Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ost Front Fiction

Much to my surprise the #1 best selling novel in the UK this week is Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. It turns out that this is because of a brand new BBC Radio 4 adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh which has got great critical attention. 
...
I liked Life and Fate but I strongly disagree with the commentators who said on Radio 4's Start The Week that it's better than War and Peace. It isn't. Tolstoy had a chance to edit his novel and because of the KGB Grossman did not... Anyway it gives me a chance to repost this blog from July on Ost Front Fiction:
...
This little blog post will be the story of 4 Russian war novels that I've been avoiding and reading for a few decades now: War and Peace, Dr Zhivago, Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry Stories. 
...
War and Peace is the easiest to talk about. I read W&P over a hot humid Massachusetts summer about fifteen years ago and I really loved it.  Its emotional and dramatic and the characters are wonderfully realised and yeah the bloody coda goes on forever at the end but it's still that rare example of a "great book" that is in fact a great book. I liked W&P so much I listened to it again as an audiobook on my commute and liked it just as much the second go around.
...
I did not have the same success with Dr Zhivago. Dr Zhivago was a tough read. I didn't care much about the characters, the writing was ornate and laboured and it's a bit of a surprise to discover that the central character is a "famous poet" because in the more tedious parts of the story you flick to the end papers and (at least in my volume) you can read Dr Zhivago's actual poems and they are pretty feeble stuff. I deliberately left my unfinished copy of Dr Zhivago on a flight to Detroit five years ago, tried it again last year and finally finished it last week after a bout of heroic persistence.  
...
War and Peace is the great Russian Napoleonic war novel, Dr Zhivago is the great Russian novel of the Revolution and WW1 and Life and Fate is the great Russian novel of World War 2. It's set in and around the Battle of Stalingrad over the summer, autumn and winter of 1942. Stalin, Kruschev, Von Paulus, Hitler are all characters along with dozens of soldiers, wives, mothers and over a few harrowing chapters the inhabitants of one box car heading towards a death camp. Life and Fate has been compared to War and Peace but it's not quite as psychologically penetrating or as rich. Vasily Grossman was a famed Jewish war reporter in Stalingrad and witnessed the horror of the Stalingrad front at first hand. Life and Fate is unflattering in its portrayal of communists and communism and was banned prior to publication with the copies being seized by the KGB. Grossman was told by the KGB Director that he had a written a masterpiece but he wouldn't be permitted to publish it for at least two or three hundred years. He died before getting a chance to revise the novel and I feel that if he had lived he might have cut some of the lesser characters and perhaps concentrated more on the central story of the battle. It must be said though that the scene of the female doctor hugging the orphaned boy in the gas chamber might be the most powerful piece of prose I've ever read. 
...
I should also mention Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry Stories which although not a novel is the defining account of the little known war between the Red Army and a newly independent Poland in 1920. Red Cavalry might be my favourite of all these books. Babel was a great observer of men and their deeds and his status as a Jewish reporter riding with the Cossacks gave him a unique perspective. Red Cavalry is filled with humour, salty dialogue, pathos, irony and a prose style so careful it almost puts Chekov to shame.