Having argued last week that it takes time (maybe a couple of generations) before fiction can be appropriately applied to traumatic historical events along comes a Radio 4 season celebrating the work of the Russian writer and ‘heroic war journalist’ Vasily Grossman, who wasted no time in translating his bitter experiences into a series of novels. Grossman witnessed the struggle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–3 as the war correspondent of the Red Star newspaper. He followed the Nazis’ retreat from Russian soil, and was one of the first reporters to enter and then write about the extermination camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz.
But as Stalin’s iron grip on life in Russia tightened, Grossman (who was Jewish and from Ukraine) turned against the Party and to fiction to tell of what he had witnessed — the extermination of the Jews, the devastating famine in Ukraine, the gulags, the purges. The Soviet authorities were not pleased, and in 1961 the KGB called on him at home, not to arrest him in person but rather to take into custody the manuscript of his latest book, Life and Fate, which they believed could be as dangerous as nuclear weaponry. The Soviets were scared of the power and impact of Grossman’s fictional truth-telling.
Life and Fate was never published in Grossman’s lifetime (he died, of cancer, in 1964), and only finally appeared in English translation in the 1980s. Since then, this epic tale of ordinary people in a time of war has come to be regarded as not just a masterpiece but the finest piece of writing about the lasting legacy of military combat on the individual soul. Next week we’ll get a chance to make our own judgment on whether Grossman outwrote Tolstoy when Jonathan Myerson and Mike Walker’s eight-hour dramatisation of the novel haunts the Radio 4 schedule. Just as the music of only one composer — Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky — has in the past taken over the Radio 3 schedule for days at a time, so the words of Grossman (in translation) will be heard in every slot reserved for drama on the network. Switching on at 10.45, 2.15, 7.45 throughout the week will take you into yet another scene with the Shtrum and Shaposhnikov families as they live through war and peace, succumb to life and fate.
It’s a novel experiment, taking us into the heart of the Soviet world of subterfuge, starvation and sullen submission. Grossman’s genius has not been appreciated, his ardent fans suggest, and it’s true that few non-Russian specialists had heard of him until the PR for this Radio 4 initiative began. Grossman is not just a critic of Stalin and his cruelties; that would be too simplistic. Instead, he ‘feels his way’ out of his own situation, his own story, so that he writes with the passion of real fear, real fury at the same time as observing his characters with the cool judgment of a looker-on, a passer-by. He takes us right inside the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and yet can still summon up the spirit to write: ‘I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man.’
How does he achieve this? We shall find out next week. Life and Fate will test the station’s ability to dramatise a massive novel about big themes, and will test its audience, demanding of us the concentration required to switch in and out of the drama while carrying on with our own lives. Will it matter if we miss an episode? Will we be able to slot, Ambridge-style, back into the story without skipping a beat? I think the consequences might be quite unexpected. After just a brief preview listen to the first hour, I found myself looking over my shoulder as I walked down the street, and second-guessing my thoughts, Grossman-style.
Just this week it was announced that they’ve stopped painting the Forth Rail Bridge because a new paint has been found that can endure the windy, wet elements of the Firth of Forth. The news reminded me of Tom Stoppard’s early play for radio as two painters discussed their life and fate against the backdrop of their relentless drudge across the bridge. Many writers have set off on their careers by writing for radio. It’s a medium ideally suited to experimenting with voice and form. The novelist Jane Rogers, writing recently in the Guardian, declared that Radio 4 had saved her career in these days of poor advances and limited support from publishers. Afternoon plays on Radio 4 get two million listeners in one hearing, on average, while a novel is lucky to sell 10,000 copies. Next week’s experiment has the potential to change dramatically the literary stature of Vasily Grossman, and our understanding of the realities of Soviet Russia.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 17, 2011