May 21, 2013
‘Life and Fate’ at the Lincoln Center Festival
Posted on Aug 19, 2009
By Eunice Wong
“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:
There is evil masquerading, even to those who perpetrate it, as good:
And there is passivity, cowardice and the hidden forces within human beings that lead us to destroy ourselves and those around us:
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