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

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Life and Fate: An incredible achievement against impossible odds - but ...

Part 1 (of 3) in Vasily Grossman's monumental (i.e., long) Life and Fate ends with several captive Russian soldiers arguing fine points of socialist/communist history - Bolsheviks v Mensheviks - don't worry you won't be able to follow the nuances of their political argument, either - but the point of their argument is: first, the Soviet system was not a monolithic enterprise, there were still in 1942 committed communists who were angry at the turn toward fascism, xenophobia, and the cult of personality during the Stalinist era, and second, it was possible to write a novel in the Soviet Union that examined political differences and expressed loathing toward Stalin and other aspects of the Soviet state, such as the obsession w/ annual production targets or the extreme censorship of Pravda and lack of access to a free press. Yes, possible so to write but not to publish, as VG must have known his novel would never make it past the censors and authorities, as was in fact the case - Life and Fate completed in 1960 and published via smuggled microfilm in France 20 years later. At the end of part one some of the prisoners begin talking about resisting the demands of the German captors - a suicidal enterprise, one would think, but a show of bravery and integrity. This novel continues to hold my interest and I'm impressed, as anyone would be, by its breadth and by VG's wealth of info - but don't read this novel for plot or character, as VG proceeds by accumulation of a vast amount of detail without building a narrative arc or clearly defining any of the characters. Many of the chapters or groups of chapters could stand alone as stories or sketches, but in reading this novel you'll find yourself repeatedly checking the long list of characters at the back of the book, even when you're a third of the way in. An incredible achievement against impossible odds - but he's not a natural storyteller, not even close to his obvious model and influence, i.e. Tolstoy.

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