“A Soviet Critic from Within”: a Vasily Grossman Q & A with Marat Grinberg

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve posted several times on Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. You can read my introductory thoughts on the novel, my thoughts on Grossman’s use of character and lists, and the place of the Holocaust in the novel.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time with this book and even have some expertise with its subject matter, especially its use of the Holocaust, I don’t know much about Soviet writing, and I can’t read Russian. So I was eager to reach out to a friend who is an expert on these things.

Marat Grinberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is Associate Professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College. He is the author of “I am to Be Read not from Left to Right, but in Jewish: from Right to Left”: The Poetics of Boris Slutsky (2011) and co-editor of Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (2013). His most recent essays on literature and cinema have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Commentary, Tablet Magazine, and Cineaste. His latest book is Aleksandr Askol’dov: The Commissar, a study of the great banned Soviet film.

I emailed Marat some questions I had about the novel, and he was kind enough to reply. I hope you enjoy his thoughtful responses as much as I did.

 Dorian Stuber: I’d appreciate some context for understanding Grossman. Where does he fit among other Soviet writers of the time? Would you say he is a Jewish writer?

Marat Grinberg: I would hesitate in calling Grossman a Jewish writer, although that, of course, depends on how one defines this contentious category. Clearly he was a Jew who never denied his Jewishness and was invested in figuring out the place of Jews in history. The Holocaust and post-war Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns made this awareness stronger as well as more profound, tragic, and personal. At the same time, if we think of a Jewish writer as someone who engages in dialogue with Jewish textual universe, both sacred and secular, and comments upon it, this would describe Grossman only to a limited extent. First and foremost, he was a Soviet Russian writer, shaped by the Soviet project, which is precisely why his eventual denunciation of it after the war was so stark and unpredictable. A celebrated writer in the 30s and even early 50s and a legendary war journalist, Grossman was always a Soviet critic from within and from the depth of Russian history.

DS: One of the most striking aspects of Life and Fate is the way it links Nazism and Stalinism. Specifically, it suggests these ideologies are linked through their treatment of Jews. Is Grossman arguing that totalitarianism is anti-Semitic?

MG: I don’t think Grossman is arguing in Life and Fate or in other works dealing with the nature of totalitarianism, such as Everything Flows, that totalitarianism is inherently anti-Semitic. What fascinates him about Nazism and Stalinism and what makes them so similar in his eyes is how they both sacralize ideology and deny any value to individual human life. Like Hannah Arendt later in Origins of Totalitarianism, he views anti-Semitism as a convenient tool of totalitarianism, but I also think his understanding of anti-Semitism is limited by how he ties it to totalitarianism. Anti-Semitism is for him essentially a hatred of the other – Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and the Jew” comes to mind – but he overlooks the deeper roots of it in the polemical wars between Judaism and Christianity. The secular humanist that he was, he could never quite decide in Life and Fate whether the Nazi (and others’) hate of the Jew was an aberration or an ingrained part of human psyche and its capacity for evil.

DS: Can you tell English-speaking readers about the connotations of the two terms that give Grossman his title—and that he uses all the time?

My hunch is that fate is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life.

By contrast, I sense that life is, if not antithetical to fate, then at least in some kind of struggle with it. Life is where value resides for Grossman. But is it possible to think of life without fate?

MG: I think you’re absolutely right, fate for Grossman “is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life” and “life is where value lies for Grossman.” In this, he, of course, is following very consciously in the footsteps of Tolstoy. Life and fate is in many respects a paraphrase of war and peace, keeping in mind that the proper translation of Tolstoy’s epic would be War and World. Grossman mimics Tolstoy structurally, thematically and philosophically – Tolstoy also thinks of history as governed by larger structures, grand fate or destiny of a sort. It should be noted that War and Peace was the book that Russian intelligentsia and writers, in particular, turned to during the war. Boris Slutsky would later write a poem about how everyone was incessantly rereading and memorizing War and Peace in those years. So Grossman’s choice is not accidental, but what is also interesting is how he critiques the great novelistic projects of Russian literature, by Tolstoy as well as Dostoevsky and Turgenev, co-opted by the Soviet regime. He locates in them precisely the same obsession with totalizing explanations of human history which he identifies in totalitarianism and which invalidates the individual. Thus, the other key term in his novel, apart from life and fate, is freedom, which very much implies the individual’s ability to make choices and resist evil even when that evil becomes history’s organizing principle. It is through this type of phenomenological freedom that life can be salvaged for Grossman. In terms of Russian history and literature, he locates the potential for it in Chekhov, the least totalizing of Russian writers. Ultimately Grossman wants to have his cake and eat it too: write the 20th century version of War and Peace and question the very foundations of epic novelistic writing.

DS: Viktor Shtrum, one of the main characters, often said to be a stand-in for Grossman, is a particle physicist. Grossman himself trained as an engineer. Do you think Grossman’s background as a scientist affected his writing of the novel? (I’m especially wondering about its structure.) Or does science function in the novel mostly as a way of critiquing the Soviet state’s ability to politicize every aspect of life?

MG: So it’s Tolstoy’s proclivity toward discerning structures in history that mainly impacts Grossman’s systematizing thinking in the novel, but his engineer background might very well have had something to do with it. Overall the link between art and science is at the core of early utopian Soviet vision and the later Stalinist version of it. As a nuclear physicist, Viktor serves the state, which turns against him as a Jew, and exemplifies both the potential and the horror of human progress. Russian literary thinker Lydia Ginzburg defined Tolstoy’s characters, such as Levin in Anna Karenina, for instance, not as auto-biographical, but auto-psychological, in other words their task is to replicate the author’s psychology and his intellectual, moral and spiritual crises. Viktor is very much a character in that mold. His rediscovery of his Jewishness in the context of anti-Semitic assaults and the split he experiences as a result between being a member of Russian intelligentsia and a Jew reconstructs Grossman’s own trajectory in this regard.

DS: Do you think there are qualities to Grossman’s writing—in Life and Fate in particular, but more generally too—that are underrated? Are there aspects of his style or even of his preoccupations that don’t come across well in translation?

MG: In Russian criticism of Grossman there’s a tendency to view him as a great thinker, but not a great writer and because of that, some believe, he does not lose much in translation. The moral courage and breadth of his project in Life and Fate make discussing it as an aesthetic work almost impossible or at least very difficult. Certainly there are parts in it that are much more psychologically nuanced than others and it can be overly sentimental and sociological, which can be explained by his uneasy relationship with the genre of the novel. Hence some prefer his shorter works, such as Everything Flows and “The Hell of Treblinka.” Perhaps it’s the Greek and Roman historians, such as Thucydides and Tacitus, both artful writers intent on figuring out structure within history and how the human variable fits into it, that Grossman resembles most closely.

MG

Thank you, Marat! So interesting to get your expert opinion on these questions.

 

 

Guest Post: Nathaniel Leach on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

I’m so pleased that my friend Nathaniel Leach has written a guest post to accompany the Bassani readalong Scott & I have been hosting this week. Nathaniel teaches at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He’s a brilliant reader and an eloquent writer. (Plus he’s a lovely person.) Sadly for the rest of us, Nat doesn’t have his own blog, but he agreed to let me post his thoughts on the novel here.

I’m sure he’d be delighted to talk with you further in the comments, so please let him know what you think.

 

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My initial interest in joining this group reading of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis came from having first seen the film many years ago and having a decidedly ambivalent reaction to it. It’s directed gorgeously by Vittorio De Sica, but it also rings some false notes for me, seeming just a bit too nostalgic and sentimental.

Bassani’s novel, however, seems to be doing something a bit more interesting than that; there is plenty of nostalgia here too, but it is much more self-aware and critical. Micol, for example, diagnoses both herself and the narrator: “the past counted more than the present, possession counted less than memory of it” and dismisses Perotti’s attempts to maintain the illusion created by the family carriage, which Micol calls a “pathetic relic.” She knows nostalgia is a problem even if she can’t avoid it.

While the narrator is less self-aware, the novel uses him to show the harmful effects of nostalgia, as he seeks to recreate a past moment that never was. Micol debunks his belief that if he had kissed her that moment in the carriage, she would have reciprocated his feelings, but he nevertheless attempts to kiss her every chance he gets, as if doing so would bring back that lost moment. If Dorian is right that we need to be suspicious of the narrator (and I think we do), we have to be suspicious of the aura of nostalgia that he casts over the whole novel.

There is a tension in both film and book between this nostalgic view of the Finzi-Continis and a more critical one. The first time I watched the film, I felt that the judgmental side was dominant, that the Finzi-Continis were being criticized for being themselves relics of the past, unable to adapt to the needs of the future by connecting with the community around them. And there is surely some of this in the book; the narrator’s father is the primary voice for this view, and in some ways he is clearly not wrong that they seem to think that the walls around them will protect them from every intrusion. This is proven false. But on the other hand, theirs is a more general fate; assimilated Jews (like the narrator’s father) were just as affected by racial laws and policies of extermination. Even Malnate, who is politically conscious and who does embrace the ideal future ends up just as dead as the Finzi-Continis. So, nostalgia is dangerous, but rejecting it is not necessarily helpful. Perhaps, then, there is no moral to the tale, and it is just to be taken as a memorial of those who are gone (but again, the narrator is the only one left to give his version of events).

What struck me upon watching the film a second time (after reading the novel) is how much De Sica in fact plays up the political angle. Virtually every incident pertaining to the racial laws is included in the film, and a few additional scenes are even added. When Giorgio (our poor nameless narrator gets a name in the film) visits his brother in Grenoble, one of Ernesto’s friends describes having been in Dachau, and the final 15 minutes of the film is devoted to an event that gets two sentences in Basssani’s Epilogue: the rounding up of the Finzi-Continis and the other Jews of Ferrara. De Sica puts the novel’s politics in the foreground in a way that gives the film a more pointed political message and a more elegiac tone than the book.

The film’s conclusion, then, is entirely different from the book; two more incidents bear further discussion (Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen the film). The film’s final lines are incredibly sentimental, and even more so for anyone who has read the novel; Micol and Giorgio’s father are being held in the same schoolroom; Micol asks with great concern about Giorgio and his father reassures her warmly that he left earlier that day and is hopefully on his way to safety. Although Micol has been separated from her own father, Giorgio’s father expresses the hope that they will at least keep all of the Jews of Ferrara together. De Sica deftly manipulates the complex emotional strands of the narrative into simplistic resolutions; Micol’s true affection for Giorgio is revealed, while the father’s resentment of the Finzi-Continis’ aloofness is resolved into a hope for community that we know is coming far too late.

But the most significant divergence between film and book comes in the final dramatic scene of the narrator/Giorgio approaching the Hutte. Dorian’s reading of Bassani’s version of this scene rightly questions the veracity of the narrator’s conclusion that Micol and Malnate are having a tryst in the Hutte. The narrator’s words, “What a fine novel” do seem to suggest his own awareness of the fiction he has constructed for himself (although they could, admittedly, also refer to his feeling of being himself a character within such a novel). However, in the film, this incident is presented in a thoroughly objective way. Alberto looks out the window to see Micol running across the garden before Giorgio arrives to look in the window. Micol even turns on the light to return Giorgio’s gaze. Again, De Sica’s treatment of Bassani’s material seems to simplify complex personal relationships in order to put the emphasis on the political implications of events.

It is futile to attempt to compare the merits of a book and its film adaptation, but putting them side by side in this way has at least enabled me to identify some of the sources of my discontent with the film, but also to some extent with the book. The frame that opens the novel seems to promise a historical awareness similar to that of the film, but this frame is never closed. The hasty glossing over of the fate of the Finzi-Continis clearly signals Bassani’s desire to tell a different story, but this means, in a way, leaving the story partially told.

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Which returns me to the beginning of the book: the epigraph from Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi: “The heart, to be sure, always has something to say about what is to come, to him who heeds it. But what does the heart know? Only a little of what has already happened.” The importance of this epigraph is underlined by its frequent echoing in the text; the narrator asks “What can we know, of ourselves, and what lies ahead of us?” The final line of the novel also alludes to “what little the heart has been able to remember”.

In the context of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, this again suggests the importance of recognizing the narrator’s limitations; what lies between these two expressions of the heart’s lack of knowledge is a purely subjective account from the point of view of a heart that does not have access to the whole story. The epigraph also seems to obliquely allude to the Holocaust; the characters clearly do not know what lies ahead of them, and even if, from the point of view of hindsight, it is easy enough to say that the signs of what was to come were already there within Italy’s racial laws, it is not reasonable to suggest that they should have been able to see it from their own limited viewpoints.

In the context of I Promessi Sposi, the good priest, Father Cristoforo, is helping the young lovers, Renzo and Lucia escape from the grasp of the wicked Don Rodrigo who wants Lucia for himself. In order to save them, they must all separate, but Father Cristoforo reassures them that “my heart tells me that we shall meet again soon.” The epigraph quoted is the narrator’s response to this statement. And indeed, the three must go through numerous hardships before they are indeed reunited, and Father Cristoforo’s intuition proves to be wrong. The line thus suggests the naïveté of even the idealized Father Cristoforo. We want to believe and hope and trust that everything will work out for the best, and this is an understandable human desire, but not something that we can ever really be sure of.

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The epigraph, then, seems to encourage us not to pass judgment on the characters of the novel as their weaknesses and failings are inevitable human qualities and entirely understandable. But I can’t forebear to point out one additional reference to I Promessi Sposi; Alberto compares Professor Ermanno’s obedience towards the dictates of the authorities to that of Don Abbondio, who is the polar opposite of Father Cristoforo: the bad priest, cowardly and hypocritical, only interested in saving his own skin. This reference seems particularly harsh to me, as if the novel were indeed being highly critical of his (and others’) refusal to stand up to authorities.

So, perhaps Bassani is asking us to be tolerant of human weakness, but also to be aware of the real failings that it leads to. Ultimately, it seems to me that the real strength of the book lies precisely in its understanding of the human heart with all its warmth and vitality, but also its vicissitudes and bitterness. The epigraph is a call to recognize this complexity, as well as our own limitations in the face of it.