Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Life and Fate: “Good day, comrade Shtrum”

But an invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating; it came between him and his family; it insinuated itself into his past, into his childhood memoires. He began to feel that he really was untalented and boring, someone who wore out the people around him with dull chatter. Even his work seemed to have grown dull, to be covered with a layer of dust; the thought of it no longer filled him with light and joy.

Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment—with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.

- Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, translation by Robert Chandler (New York Review Books), page 672.

The person being figuratively crushed is Viktor Shtrum, a Soviet physicist exploring the workings of the atom. Crushing him is the power of the state, directly and indirectly. He has made a remarkable breakthrough in atomic studies and, instead of being hailed, the council at the scientific institute blackballs him. Grossman then provides a deus ex mechina—a call to Viktor from Joseph Stalin who praises his work and asks if Viktor has what he needs to continue his research.

Despite Life and Fate’s dark subject matter, Grossman provides plenty of humor. With that short phone call, Viktor is welcomed back in the fold of the laboratory as if nothing had happened. Viktor’s indignation toward the people he called Stalin’s bootlickers softens now that Stalin’s beneficence helps him. Even so, he realizes how he has compromised his beliefs:

He was still as appalled as ever at the cruelty of Stalin. He knew very well that life hadn’t changed for other people simply because he was now Fortune’s pet instead of her stepson. Nothing would ever bring back to life the victims of collectivization or the people who had been shot in 1937; it made no difference to them whether or not prizes and medals were awarded to a certain Shtrum, whether he was called to see Malenkov or was pointedly not invited to a gather at Shishakov’s.

And yet something had changed, both in his understanding and in his actual memory of things. (823)

Viktor’s “spiritual entropy” does not stop with the end of his ostracism, as he fully realizes when he is asked to sign a letter that denounces innocent doctors as well as reinforces the denouncement of many high-profile figures in 1937. Earlier, when Viktor had been an outcast and felt he had nothing left to lose, he had held fast to his beliefs. After the call from Stalin he compromises his conscience because he has something to lose. Grossman treats Viktor gently though, probably because he had been in the same situation and had signed a similar letter. Viktor realizes what he has done, vowing

Every hour, every day, year in, year out, he must struggle to be a man, struggle for his right to be pure and kind. He must do this with humility. And if it came to it, he mustn’t be afraid even of death; even then he must remain a man. (841)

Grossman provides a hopeful final chapter that mirrors much of the book in which you can “hear both a lament for the dead and the furious joy of life itself.” (871)

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