Grossman’s Life and Fate

John Lanchester reviews Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (trans. by Robert Chandler) in the LRB:

In Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism – a difficult book, but, it seems increasingly clear, the most important critical work of the last twenty years – Fredric Jameson observes that ‘the disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche.’ This thought-provoking assertion captures a truth about the shift from the modern to the postmodern: there is something pastiche-like about a great many contemporary writers, not least those who write in a personal voice which is in itself a variety of pastiche. Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate is fascinating for many reasons, and one of them is the way in that it is both a pastiche and a personal statement; a conscious, cold-blooded attempt to sum up everything Grossman knew about the Great Patriotic War, and at the same time to rewrite War and Peace. Tolstoy’s novel was the only book Grossman read during the war, and he read it twice; War and Peace hangs over Grossman’s book as a template and a lodestar, and the measure of Grossman’s achievement is that a comparison between the two books is not grotesque.

Part of what Tolstoy’s example did for Grossman was to give him a place on which to stand, a vantage point. We can see this by considering what some English-language writers did with the war. The two British novelists who went off to the war in mid-career in their mid-thirties, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, both wrote books about what they had seen at first hand, Waugh’s war being more overtly interesting (the Commandos, Crete, parachute training, Yugoslavia) but Powell’s more typical (garrison duties, staff work, office politics).