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!