The broad strokes of the novel, such as the trials and tribulations of the great scientist Victor Shtrum, whose character and flaws act as a mirror of the author’s own personality; the horrors of the concentration camp and slow creep of anti-Semitism; the battle of Stalingrad and the dehumanising effects of war, as seen through the eyes of a panorama of characters, both real and fictional all intentionally echo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. Yet, like Tolstoy, there is a deeper meaning behind Grossman’s work, one which focuses on the innateness kindness of humans even in the face of so much death and destruction and the hope that ultimately good will triumph over evil, not through grand acts, but small, scarce noticed acts of kindness-just as the Russian woman who was initially focussed on revenge exchanges the brick she was going to throw at the German soldier to kill him, to bread to fee him, so the only way humans will be able to overcome the horrors we inflict on each is via empathy and understanding and respect for our individuality. Grossman’s novel is an argument against all forms of collectivisation and homogenization; whether it be the machine of Nazism, Stalinism, Communism or collectivism, all of these act as a thresher which ultimately strip us of our humanity, leaving in its wake a shallow husk of a human being
Although Grossman lacks, perhaps, Tolstoy’s overwhelming sense of genius, he compensates for the grandiloquence which permeates ‘War and Peace’ with a deeper, perhaps more subtle Chekhovian sense of understanding of human nature as he portrays the flaws of the characters as well as their strengths; ‘humanity, warts and all’ would be a good encapsulation how Grossman portrays his characters. From Victor, the brilliant scientist, who harbours a host of demons and neuroses and whose incorrigibility is both a source of immense moral strength and superciliousness or his wife Lyuda who is able to combine acts of kindness with callousness, such as exiling Victor’s mother to her death in Ukraine, to the characters who exist on the margins of the novel, such as the old woman who harbours the escaped soldier at great potential cost to herself Semyonov, the eccentric poet Bogoleev or the Dostoevskian holy fool Ikkinikov, whose diatribes on humanity can be as profound as they can be ridiculous. The richness of the tapestry of characters which Grossman weaves through the novel gives the Soviet society which it portrays a richness and candour which few other novelists are able to match,
Grossman is also able to intersperse a sense of poetry which echoes the great novelists of the 19th century, from Turgenev to Chekhov-a feat all the more remarkable given the need for Grossman to conform to the proletariat style of Soviet literature;
“Suddenly the sun rose – like a burst of hope. The dark autumn water mirrored the sky; it began to breathe and the sun seemed to cry out in the waves. The steep banks had been salted by the night’s frost and the red-brown trees looked very gay. The wind rose, the mist vanished and the world grew cool and glass-like, piercingly transparent. There was no warmth in the sun, nor in the blue sky and water. The earth was vast: even the vast forest had both a beginning and an end, but the earth just stretched on for ever . . . And grief was something equally vast, equally eternal”
Beauty mixed with bathos; hope borne out of horror and the ability of humanity to find a way even in the darkest times are the themes which dominate Grossman’s novel, which acts as one of the greatest explorations of war and human nature in 20th century literature.