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

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Grossman's Life and Fate grows on you - thought it takes some time and commitment

As sometimes happens - especially with a really long novel - the work grows on you after a time and what at first seemed unfathomable gradually takes shape into a coherent novel - whether through consistency and development of plot, character, setting, or style, who knows, maybe all of the above - and we're in for the ride. At first (see last two posts) I thought I would never finish Vasily Grossman's 1960 (published 1980) novel Life and Fate (quite an ambitious title, right?), but in the third day of reading I've begun to understand and appreciate what he's doing: trying to present the entire culture of the Soviet Union during the siege of Stalingrad in WWII, through brief accounts (most of the many chapters are quite short) of the lives of various people in interconnected families. Extremely rough going at first as so many characters were quickly introduced, and of course there's the perennial problem w/ complex Russian names and nicknames; but, after a time, a few of the specific scenes emerge and we begin to see the inter-relations, and relations, that connect the characters (frequent references to the multi-page list of characters at the back of the book - a must). I still don't think Grossman is a great stylist by any means, but he settles into his material more thoroughly by about page 100 - he was less comfortable, I think, in scenes from the battlefront and more so w/ domestic scenes. Some of the better developments at this point in the novel: a very good account of a young woman living in a large house that has been carved into numerous tiny living spaces for many families - I think Grossman could have built a whole novel about this rooming house/way station, a powerful scene of a mother trying to visit her son in a military hospital who arrives shortly after his death following a dangerous, complex surgery, a scene in one of the Soviet prison camps where political prisoners, i.e., dissidents, are kept cheek-by-jowl with the most violent and dangerous street criminals.. The scene of Soviet Air Force pilots ready for deployment to the front is a little shopworn, seems like a thousand other stories about bravery and comradeship - except that Grossman is fully cognizant of the anti-Semitism in the Soviet government and military, a theme he returns to repeatedly. Is this a great novel? Yes, in terms of its scope and ambition, with "extra points" for the extreme hardship Grossman must have endured in trying to get this published in his lifetime (he didn't) - but we'll have to see whether he can sustain interest (mine, anyway) over 900 pages. I think it's possible - but plot lines will have to develop; he's still just introducing characters and back story nearly 200 pp. into the work.

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