The result is a Bruegelian landscape divulging the grand sweep of history alongside the granular detail within. In Life and Fate, we see not just the broom but all the human dust that’s shunted along with it. Perhaps Grossman was aiming for something like War and Peace but, because of his time on the frontline, crash-landed halfway between Tolstoy’s era-defining epic and Chekhov’s timeless, microcosmic short stories. One such episode follows a young unmarried woman called Sofya as she encounters an unaccompanied little boy named David in a cramped cattle truck on its way to Auschwitz.
In 1941, Grossman’s Jewish mother had been killed by the Nazis in a mass execution in Ukraine and his reporting from the liberated death camp at Treblinka was cited as evidence at Nuremberg. Life and Fate is as much a novel about genocide as it is about war.
When they arrive, David is condemned to death. Sofya is a doctor and the Nazis are willing to spare here. She declines. Instead, Sofya goes to her death so that she can hold on to David in the gas chamber, allowing him to feel like a son and allowing her to feel like a mother.
Acts of kindness
The novel is brimming with “everyday acts of ordinary kindness that are not motivated by morality, but are motivated by the moment”, says Linda Grant, a novelist who picked up Life and Fate after seeing Grossman’s name in Beevor’s footnotes. The poison turning people against each other in almost every strand of the story is ideology. Soldiers, revolutionaries and civilians alike are denounced by self-righteous Stalinists. To stay alive, they too betray the innocent. Grossman knew because it had happened to him too. He had been compromised and had compromised others, not to succeed but merely to survive. “The lesson is that you shouldn’t believe in overarching ideology,” Grant tells BBC Culture, “it’s against moral certainty.”
Grossman would have known that such a novel could never be published under Stalin, but in 1961, five years after Khrushchev’s not-so-secret speech, it must have felt like a good time to try. It was now or never. When Grossman submitted his manuscript, however, he was visited by the KGB, who ransacked his apartment, confiscating three copies of the manuscript. One would land on the desk of the party’s chief ideologue and censor, Mikhail Suslov, who is said to have summoned Grossman to his office to explain that Life and Fate was so dangerous that it couldn’t be published “for another two to three hundred years” – although this quote has been questioned by a biographer of Grossman, Yuri Bit-Yunan.
It’s often said that war involves long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Life and Fate is journalistic in style and never had a chance to be edited. Chapter after chapter gives us the day-to-day experience of life on the frontlines of totalitarianism. As the reader slowly gets to know the characters, it almost becomes comforting. But every 50 pages or so there’ll be a passage that’s utterly heartbreaking.
Khrushchev hadn’t ushered in a new openness, but his speech had inadvertently ignited a candle in the dark that burned just long enough for Life and Fate to exist. Grossman spent the last few years of his life in a state of abject depression, telling friends that his book had been “arrested”. In 1964 he died with his book behind bars. But a decade later, a copy would be smuggled out of the USSR on microfilm, and in 1988, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost, Russians and Ukrainians were finally allowed to hold Grossman’s masterpiece in their hands. Somehow truth often seems to find a way of escaping the clutches of totalitarian regimes. The same can rarely be said for truthtellers.
Love books? Join BBC Culture Book Club on Facebook, a community for literature fanatics all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.