For good summaries and analyses on Vasily Grossman and Life and Fate, I highly recommend the links in this post—I’m slowly working my way through them and they capture a lot that is good and disturbing about this book. Since so much of what I intended to post on is covered so well in these links I decided to do a short series of posts on subjects I thought were absent or underrepresented in the articles.
In my initial post I looked at the title…why did Grossman pair life and fate? The obvious reason, and what Grossman emphasizes the most, highlights the contrast between passively yielding to fate and actively engaging life. In that same post I also looked at one of Grossman’s definitions of fate—the difference between stumbling through life, existence, and living with freedom and meaning. Grossman also shows characters making decisions which put them on a path where they feel they are at fate's mercy. This meaning of fate, where a character feels helpless because of their choice, occurs more frequently as we get deeper into the novel. As quoted in the previous post, “A man may be led by fate, but he can refuse to follow.” (537)
There are a lot of examples that could be chosen to highlight this meaning; in fact, it may sum up much of what we’re looking at in many of the Soviet characters. Do they play along with the absurdities foisted upon them by official party narrative, believing they have no choice? Or do they stand up for what they believe is right despite the potential consequences? As he shows characters' decisions, Grossman highlights the strengths and weaknesses of man.
Some of the people in the German concentration camps make choices that lead them to what they view as fate. The director of one complex, Kaltluft, sees himself as the plaything of stronger forces:
If, on the day of judgment, Kaltluft had been called upon to justify himself, he could have explained quite truthfully how fate had led him to become the executioner of 590,000 people. What else could he have done in the face of such powerful forces—the war, fervent nationalism, the adamancy of the Party, the will of the State? How could he have swum against the current? How could he have swum against the current? He was a man like any other; all he had wanted was to live peacefully in his father’s house. He hadn’t walked—he had been pushed. Fate had led him by the hand…And if they had been called upon, Kaltluft’s superiors and subordinates would have justified themselves in almost the same words. (536)
Grossman is having none of that argument, though. A few sentences later he makes the comment from earlier in this post about refusing to follow fate as well as this one: “But every step that a man takes under the threat of poverty, hunger, labour camps and death is at the same time an expression of his own will.” Or lack of one.
Grossman highlights these characters so we can look at how man reacts in extraordinary circumstances, how he justifies his behavior, and how his choices follow him. Man, according to Grossman, can be at his most powerful when he is completely powerless. Even at his lowest moment there are choices he can make. Some of the Jews in the concentration camp are offered a choice: help in the death camp or die. Sofya Levinton, a doctor who could have stepped out of the condemned line chose to stay and comfort a little boy (and fulfill her wish for motherhood, however brief). Others chose to live a little while longer and Grossman asks, I think honestly and not ironically, about their chosen fate:
How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time? How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face? Yes, and how can a man live with the merciless memory of how, during the silence of parting, he blinked for a moment to hide the crude joy he felt at having managed to save his life? How can he ever bury the memory of his wife handing him a packet containing her wedding ring, a rusk and some sugar lumps? How can he continue to exist, seeing the glow in the sky flaring up with renewed strength? (540-1)