Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman; translated by Robert Chandler (Harper & Row: $22.50; 880 pp.)

After serving as a war correspondent in World War II, the popular Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman was attacked for unorthodoxy. Later he came under pressure during the anti-Jewish campaign of Stalin's last years. By 1960, though, when he completed "Life and Fate," he had been reestablished as an honored and rewarded member of the Soviet literary establishment.

In 1964, he died in poverty and official disgrace. The manuscripts, the notes and even the typewriter ribbons used for "Life and Fate" had been seized by the police. Suslov, keeper of Soviet ideology, had declared that it would be 200 years before such a book could be published. "They have strangled me in a doorway," Grossman told his friends.

Now, five years after a microfilm copy of the novel was mysteriously made, smuggled out, and published in French, an English version has appeared in a translation by Robert Chandler. A scathing epic of Soviet life at the time of the battle of Stalingrad, it has received fervid advance praise. Comparisons have been made with "War and Peace," and its translator calls it the work of "the greatest of the dissidents of the post-Stalin era."

These things probably do a disservice. "Life and Fate" is heartfelt, brave and often astonishing. With some exceptions, though, it is not so much a work of art as a work of artistic witness. Brought up in the tradition of Socialist Realism, Grossman used the same broad strokes, sweeping lyricism, and foreshortened psychology employed to celebrate the Soviet state for the purpose of severely questioning it.

"Life and Fate's" theme is humanity tested by history's ordeals. The central ordeal is the war, particularly the struggle of soldiers and civilians to turn back the German invaders at Stalingrad. More terrible are two others: the deformation of the Russian spirit by the corrupted rule of the Communist Party; and the greater deformation provided by Hitler and the death camps.

These things are set out in a number of simultaneous sub-plots that present us with many dozens of characters: Russian and German soldiers, civilians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, the inmates of prison camps on both sides, and deported Russian Jews; and along with these, a number of real historical figures including Stalin, Hitler, Eichmann and senior German and Soviet military commanders.

Most of the sub-plots involve members or connections of a Russian family, the Shaposhnikovs. The matriarch, Alexandra, is a pre-Revolutionary idealist. Two of her sons-in-law are Old Bolsheviks, one of them purged in 1937, and serving in a concentration camp; the other, an idealistic military commissar who will also end up in jail. A third son-in-law, Viktor--modeled on the author--is a scientist caught up in the political cross currents of Stalinism. A son is the director of a Stalingrad power station; Novikov, the lover of one of the daughters, commands a tank corps that plays a crucial role in the final Stalingrad offensive.

The scale and the ambition are enormous. Like other writers before him--like Tolstoy, in fact--Grossman contrasts the human spirit with the structures that constrict it. The horrors he relates are of an order that Tolstoy never knew, of course: the absolutism and perversions of Hitlerism and Stalinism, the bloodiness and destructiveness of modern warfare, and the gas chambers' final solutions.

Many of the things he fictionalizes we have heard about more vividly from others. His gulags are mere sketches alongside Solzhenytsin's; his death camps, though movingly related, reflect none of the deep vision of Levi or Wiesel. His battle scenes--despite or perhaps because of his years as a newspaper correspondent--are thin abstractions, certainly as compared with those of "War and Peace." His women, except for one or two seen glancingly, possess little individuality. More generally, his characters tend to take their definition from the events and situations they participate in; they rarely impart much definition to the events.

But there is a moving fascination to the events themselves, and particularly to those that Grossman knew best. One of the most extraordinary of the sub-plots is the relationship between Novikov, the valiant and open-hearted tank commander, and the complex and devious political commissar, Getmanov, who is assigned to his corps. Getmanov is a Gorbachev-like figure: formidably intelligent, apparently open, and utterly dedicated to maintaining the Party's supremacy at a time when the national energies needed to fight the Germans--Novikov and other military figures represent these wider energies--might come to threaten it.

If there is a central character, it is Viktor, the uneasy intellectual. His Jewish origin is a minor theme, but it links him to the terrible things that happened to the Jews in the Nazi-occupied areas--his mother perished--and the oppression that Stalin would impose after the war. Parallels are the heart of the book, and no doubt one of the reasons it was banned: two sets of concentration camps, two kinds of genocide (a Ukrainian village passively watches its Jews rounded up; previously, it had watched the Kulaks exterminated.), two visions of order used to destroy humanity.

Viktor is the most rounded and complex of the personages. A brilliant scientific discovery is condemned by the Party, and he becomes virtually a non-person when he refuses to recant. Policies change, though; Stalin telephones him, and he is once again in favor. And when he is required to sign a paper denouncing some Jewish doctors, he accedes; his resistance has been corrupted. "The great state was breathing on him tenderly; he didn't have the strength to cast himself out into the freezing darkness."

Grossman's portrayal of the day-by-day, inch-by-inch struggle for Stalingrad is another of the book's major achievements. Small detachments, isolated in burnt-out factories and houses, evolved a kind of individual, partisan warfare. Again, the native Russian spirit was emerging, and the army's political command would send commissars around to keep it in check. The woodenness of many of Grossman's characters, and the flights of rhetoric, and sometimes sentimentality, that he engages in, are serious flaws. His skills and command as a novelist are often insufficient to control the sweep of his history and of his theme. Yet there is something valuable and moving about the efforts of this writer, crippled by his times, to surmount them. He is a witness who speaks unevenly, but a witness, nevertheless.

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