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 Amazon.co.uk.
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.
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.
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