“Life and Fate,” the 900-page opus by Vasily Semyonovich Grossman, is important not only as literature, but also as a history of Stalinist Russia. Since 2006 it has been available as a paperback from NYRB Classics, recently turned into a radio play on U.K.’s BBC 4, and a newly minted paperback can now be found in British and European airport and railway station bookshops, at hand’s reach of travellers used to a diet of pulp fiction.
Grossman, born in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev — home to one of Europe’s largest post-World War II Jewish communities — studied chemistry at Moscow State University. He soon found his true vocation to be literature, but never lost his interest in science. His exceptional translator, Robert Chandler, suggests that the central figure in “Life and Fate,” a nuclear scientist named Viktor Shtrum, is a self portrait. But Shtrum’s megalomaniac, fault-finding character does not echo the soul of a man who had to make life-threatening decisions throughout his 59 years. From the time he reported on the excesses of pre-war Stalinist purges to the slaughter of the Kulaks and other communities, he was forever putting his life in jeopardy.