The Paris Review

The Soviet Tolstoy’s Forgotten Novel

Vasily Grossman. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate has been hailed as a twentieth-century War and Peace. It has been translated into most European languages, and also into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, and Vietnamese. There have been stage productions, TV series, and an eight-hour BBC radio dramatization. Most readers, however, have been unaware that Grossman did not originally conceive of Life and Fate as a self-contained novel. It is, rather, the second of two closely related novels about the Battle of Stalingrad—it is probably simplest to refer to it as a dilogy. The first of these two novels was initially published in 1952, in a heavily censored edition and under the title For a Just Cause. Grossman, however, had wanted to call it Stalingrad—and that is how we have titled it in the novel’s first English translation.

The characters in the two novels are largely the same, and so is the story line; Life and Fate picks up where Stalingrad ends, in late September 1942. Ikonnikov’s essay on senseless kindness—now a part of Life and Fate and often seen as central to it—was originally a part of Stalingrad. Another of the most memorable elements of Life and Fate—the letter written by Viktor Shtrum’s mother about her last days in the Berdichev ghetto—is of central importance to both novels. The actual words of the letter were probably always intended for Life and Fate, but it is in Stalingrad that Grossman tells us how the letter reached Viktor and what he felt when he read it.

Grossman completed almost fifteen years after he first started work on . is, among other things, a considered statement of his moral and political philosophy—a meditation on the nature of totalitarianism, the danger presented by even the most seemingly benign of ideologies, and the moral responsibility of each individual for his own actions. It is this philosophical depth that has led many readers to speak of the novel as having changed their lives. , in contrast, is

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