Life and Fate (iii)

During the first event at the BBC Radio 4 Life and Fate extravaganza in Oxford, concerning the adaptation of the book for the radio drama, a member of the audience asked the writers how they handled the character of Ikonnikov. The writers looked a little blank and had trouble summoning up precisely who Ikonnikov was – and who can blame them, there are hundreds of characters in Life and Fate – but eventually they established that he was the holy fool in the German prisoner of war camp with Mostovskoy. Well, they said: we cut him. A week’s worth of drama wasn’t long enough for everyone in Life and Fate to appear.

At the last talk on the second day, the academic conference, this same audience member, Alex Danchev, proceeded to give a paper on why he thought Ikonnikov was at the very heart of Life and Fate. He took us back to a passage that Robert Chandler also discussed in the first session of that day, when Mostovskoy, Ikonnikov and Gardi are having a poly-lingual conversation about the fact that they are building an extermination camp for the Nazis. The other characters conclude that they don’t have a choice: they are prisoners. Ikonnikov says that he does have a choice. He decides that he will refuse to work on the extermination camp, and soon vanishes from the novel, shot dead by his captors.

The irony of Ikonnikov’s subsequent vanishing from the Radio 4 adaptation was not lost on anyone at the conference, but no one seemed to blame the BBC for overlooking him. After a day crammed full of papers on all aspects of Vasily Grossman, I think we were gaining an expansive, prismatic view of the writer and his work, a view that could stand a little irony, omissions and a few contradictions. The breadth of the experts gathered to talk about Grossman was a statement in itself, with people from international relations, politics, history, Holocaust studies, and Russian, obviously. The talks took in Grossman as a witness, as a journalist, as a moralist, and as a writer. The discussion that followed the talks was extremely lively, and productive, I think: the variety of expertise in the room led to plenty of cross-pollination.

It’s difficult to pick out highlights, so I shall be entirely partisan and say that the papers from my alma mater, the SSEES delegation of Sarah J Young and Katia Shulga, were undoubtedly the best. They were the only people to focus closely on the writing itself (apart from Robert Chandler the translator, obviously). Sarah Young spoke about Grossman’s other writing, the non-Life and Fate parts of his oeuvre and the recurring themes that are found within, and Katia Shulga spoke about Krymov’s evolution as a character in L&F.

I enjoyed hearing more about Grossman the witness at Treblinka, the historical context of his birthplace in Berdichev, his earlier works, his relationship with Ilya Ehrenburg, his influence on Levinas and his writer’s diary; by the end of the day I felt that a thoroughly three-dimensional picture of Grossman had developed. This picture was far from complete, but it was fascinating: a portrait of a truly great writer reacting to his complex times.

Meanwhile the BBC adaptation has run its course on Radio 4. I have only listened to a few of them so far, I must admit, and have yet to form a proper opinion about it. It’s hard to know what I think as I know the book quite well now, and I’m not sure whether I’m reacting to what I hear in a scene or to what I know is there when you read the text. The views I have canvassed from friends seem to be mixed, so far, but everyone seems to want to hear more, at least. If you haven’t done so already, go and download the series right now. Apparently it’s top of the UK podcast download charts on iTunes.

On another note: if you are the person who typed ‘vasili grossman life and fate boring’ into Google and somehow ended up on my blog – yes, I can see these things, creepily enough – stick with it. The first couple of hundred pages can be a little confusing. It’s the sequel to another book, and there are a great many characters to get your head round, so make good use of the character list at the back of the book and of this brilliant chart from the BBC. Your efforts will be amply repaid. Don’t give up!


War and Peace, the 4500 year old work of art

The Sumerian Standard of Ur, showing 'peace'

No, that’s not a typo in the title. I am referring to another great work of art on the subject of war and peace, one that wasn’t created by a Russian count with a big beard. I mean the so-called Standard of Ur, the 4500 year old Sumerian artefact discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley a century ago. One side depicts the civilisation at peace, and the other side shows war. Woolley thought it was a standard, to be carried into battle on the top of a pole, but this is probably wrong, and no one knows what it was really for. I think it was possibly the base of a lyre – the shape has a soundboardy quality to it – or else it was simply a One of Those, a thing in itself.

The ‘war’ side of the object

I was going to plunge straight on with my series of Life and Fate-themed posts, but instead find myself detouring into the Ancient Near East because I keep seeing this version of War and Peace bloody everywhere. It is obviously the go-to image for book designers tasked with choosing something about Mesopotamia:


 And this is just the tip of the lapis lazuli-encrusted iceberg. I don’t have anything against the Standard of Ur – it is an incredible work of art, worth lingering over in the British Museum – but I am starting to think that using it on the cover of so many Ancient Near East-related books shows an astonishing lack of imagination. It’s as though a third of all books about Ancient Greece had the same damn vase on the front. And there is so much wonderful, lively material to choose from – just look at these wonderful chaps in their sheepskin kilts:

Mesopotamian votive statues

– with all their magnificent eyeliner. There’s really no need to go for the same thing all the time, no matter arresting it is.

If you want to hear more about the Standard of Ur, I’d recommend this episode from Radio 4’s other recent magnificent project, the History of the World in 100 Objects, which appeared in conjuction with the British Museum.

Normal (Vasily Grossman-related) service will resume shortly.

Life and Fate (ii)

So, having muttered a bit about the book and the man, I can now turn my attention to events in Oxford last weekend. Last Friday (9th September) there was a ‘mini Grossman festival’ run by Radio 4 in St Peter’s College. It involved four events, the first being a discussion by the people behind the Radio 4 drama, which was chaired by Bridget Kendall. This was followed by a panel with Robert Chandler, Grossman’s translator, Lyuba Vinogradova, who worked on A Writer at War with Anthony Beevor, and Carol and John Garrard, Grossman’s biographers; it was chaired by Mark Damazer, the former controller of Radio 4 who is now the Master of St Peter’s.

Then there was lunch, and then Start the Week presented by Andrew Marr with Anthony Beevor, Andrei Kurkov and Linda Grant, both novelists. This was followed by a five o’clock talk chaired by Bridget Kendall again, with Linda Grant and Francis Spufford and ending in an incredibly moving reading of ‘The Letter’ from Life and Fate, performed by Janet Suzman. In the background to these events was an exhibition from the Study Centre Vasily Grossman, a private research organisation based in Turin of all slightly incongruous places. (You can ‘like’ them on Facebook, a page that is quite lively at the minute.)

Sarah J. Young has written a good summing up of the day which I agree with, so I won’t try to reiterate the same points here. But I will add, firstly, that I enjoyed the last event of the day almost as much as the first one. It had an air of an AA meeting about it that I rather liked. People were standing up and saying how they came to the book and what a powerful effect it had on them when they read it. Bearing in mind that this was the weekend of September 11th, I was struck by a slight parallel between these statements and the way people want to talk about where they were on that day. Reading Life and Fate seems also to be a deeply impressive, life-altering event, although obviously the context and scale are completely different.

Secondly, it surprised and irritated me how few people spoke about the fact that Life and Fate is a sequel. It’s worth emphasising the existence of For A Just Cause (login required with the link) as it explains a lot about the beginning of Life and Fate and also about why Grossman had hopes of getting it published: the previous volume made it into print, albeit after a shocking struggle.

For a Just Cause hasn’t been translated by Robert Chandler, though he said that he was due to begin working on it. I can’t wait to read it. (Cough cough, hint, HINT…) Everyone agrees that it is not as good as Life and Fate, marred by extremely boring passages of military strategy and what have you, but even so: Tolya’s alive! You find out how Yevgenia Nikolaevna met Novikov! You see Stalingrad before it was invaded (briefly)!

Yes. A good event, overall, and brilliant to see so much time and energy focused on Grossman. It was very interesting to hear about the process of adapting the book for the radio, and the excerpts we heard sounded promising – I’m looking forward to next week, when the drama will be aired.

There will be more to come on this subject, I’m afraid.

Life and Fate

Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate

Brace yourself: a literary time bomb is exploding as I type. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, one of the greatest books nobody’s heard of*, has just hit the number one spot on the bestseller list at

Brace yourself again because I will probably be writing a lot about this for a while. I’ve just got back from a weekend spent at St Peter’s College, Oxford, at a Vasily Grossman conference: one day of public events and one day of an academic symposium on the subject. There’s a lot to report.

Vasily Grossman was a war correspondent during the Second World War, and witnessed the siege of Stalingrad up close. Unlike the majority of his colleagues Grossman plunged himself deeply into the conflict, frequently putting himself in danger in his mission to discover the truth. He was the first journalist to visit Treblinka as the war ended, and his article about the death camp, ‘The Hell of Treblinka’, was entered as evidence at Nuremberg**.

After the war he began to write an epic novel, seeking to capture the truths he had witnessed. The first part of this epic, For a Just Cause, was published in 1952 after much wrangling with the Russian censors; it was heavily cut in order to squeeze through. During the stop-go process of this novel’s publication Grossman started work on a sequel, Life and Fate, now widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Vasily Grossman speaking to German civilians in 1945

Life and Fate fared even worse with the Soviet censors, and bears the unusual distinction of having been arrested in 1961. The KGB, aware of growing international protests over the USSR’s treatment of writers, took the canny step of silencing the book rather than the man, thereby contributing to Grossman’s longstanding and undeserved obscurity. Only a few copies of the manuscript survived, hidden by Grossman’s friends; the KGB even seized the typewriter ribbons.

Vasily Grossman died in 1964. Life and Fate was only published in Russia in 1980. It was first translated into English in 1985, where it received great reviews but few sales, according to its translator Robert Chandler. Since then, people in the U.K. have been discovering the book’s power in isolation. At the weekend people were talking about how they read the book and were overwhelmed by it, and yet unable to talk to others because so few had read or even heard of it. Yet it is a strong contender for the title of best work of literature written in the twentieth century. It is certainly the twentieth century’s equivalent of War and Peace.

Since then the novel’s reputation has grown, but very quietly, through a breathless, fervent whispering campaign by its devotees. And now it has been adapted by the mighty Radio 4, who organised the day of public events in Oxford. In response to the epic quality of this 900+ page book, Radio 4 have taken over every drama slot (apart from the Archers) for a week of Life and Fate, amounting to eight hours of drama with a stellar cast including Kenneth Branagh, Janet Suzman and David Tennant, among others. They have also managed to work the novel into any number of their other programmes. Andrew Marr fell out of the back of a plane from Italy to record Start the Week in front of us in Oxford on Friday, devoting the whole show to the book. Start the Week was broadcast this morning: as my friend Katia brilliantly put it, you can hear us listening in the background. I checked Life and Fate’s ranking on Amazon yesterday evening and the book was a respectable #40 in the bestseller list. Now it is number one.

One of Radio 4's handsome Life and Fate images

This explosion of interest in Life and Fate has been a long time coming, and all hats should be doffed to Radio 4 for waving the book in the nation’s faces. It’s one of those books that all people who wish to consider themselves well read should take in: a true classic, whatever that means, a book you live rather than read. It is one of my absolute favourite novels. I enjoyed the day of public talks the BBC organised, and thoroughly enjoyed the academic shebang that took place the next day – on which subject more will follow. But for the rest of today I’m going to wallow in the satisfaction of seeing Vasily Grossman’s book beginning to gain the recognition it deserves.

*In Great Britain, at least

**Read ‘The Hell of Treblinka’ in The Road, a collection of Grossman’s shorter works edited and translated by Robert Chandler