WRITING: Life and Fate at the Lincoln Center Festival

NEW YORK THEATRE REVIEW

Life and Fate, presented by the Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg

By Eunice Wong
Originally published on Truthdig.com
August 19, 2009.

“Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman stands with Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Beckett’s “The Unnamable” as one of the greatest works of 20th-century literature. These novels are extraordinary not for their narratives but for their minute and profound observations of humanity, good and evil, love, cruelty, kindness, death and the collective folly and fragility of human life.

“Life and Fate” is a massive epic of Soviet gulags, the siege of Stalingrad, the race for the atomic bomb, Nazi death camps and one middle-class family in Moscow. It was considered so subversive in its indictment of communism, which Grossman saw as a mirror of fascism, that the KGB, before it could be published, confiscated the manuscript along with every note, draft and copy so that Grossman could never reconstruct it. The novel was not published until 1980, 16 years after Grossman’s death, when the manuscript was smuggled to Switzerland.

Director Lev Dodin and the Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg, Russia, make an ambitious effort to stage Grossman’s epic. The company has toured Europe with “Life and Fate.” It made its North American premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York at the end of July. The cast was large and the staging often innovative, but ultimately it could offer only a few slack threads pulled from Grossman’s tapestry, often stripped of structure and meaning.

Dodin’s adaptation begins with the cast, fully costumed, playing volleyball. There is no volleyball in Grossman’s novel. The game is a regrettable theatrical metaphor. A squat, shapeless woman in a black dress with a white lace collar, clutching the ball, steps forward. This is Anna Shtrum, an elderly Jewish doctor, played by Tatiana Shestakova. The Germans have herded her, along with the other Jews in her Ukrainian town, to a ghetto. They are marked for liquidation. Anna recites the last letter she has written to her son Viktor, a letter that was mailed after her body was dumped in an anonymous mass grave. Anna’s monologue weaves in and out of the play’s action, and Dodin is right to anchor his production around the letter.

Shestakova, unfortunately, is badly miscast. Her voice is a plaintive bleat. She clasps her hands and gazes piously to the heavens. The power of Anna’s letter should lie in its emotional restraint and moments of wry self-deprecation, juxtaposed with the horror she recounts. Dodin retains the most pitiable images—“It was as though even the sun no longer shone for the Jews, as though they were walking in hard December frost”—and cuts the irony, omitting, for example, the passage when Anna remembers a patient she always found gloomy and callous, but who materialized to carry her basket, give her money and promise to bring her bread at the ghetto fence every week: “If I’d been asked to list all the people I knew with pure, sensitive souls, I might have given dozens of names—but certainly not his.” This imbalance topples Anna’s chilling and ultimately heart-rending letter into a single plane of cloying sentimentality.

The central figure of “Life and Fate” is Viktor Shtrum, Anna’s son. Viktor, as played by Sergey Kuryshev, is a manic, blustering showman, gesticulating and rolling his words like a mouthful of marbles. Viktor, as written by Grossman, is quite different. He is thoughtful and quiet, haunted by the loss of his mother, and unhappily detached from his wife and family. He is a lonely man. His mother is his “inner witness,” the moral presence by which he measures all his actions, long after her death. Kuryshev robs Viktor of his introspection and sensitivity, and obliterates one of the central themes of the book.

Shtrum’s wife in the novel, Lyudmila (Liuda), loves her husband but embraces different values: compliance, obedience, submission. She is hurt by the gulf between them but is helpless to bridge it. The same character in the stage adaptation, played by Elena Solomonova, is reduced to a vapid sidekick, spending most of her time gawking at her frenzied husband. The misinterpretations of Anna, Viktor and Liuda ripple outward to dull the message of the novel—that few of us are truly understood, even by those we are closest to, and that the ethical life is the life of an outcast.

The greatest strength of Dodin’s adaptation is his technique of staging simultaneous, incongruous scenes. The prisoners in the gulag and death camps share the Shtrums’ living space with the family. They march through the apartment and wolf down their rations from the kitchen counter. They huddle mutely in a clump while Shtrum sits among them, talking to visitors. A young couple embraces in bed surrounded by haggard death camp inmates. “Life inside the camps,” wrote Grossman, “could be seen as an exaggerated, magnified reflection of life outside. Far from being contradictory, these two realities were symmetrical.” The initial effect is absurd, but soon becomes poignant. It is the obvious but easily forgotten fact of simultaneous life, the coexistence of many experiences of reality, and the overlapping of internal and external suffering.

The deepest disappointment in Dodin’s adaptation is the loss of Grossman’s profound meditations on good and evil. The novel cracks open the tyranny of ideology:

It was the revolutionary cause itself that freed people from morality in the name of morality, that justified today’s Pharisees, hypocrites and writers of denunciations in the name of the future, that explained why it was right to elbow the innocent into the ditch in the name of the happiness of the people. This was what enabled you to turn away from children whose parents had been sent to camps. This was why it was right for a woman—because she had failed to denounce an innocent husband—to be torn away from her children and sent for ten years to a concentration camp.

There is evil masquerading, even to those who perpetrate it, as good:

People began to realize how much blood had been spilt in the name of a petty, doubtful good. … Sometimes the very concept of good became a scourge, a greater evil than evil itself. … People struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good. … Even Herod did not shed blood in the name of evil; he shed blood in the name of his particular good.

And there is passivity, cowardice and the hidden forces within human beings that lead us to destroy ourselves and those around us:

One of the most astonishing human traits that came to light at this time was obedience. There were cases of huge queues being formed by people awaiting execution—and it was the victims themselves who regulated the movement of these queues.

Dodin narrows his focus to the evil of anti-Semitism. The driver who brings the Shtrums back to Moscow says to them, “You see, you’re Jews, but you’re good people.” Viktor’s colleagues at the scientific academy accuse him of wallowing in “the bog of Talmudic abstraction.” Characters walk downstage and open their arms, directly addressing the audience as they speak of the injustice “we Jews” suffer. This concentration on one evil, plucked from the vast palette painted by Grossman, is unfortunately myopic. Grossman was wary of nationalism, or of those who defined themselves, and especially elevated themselves, through ethnic or racial identity. Jewish victims, he said, should be regarded as human beings, not part of a separate nation. “[Chekhov] said something no one in Russia had ever said,” he wrote. “He said that first of all we are human beings—and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers.” 

Dodin sadly reduced probably the most important chapter of the book, a manifesto on kindness and goodness written by the “holy fool” Ikonnikov, into a fleeting rant by a prisoner in a group argument. It is impossible, with the severe abridgment of the text, and the placing of private and deeply pondered thoughts into a public forum, for the stage version to have a particle of the impact of the original chapter. One of the many omissions was the following passage, the moral nucleus of Grossman’s book:

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. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

The meditations on good and evil are, admittedly, exhilarating for their ethical and intellectual flights rather than for their dramatic worth. But they are the heart of “Life and Fate.” Any stage adaptation that omits or truncates them is anemic and untrue to Grossman’s vision.

The final series of images in Dodin’s adaptation are undeniably powerful. The gas chambers are eerily, wordlessly evoked, followed by a tableau of Anna, a ghost, sitting alone amid overturned chairs, dirty dishes and scattered heaps of clothing—the ruins of an abandoned, interrupted life. But it is an image of desolation.

“[Human history] is a battle,” wrote Grossman, “fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” Grossman ended his novel, after almost 900 pages of war, atrocity and the great struggle with evil, with a young, unnamed couple walking hand in hand, in the early morning, through a snow-covered forest. “They were together—and that was enough to make everything round about seem beautiful. And it was spring.” In the novel’s final scene we are reminded that life, even in the wake of unthinkable horror, grows new shoots of hope and resurrection. The ice in the forest is cracking, the snow is melting, and “there was so much light, it was so intense, that they seemed almost to have to force their way through it. … It was the past that slept under the snow, beneath this cool half-light—the joy of lovers’ meetings, the hesitant chatter of April birds, people’s first meetings with neighbors who had seemed strange at first and then become a part of their lives. … Everyone was asleep—the strong and the weak, the brave and the timid, the happy and the unhappy. … Somehow you could sense spring more vividly in this cool forest than on the sunlit plain. And there was a deeper sadness in this silence than in the silence of autumn. In it you could hear both a lament for the dead and the furious joy of life itself.”

The quotations are from a translation by Robert Chandler (Harper & Row), New York, 1980.