Love and Death

Perhaps it is inevitable that Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman has been compared to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. There are obvious parallels. Tolstoy wrote a lengthy book on the unsuccessful Napoleonic invasion of Russia, while Grossman wrote a lengthy book on the unsuccessful Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Both works also deal with central philosophical issues, especially causality and meaning of history and man's freedom, or lack of it. Both authors also clustered their numerous characters around a central family. But these obvious parallels are not enough to pronounce, as some have done, that Grossman is a "Soviet Tolstoy" and his epic "the great Russian novel of the twentieth century." Besides, even the most laudatory critics have not proclaimed Life and Fate "the greatest novel ever written." John Galsworthy, E.M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, and others have used such superlatives to describe War and Peace. Nonetheless, Life and Fate surely is a good historical novel, and perhaps a great one. It also must be seen as a courageous witness to the ugly similarities of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism.

The setting for the action of Life and Fate is late 1942 and the spring of 1943. The focus is Stalingrad, although Siberia, Moscow, a German POW camp, and the German front are woven into the setting as well. Grossman does not focus on Stalin and...

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