restricted access War and Peace, Life and Fate
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War and Peace, Life and Fate
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, trans. Robert Chandler (1960; New York: New York Review of Books, 2006), 871 pp.

This massive novel aims to do for World War II what War and Peace did for Napoleon's invasion of 1812cand the comparison is not unjustified. The Battle of Stalingrad, the central event in Life and Fate, is bloodier, more protracted, and technologically more destructive than the Battle of Borodino before Moscow, even though the horror and paralyzed tedium of face-to-face combat is the same (soldiers dying piecemeal in defense of House 6/1). Also the same is the terror and loss of will of the invading commander-in-chief when suddenly he understands that "Russia's so vast." General Friedrich Paulus, in ruined Stalingrad, recalls that the Germans "didn't strike with a fist. We struck with an open hand, our fingers stretching across the infinite spaces of the East. . . . And there was always a lack of reserves, a gaping void in the rear of the victorious forces and at their flanks." Those insights into the ephemeral nature of military power structures that Tolstoy vouchsafes to his ambitious Boris Drubetskoy before the Battle of Austerlitz, Vasily Grossman grants to his heroes as well; for example, to Tank Corps Colonel Pyotr Novikov, who realizes that some generals with a chest full of medals "were powerless even to obtain a ton of fuel-oil, appoint a storekeeper or fire a clerk." War, in both novels, is far more instructive than Peace. [End Page 348]

The narrative technique too is comparable. In both Grossman and Tolstoy, a huge bulk is made manageable by hundreds of small intersecting chapters, each carefully shaped with its own story line and limited horizon. Complexly intertwined families, introduced in civilian contexts, turn up enhanced or barbarized in militarized zones. Where power in czarist Russia passed between imperial court and aristocracy, in Stalin's Russia it circulates among commissars, commanders at the front, and that ineluctable "spirit of the Party," akin to Tolstoy's "spirit of the army" or "the People." This force will be credited in the end for repulsing the enemy. There are descriptions of nature in Grossman that take your breath away as surely as does the Rostovs' fox hunt, although the theater of the Second Fatherland War (Napoleon's invasion was the First) is geographically far more diverse. At times Russia appears to be pure Asia, hollow and flat as the sky. In chapter 65 of Life and Fate, we read that "it's impossible to tell," on the Kalmyk steppe, "whether dusty aluminum-grey feather-grass has begun to grow on the dull, lusterless blue of the sky, or whether the steppe itself has become impregnated with the sky's blue." The vast, curved heavenly vault that so intrigues Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz in 1805, seems positively cozy, and comfortably European by comparison with this emptiness.

Finally, there is family life as material for art. Just as Tolstoy modeled the charismatic Natasha Rostova on his sister-in-law and the old Prince Nikolai Bol-konsky on his maternal grandfather, so too Grossman draws on his own intimate family experience. As befits the twentieth century, however, Grossman's borrowing is in a grimmer vein. Like his hero, the physicist Viktor Shtrum, Grossman did not get his own mother out of Berdichev before the massacre of its Jews. This novel is dedicated to her memory.

But the differences between these two national epics are more profound than the similarities. I speak only of plot ingredients, not of psychological insight or narrative style. (Grossman is a very competent novelist, but he is no Leo Tolstoy.) First, the sheer geographical spread: Grossman's theater of war is so very much bigger, to east and west. Tolstoy was describing a fundamentally European conflict among Europeans. Its endpoint was Moscow, which for the French was already the opulent and exotic Orient, its Orthodox Christian onion domes twinkling almost like minarets. The physical edges of Grossman's novel are beyond tracking. He writes of a twentieth-century Russian front that had become Eurasian by the...