Book Reviews

Life and Fate: the 20th Century War & Peace

Why do people have memories? It would be easier to die – anything to stop remembering. How could he have taken that moment of drunken folly for the deepest truth of his life? Why had he finally given in after holding back for all those long, difficult years?

He had never killed a child; he had never arrested anyone. But he
had broken the fragile dyke that had protected the purity of his soul from the seething darkness around him. The blood of the camps and ghettos had gushed over him and carried him away There was no longer any divide between him and the darkness; he himself was a part of the darkness.

Part II Chapter 34

I don’t usually take this long to write reviews (I read this book around 1.5 years ago) but I just can’t seem to convey my thoughts on this book.

Important note in light of current events: Vasili Grossman was born in what is present-day Ukraine but obviously during his time Ukraine was part of the USSR.

First thing you should know is that this is actually a sequel to Stalingrad, which introduces us to the same characters as in Life and Fate. I actually had no idea that this was a sequel because my reference point was the Vintage Classic Russian series which had this book as part of that series but not Stalingrad.

Vasily Grossman was a journalist by profession and was a war reporter during WWII which should not be a surprise when you read this book. A lot of the scenes set in the front or battlegrounds were very moving and felt “real”. He knew what he was talking about. Let me also just mention that the letter written by Viktor Shrum’s mother to her son is absolutely heart breaking and some of the most moving passages of literature that I have read.


How is it Like War and Peace?

  • War setting: Life and Fate is set in WWII while War and Peace is set during the Napoleonic wars and culminates in the war of 1812 (Napoleon’s Russian campaign).
  • Large cast of characters: The most similar aspect between the two novels is the cast of characters. Both center on one main family (the Rostovs in W&P and the Shaposnikovs in L&F) and their family members and family friends with a smattering of smaller characters.
  • Realistic
  • Length: Both are massive – Life and Fate is around 900 pages while War and Peace is around 1200.

How is it NOT Like War and Peace?

  • Prose: Obviously I don’t read Russian so I’m not a good judge on this but the writing styles were quite different and personally for me Tolstoy’s was slightly more enjoyable. Also, War and Peace is made up of 365 tiny chapters which might make it easier for most people to digest.
  • Acclaim: While both are well-known, War and Peace is a classic and is widely read not just in Russia but throughout the world. You won’t have difficulty finding friends or online strangers to discuss the book with while Life and Fate is lesser known and hence it can be quite difficult to look up answers or analyses for chapters or passages that confuse you.
  • Characters: Though both have a rotating cast of characters, it’s obvious who the “central” characters in each book are. I wasn’t as invested in the Life and Fate characters but that’s not to say they were unlikeable characters (they were). Tolstoy is just miles ahead of any other writer in creating sympathetic and likable characters you get deeply invested in.

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