Vasily Grossman’s novel with the all-encompassing title Life and Fate is number 1 and 5 on the Guardian bestseller list this week, if I can believe the pop-up that appeared on my screen as I was web surfing. Apart from the oddity of the book appearing twice, what intrigues me is: why now?I’ve had the book on my shelf for 25 years.*
Back in the 1980s, I had a deep love of fat Russian books, along with a curious infatuation with fat Russian women. (Something about those East Block javelin throwers…) My love affair with Russian writing started with Dostoevsky and continued through to Sholokhov and Solzhenitsyn. It ended with Grossman’s book.
It’s not that it’s a bad book, though almost all writers suffer by comparison to Dostoevsky. The story behind its publication is fascinating in itself – how an incomplete version of the banned manuscript was smuggled out to the West, to be published many years after the author’s death.
Of the book itself, I remember only disjointed scenes, most notably the one where a German camp guard drops his rifle and a Jew on the way to the gas chamber picks it up to give it back to him. Grossman makes the point that all the evil in the world doesn’t have enough darkness to kill the flame of one good deed.
I suspect I had enjoyed the book. After all, I got all the way to page 646. I know, because I had left a bookmark on that page in April 1987, when my reading was interrupted by life and fate. (Actually, it was the emotional upheaval around ordinary divorce, but “life and fate” sounds so much more profound.)
Perhaps one day I’ll ask a psychologist why my love for fat Russion books ended here. I might even be tempted to talk about those javelin throwers.
* Just discovered the book is being serialized on a UK radio station. Hence the surge in sales.