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Life and Fate comes to Radio 4

Vasily Grossman’s great anti-Stalinist novel, Life and Fate, is to be dramatised on BBC Radio 4 later this month.  Pre-review by Peter Arkell

The book follows the lives of a large group of characters as they try to make sense of their lives during the pitiless battle of survival against the Nazi armies besieging Stalingrad and against the suffocating, dangerous, distorting force of the Stalinist state.

At the centre of novel is Viktor Shtrum, a research physicist, who reflects, to an extent, the ideas and beliefs of Grossman himself.

During the war, Grossman became a famous war correspondent, known for his honesty and for his defiance of the censors who were unable to rein him in because of his popularity with the soldiers and the people. 

The novel, nearly 900 pages long, is an extraordinary and compelling portrait of a society struggling against a senseless force that dominated people’s lives, but which was impossible to identify or understand. For all that, the book is neither pessimistic nor gloomy, as it recounts the selflessness and courage of so many of the characters.

Written in the period of the thaw under Khrushchev, Grossman was hopeful of getting the book published, but he was told by the censors that his novel would never see the light of day for at least 200 years, and the manuscripts, his typewriter, all the ribbons and carbon paper were seized.

He died in 1964 and the novel might well have died with him.  There were however two copies of the manuscript still at large, and with the help of fellow dissident writer, Vladimir Voinivich, and physicist Andrei Sakharov, one of these was copied. The microfilm was smuggled to the West, resulting in the first publication of the work in the US in 1980. The book was published in the USSR in 1989 during the period of Gorbachev's glasnost.

The ambitious eight-hour dramatisation of the novel will star Kenneth Branagh and take over every drama strand on Radio 4 (apart from The Archers) from 18 to 24 September.

A World to Win has reviewed Life and Fate and also another of Grossman’s works, the unfinished Everything Flows.

8 September 2011

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