The Greatest Novel of All Time

Vasily Grossman's dilogy Stalingrad // Life and Fate is one of the greatest novels of all time.

In my opinion the dilogy - two books that make up one story - Stalingrad and Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (1904-1964) together constitute the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and perhaps (with certain caveats and exclusions) the greatest novel of all time.

I’ve scanned my bookshelves trying to disprove my own hypothesis but if we restrict ourselves to novels (not epic poems or plays) then the only competing claims I recognise are Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the novels of Jane Austen. If push comes to shove the I’ll admit that Austen is a better writer than Grossman (although of course I’m only reading a translation of Grossman) but I also think Austen’s work is essentially comic - in the old sense - and so this might be excluded as a separate sub-genre of the novel. Tolstoy’s greatest novel is also a template for Grossman, a conscious model for his own novel; but I think Grossman exceeds his target and creates something even more powerful and better constructed than Tolstoy’s novel. I also think that Tolstoy’s world view is more limited that Grossman’s; perhaps because he was still tinged with the deathly over-optimism of the nineteenth century, a form of optimism that became so toxic in the twentieth.

Nevertheless, it is still an extremely strong claim; although I’ve read quite a lot in my life, I certainly have only read a small fraction of the millions of novels ever written. I also have to recognise certain idiosyncratic biases of my own. I love Russian novels, I love all things Jewish and I believe that the Holocaust and the other horrors of the twentieth century are the facts that should be central to a moral and political awakening that still hasn’t taken place. So I admit that I am very likely to be biased towards a Jewish Russian novel that explores the roots of the Holocaust, fascism and totalitarianism and which offers deep insight into the nature of morality and the human condition.

This novel is an almost perfect companion piece to the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, who is one of greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, and whose work explores the same problems, but through the lens of thought, not through story. Like Arendt, Grossman realises that the evils of the twentieth century cast into profound confusion so many of the certainties around which standard theories, ideologies and religions have been built. Everything looks different if we’re prepared to look at the horrors we’ve willingly created and which were all done in the name of progress.

One of the special peculiarities of the novel is that it comes in the form of two novels: Stalingrad, first published in the Soviet Union in 1952 (before Stalin’s death) and Life and Fate, smuggled out of the Soviet Union and first published in 1980. I read Life and Fate a few years and I was so impressed that I set about reading read everything I could find in English by Grossman. In fact, before now, I would have said that Grossman’s other late novel Everything Flows was an even greater novel than Life and Fate. However that was before I read Stalingrad and reread Life and Fate as the second part of one novel. Reading these two novels as one makes all the difference.

I managed to miss the fact that Stalingrad had been translated for several months, only stumbling upon it in Waterstones. I hungrily grabbed it from the shelf and hurried to purchase it. Although Stalingrad had been published in the Soviet Union the translated version is different to the earlier official version. The translators, to whom great honour must be paid, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler have managed to restore several parts that had previously been censored. After reading Stalingrad I had to pick up Life and Fate and complete the story.

The story begins with the decision by Hitler and Mussolini to launch a second attack on the Soviet Union with the goal of capturing Stalingrad before the onset of winter in 1942. The story ends when the Soviet troops capture the German army that had reached Stalingrad, but which had never been able to fully capture the city. This period also marks the turning point of World War II and the beginning of the end of Nazism.

But like War and Peace the story shifts between the perspectives of many individuals, all connected with the Shaposhnikov family. By interweaving these story-threads the novel takes us Westward to Berlin, the gas chambers and the Nazi death camps and Eastward to the gulag and camps of Siberia. But while staying true to the horrors of the time the story also illuminates the inner lives and struggles of many different people just trying to live their lives, squeezed within the vice of Nazism and Stalinism. No other novel successfully so brilliantly interweaves this historical sweep with so many wonderfully told human stories.

There are of course significant differences in tone between the two halves of the novel. Stalingrad was published with the approval of the state; Life and Fate was arrested by the state and Grossman never saw it published in his lifetime. Stalingrad stresses the moral cause of resisting the Nazi invasion; Life and Fate stresses the similarities between Nazism and Stalinism. But the contrasts between the two halves of the novel seem, to me at least, to benefit the novel. The sense of shared purpose and rightness of Soviet resistance to Hitler, and the original ideals of the Revolution (which for all their failings are at least moral and universal ideals that cannot be equated with the ideas of a Hitler) combine to create a patriotic atmosphere that is itself part of the story. But even more impressively, Grossman still manages to indicate the reality of Soviet terror in the first book through subtle hints and signs. The first book hints at the horrors that the second book reveals, exactly as in real life people had to communicate these truths by what they didn’t say or by what they could only half say. For example, the creeping anti-semitism in Russia was indicated by indirect reference to the growing tendency of some to identify themselves “Russian” rather than as some other “minority”, and certainly not being Jewish.

Most vividly this indirect way of referring to things, by not referring to them, is symbolised by the letter that tells the story of the massacre of Jewish families, including the mother of the novel’s main character (part self-portrait of Grossman himself who also lost his mother to the Holocaust). The letter threads through the first book, handed between characters, but it is only shared with the reader in the second book.

In structure the novel reminds me of those hinged or pivoted altar pieces where worshippers and patrons are portrayed on the outer leaves, but these then open to reveal the crucifixion inside. The true story may be on the inside, but these outer leaves are also part of the same story.

Towards the end of the second book there is a small reference to Shostakovich, and anyone familiar with his work will recognise the shared strategic wisdom: try to exploit the desire of the regime for flattery and obedience and turn it inside out to reveal the inner truth. It is perhaps easier to do this in music, so Grossman’s ability to say so much in the first book, despite the terror raging around the author, is a testament to the author’s skill - a modern Scheherazade.

Most importantly for the reader the first book introduces you to characters whose story is only completed in the second book. Grossman clearly expected the reader to have read Stalingrad before reading Life and Fate. You need to know who these characters are, what they were doing and what led them to the point at which we discover them in Life and Fate. In fact several parts of the second novel only work when you are surprised to find a character from the first book appear in the second. The shock of recognition is not only important emotionally, it also tell us something important about how real people become swept up in the horrors of war, genocide and eugenics. Victims become merely a type, a model or an image; Grossman reminds us that every single victim is a real and ordinary human being, just one of us.

Compared to Tolstoy, Grossman is far less didactic and far more disciplined in how he weaves his own philosophical understanding of what all this means into the text. Here’s one short quote that may give some sense of the central values that Grossman helps us to try and understand:

“Among a million Russian huts you will never find even two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar roses, should be identical… If you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate.”

Grossman shows us what that attack on individuality can look like and what humans will do to protect themselves and those they love. It is not a story in which good triumphs over evil. Evil seems to triumph, yet what is human still remains, stubbornly, and there is a certain joy in this. In fact the overall feeling of the novel to me is a strange sense of wonder and joy at what is beautiful and human amidst brutality. This is achieved through story, not ideology or theory, and it is a wonderful gift and a tonic that can help us wake up to what is still happening today. For we live in a world where we still do not recognise the value of each and every unique human being and the need to nurture and protect what is different and distinct in everyone one of us.

Note - I wrote this review back in October 2021 before Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine. There is no need for me to underline the evil of this war. However I do think it it’s worth noting something that any reader of Russian literature must acknowledge - Ukraine is not Russia. The distinctness of Ukraine as a people and as a place can be found everywhere in Russian literature: in Grossman, in Solzhenitsyn, in Bulgakov - everywhere. The fact that a people has been oppressed for much of its history is no reason to ignore its existence nor its right to self-determination.