Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Life, fate

Life and Fate. Sounds big, deep, sprawling. It is.

Life's a mess. Really there's no getting around it. You make plans, they go wrong. You make other plans, they go wrong in a different way. After much consideration I've come to the conclusion that life has a multiplicity of different ways in which things can go wrong. Incidentally, my father's a physicist and is very keen on things like multiplicity, which is how we ended up a million miles from Moscow in Kazan, because he was working on something important for the war. The War. Now there you have a serious example of things going wrong. However, because of it, we socialists had a real chance to show the world what we were made of, which is steel. Ask Comrade Stalin. My mother is not a scientist. She believes in fate. But it seems to me that in the end fate is just as messy and hard to live with as life.
— from Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, a BBC4 dramatization.

So here's a book I had absolutely no interest in reading. I knew a little bit about its history (written in 1959 and banned in the USSR and not published there till nearly 30 years later), and a little about it's subject matter (life — and the lives of some Russian Jews in particular — in Stalinist Russia during World War II). I don't find either point very compelling — I've had my fill.

But then this radio dramatization caught my ear, and I was hooked. As it stars Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, you could say the production is of decent quality. I have trouble with audiobooks and radio plays in general in that they tease me into believing they're conducive to multitasking. But I can't do it. If I'm to get anything out of them, I need to give them my attention, at which point I figure I might as well just read the book. I ended up listening to most parts of this drama twice, to ensure I had the characters and events straight, but I was very glad to do so.

Some of the early great lines include: "How could I talk to a woman who thought Balzac wrote Madame Bovary?" and: "A way to a Russian's heart is through his brain."

As you might guess from the book's title, there's a great deal of philosophizing going on.

Identity's one of the major themes. There's a passage I went back to — it turns out it was just a short sentence, but in my head it had expanded into something unwieldy. I can't recall the original phrasing, but its sense was that the woman hadn't ever really thought of herself as Jewish; she went to Russian school, had Russian friends, played Russian games, read Russian books — of course she was Russian. (This is something I actually spend a lot of time thinking about, albeit with regard to identities other than Jewish and Russian.)

There's some similar musing about science. That there's no such thing as Stalinist science, or Jewish science, etc, it's just science, that's all, but of course not everyone sees the world this way. Isn't that mind-boggling? That someone could dispute your science because it wasn't Soviet enough?

Then there's love.

I wanted to tell him everything, and I told him nothing at all. I wanted to ask him everything, and I asked him about eating black bread. Is it possible to lose everything because we don't speak when we must? I was an idiot...

[Oh, I have been an idiot. Listening to this production is an emotional double-whammy these days, for what it is and for the real life it reminds me of.]

It's quite a drama. There are funny bits, and poignant bits, and clever bits, and bits that made me cry. There's a lot about doing the right thing, and a lot of "if we only knew," and of course we never do, which makes it all the harder.

Some people see it as a counterpart to Tolstoy's War and Peace. I think there's more war, and less peace, in Life and Fate. Maybe only it seems more brutal because these historical events are closer in time. But the comparison captures the right sprawl, and there's a similar quality of introspection.

The radio drama leaves some plot points unresolved. Perhaps they are treated this way in the book as well. I'm tempted to find out.

The BBC4 Life and Fate page has a couple video clips featuring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, on the story but also on the nature of radio drama, as well as some other background material. Apparently the podcasts are no longer available for download, but if you ever come across the opportunity to give them a listen, take it.

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