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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

A novel in the tradition of Tolstoy - but Life and Fate is by no means another War and Peace

Everything about it suggests that Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, which he completed in 1960 but was held by Soviet authorities and not published till a microfilm copy was smuggled to France in 1980, would be a great 20th-century novel - one of those vast Russian works in the tradition of Solzhenitson and, especially, Tolstoy - an examination of a crucial period if Russian history, a novel in which scenes of military and domestic life develop in parallel - and yet - through the first 100 or so pages (it's a 900-page novel) this novel totally fails to live up to hype and expectation. We get various scenes of the siege of Stalingrad in WWII, but the scenes are so lifeless and bloodless and devoid of action and feeling - you almost understand why the Soviets wouldn't publish the novel; it would have bored too many Soviet citizens to death! None of the characters seems alive or distinct in any way; time and again Grossman misses opportunities to capture the military life as experienced by ordinary soldiers (as in two novels I've read recently about the first WW - All Quiet on the Western Front and War and Turpentine). There are a confounding # of characters, introduced abruptly and haphazardly. Obviously he's trying to write a 20th-century v of W&P, but he in no way approaches the narrative elegance of Tolstoy. W&P seems as if it would be hard to read but it's actually quite easy because Tolstoy's characters are distinct and his sense of action is vivid, always. Life and Fate is a slog from the jump. I am just getting into some chapters about domestic life, which focus on the family of a physicist living in exile from the war in a small city where they feel out of touch w/ intellectual and academic life. I will read more chapters today in the hope that maybe I was just unreceptive to this work yesterday (that happens - I always recommend giving books at least 2 days' worth of reading before putting them aside), but I'm not confident. Grossman may have been a dutiful scribe, but he does not seem to have the creative spark and insight that makes for a great or at least a good novelist.

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