occupied territory.

In 1943, after the German surrender at Stalingrad, Grossman was with the first red army units to liberate the Ukraine. He learned about Babi Yar, where 100,000 people, most of them Jews, were massacred. Soon afterwards, in Berdichev, he learned the details of his mother's death. His story "The Old Teacher" and the article "Ukraine without Jews" are among the first accounts of the Shoah in any language. And Grossman's vivid yet sober "The Hell of Treblinka" (late 1944), the first article in any language about a Nazi death camp, was republished and used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials.

Grossman was the first to research both the massacres in the Ukraine that marked the beginning of the Shoah and the death camps of Poland that were its culmination. The SS tried to destroy all trace of Treblinka, but Grossman interviewed local peasants and the 40 survivors and reconstructed how the camp functioned. He writes perceptively about the role played by deceit, about how the "SS psychiatrists of death" managed "to confuse people's minds once more, to sprinkle them with hope… 'Women and children must take their shoes off… Stockings must be put into shoes … Be tidy… Going to the bathhouse, you must have your documents, a towel…'"

The official Soviet line, however, was that all nationalities had suffered equally under Hitler; the standard retort to those who emphasised the suffering of Jews was "Do not divide the dead!" Admitting that Jews constituted the overwhelming majority of the dead would have entailed admitting that other Soviet nationalities—and especially Ukrainians—had been accomplices in the genocide; in any case, Stalin was antisemitic. From 1943 to 1946, along with Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman worked for the Jewish anti-fascist committee on The Black Book, a documentary account of the massacres of Jews on Soviet and Polish soil. It was never published.

The novel The People Immortal (1943), like Stepan Kol'chugin, was nominated for a Stalin prize but vetoed by Stalin—although the committee had voted for it unanimously. By the time of the publication in 1952 of his relatively orthodox war novel, For a Just Cause, other leading members of the Jewish anti-fascist committee had been arrested or murdered and a new wave of purges was about to begin; but for Stalin's death, in March 1953, Grossman would almost certainly have been arrested himself.

During the next few years, Grossman enjoyed public success. He was awarded a prestigious decoration, the Red Banner of Labour, and For a Just Cause was republished. Meanwhile he was working on his two masterpieces, Life and Fate and Everything Flows, neither of which was to be published in Russia until the late 1980s. Intended as a sequel to For a Just Cause, Life and Fate is better seen as a separate novel that includes many of the same characters. It is important not only as literature but also as history; we have no more complete picture of Stalinist Russia. The power of other dissident writers—Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn, Mandelstam—derives from their position as outsiders; Grossman's power derives at least in part from his intimate knowledge of every level of Soviet society. In Life and Fate, Grossman achieves what many other Soviet writers struggled and failed to achieve: a portrait of an entire age. Every character, however vividly realised, represents a particular group or class and endures a fate which exemplifies the fate of that class: Shtrum, the Jewish intellectual; Getmanov, the cynical Stalinist functionary; Abarchuk and Krymov, two of the thousands of Old Bolsheviks arrested in the 1930s; Novikov, the honourable officer whose ability was recognised only when the disasters of 1941 compelled the authorities, at least for a few years, to value military competence more highly than possession of the correct party credentials. There is nothing eccentric about the novel, stylistically or structurally. But for Grossman's moral questioning and his heretical equation of communism with Nazism, Life and Fate would have come close to meeting the authorities' demand for a truly Soviet epic.

In October 1960, against the advice of his two closest friends, Semyon Lipkin and Yekaterina Zabolotskaya, Grossman delivered the manuscript of Life and Fate to the editors of Znamya. It was the height of Khrushchev's "thaw" and Grossman believed the novel could be published. But in February 1961, three KGB officers came to his flat to confiscate the manuscript and related material, even carbon paper and typing ribbons. No other book, apart from The Gulag Archipelago, was ever considered so dangerous. In most respects Grossman appeared to co-operate, taking the KGB officers to his cousin and his two typists so they could confiscate remaining copies of the manuscript. What the KGB, surprisingly, failed to discover is that Grossman had made two other copies; he had left one with Semyon Lipkin and the other with Lyolya Dominikina, a friend from student days who had no connection with the literary world.

Many people think that Grossman was crazily naive to imagine that Life and Fate could have been published. But Igor Golomstock, the critic, has spoken to me about the high hopes entertained after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, by many people who were deeply critical of the Soviet regime but who—like Grossman—had lived their lives within it. Lipkin makes it clear that Grossman knew he might be arrested; my own view is that he was simply tired of prevaricating, tired of accommodating himself to the authorities' capricious demands. He did not foresee that the authorities might take the unusual step of arresting not him but his novel.

Grossman continued to demand that his novel be published. In time he was summoned by Mikhail Suslov, chief ideologue of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years. Suslov repeated what Grossman had already been told: that the novel could not be published for two or three hundred years. In doing so, he implicitly recognised the novel's lasting importance.

Afraid that the novel might have been lost forever, Grossman fell into depression. Nevertheless, he did not stop working. As well as writing Peace Be With You, a lively account of a journey to Armenia, he went on revising Everything Flows, a work even more critical of Soviet society than Life and Fate. Grossman, however, was suffering from stomach cancer; late on 14th September 1964, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of Berdichev, he died.

Grossman once wrote that the only book he could read during the street fighting in Stalingrad was War and Peace; his choice of a similar-sounding title almost challenges the reader to compare the two novels. Life and Fate stands up to this comparison. Grossman's evocation of Stalingrad is at least as vivid as Tolstoy's evocation of Austerlitz. Like Tolstoy, Grossman adopts many viewpoints: from that of the ordinary soldier to that of a historian or philosopher. Grossman's general reflections are more interesting and varied than Tolstoy's. Sometimes they derive their power not from imagery but from slow, deliberate logic; the unusual idea that totalitarian states operate on the same principles as modern physics, both concerned more with probabilities than with cause and effect, more with vast aggregates than with individual people or particles, threads its way through the novel. Sometimes logic and poetry combine; the image of Stalin snatching the sword of antisemitism from Hitler's hands at Stalingrad provides a coda to the argument that Nazism and Stalinism are essentially the same phenomenon.

Grossman expresses his own beliefs most directly in a thesis in praise of "senseless kindness" written by a character called Ikonnikov, a former Tolstoyan who has recently witnessed the massacre of 20,000 Jews. Before condemning himself to death by refusing to work on the construction of a gas chamber, Ikonnikov turns to an Italian priest and asks in a haunting jumble of Italian, French and German: "Que dois-je faire, mio padre, nous travaillons dans una Vernichtungslager." ("What should I do, my father? We are working in a death camp.") Grossman is capable of many kinds of poetry, from denunciatory eloquence to the fumbling, broken language of Ikonnikov; he gives himself up to poetry, however, only when more ordinary language ceases to be adequate.

Only in one respect, perhaps, is Grossman overshadowed by Tolstoy: he lacks Tolstoy's ability to evoke the richness, the fullness of life. There is nothing in Life and Fate that matches Tolstoy's portrayal of the young Natasha Rostova. Grossman, however, is writing about one of the darkest periods of European history, and the overall tone of his novel is correspondingly sombre. Nevertheless, Grossman is not without love, faith and hope; there is even a kind of optimism in his belief that it is never impossible for us to act morally and humanely, even in a Soviet or Nazi labour camp. And his subtle understanding of guilt, uncertainty and duplicity, of the pain and complexity of moral choice, gives his work its lasting value.

This subtlety of moral understanding is one of many qualities that link Grossman to a writer who worked on a very different scale: Anton Chekhov. Many chapters in Life and Fate are like Chekhov short stories. There is a Chekhovian irony in the chapter about Klimov, a young soldier at Stalingrad who is forced by a bombardment to hide in a crater for several hours. Thinking he is lying next to a Russian comrade and feeling an uncharacteristic need for human warmth, this gifted killer holds the hand of a German soldier who happens to have taken refuge in the same crater. Only when the bombardment lifts do the soldiers realise their shared mistake; they clamber out in silence, each afraid of being seen by a superior and accused of collaboration.

Just as much of Life and Fate can be read as a series of miniatures, so Chekhov's stories—in Grossman's view—can be read as a single epic. The tribute that a Grossman character pays to Chekhov is a statement of Grossman's own hopes and beliefs: "Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness… He said, let's put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side. Let's begin with man; let's be kind and attentive to the individual man—whether he's a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let's begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we'll get nowhere."

Life and Fate could perhaps be called a Chekhovian epic about human nature; like any great epic, it occasionally shatters its own frame. On the train to a death camp, Sofya Osipovna Levinton, a middle-aged, childless doctor, "adopts" David, a small boy to whom Grossman has given many of his childhood memories as well as his own birthday, 12th December. Refusing to abandon David or the Jewish people with whom she is identifying for the first time, Sofya sacrifices her life by not responding when a German officer orders any doctors to come forward. Sofya and David are among the crowd propelled into the gas chambers. David dies first and Sofya feels his body subside in her arms. The chapter ends: "This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her. 'I've become a mother,' she thought. That was her last thought. Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David, now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll."

As he said in a letter to Ilya Ehrenburg about The Black Book, Grossman felt it his moral duty to speak on behalf of the dead, "on behalf of those who lie in the earth." He also felt sustained by the dead; he believed that their strength could help him to fulfil his duty towards the living. This is clear from the guardedly optimistic conclusion to the story of Viktor Shtrum. After uncharacteristically betraying men he knows to be innocent merely because he can't bear the thought of losing a few new privileges, Shtrum expresses the hope that his dead mother will help him to act better next time; his last words in the novel are "Well then, we'll see… Maybe I do have enough strength. Your strength, mother…"

Grossman's feelings are revealed still more clearly in the letter he wrote to his mother on the 20th anniversary of her death: "I am you, dear Mama, and as long as I live, then you are alive also. When I die you will continue to live in this book, which I have dedicated to you and whose fate is closely tied to your fate." His sense of his mother's continued life in the book seems to have made him feel that Life and Fate was itself a living being. His letter to Khrushchev ends with a challenge: "There is no sense or truth in my present position, in my physical freedom while the book to which I dedicated my life is in prison. For I wrote it, and I have not repudiated it and am not repudiating it… I ask for freedom for my book."

John Garrard has written about what he calls "two open wounds" relating to Grossman. The first is the culture of silence that exists to this day in former Soviet territory about the collaboration of some of the local population in the deaths of Soviet Jews. The second relates to the battle of Stalingrad. In huge granite letters on the wall leading to the famous Stalingrad mausoleum, a German soldier asks, "They are attacking us again; can they be mortal?" Inside the mausoleum the words of a red army soldier's reply are tooled in gold: "Yes, we were mortal indeed, and few of us survived, but we all carried out our patriotic duty before holy Mother Russia." Although these words are taken from "In the Line of the Main Drive," an article first published by Grossman in Red Star and reprinted in Pravda, the designers of the memorial did not acknowledge Grossman as their author. Guides at the memorial still claim that they do not know who wrote those words.

While the memorial was being constructed, Grossman died in obscurity. The memorial was begun in 1959 and completed in 1967; Life and Fate was "arrested" in 1961 and Grossman died in 1964. It is as if the authorities chose to deal with Grossman by splitting him into two separate figures: a dissident Jew whose work must be silenced, and a "voice of the Soviet people" whose words could be carved in huge letters provided his name went unmentioned. Grossman himself would probably have shrugged his shoulders at this omission; what would upset him more is people's reluctance to attend to what he had said "on behalf of those who lie in the earth."