Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

I have been a bad, bad reader and given up with this book. I got half way through and then found I was not enjoying it, that I was becoming too conscious of its imperfections. Partly this was to do with it being translated into English from the original Russian. All translations lose something in translation, of course. But this one (Vantage edition) never achieved the necessary cruising altitude of style where you forget it is a translation at all and get carried away with the story and the meaning.

It is apparently based on ‘War and Peace’, at least in the episodic, multi-stranded story. So there are several parallel plots, all set against the background of the Great Patriotic War and, in particular, the Battle of Stalingrad. This mimicry of Tolstoy also begins to grate, after a while.

But, for all these pompous imaginings, I just got bored. It was hard to recall when I picked up the book which characters I had met before (a common problem in all big epics with casts of thousands) and the plot was too diffuse to keep my interest.

But is it always wrong to give up on a book? I feel guilty about it, naturally, I suppose, for someone who enjoys reading. And if you are reading an acknowledged classic, like this, there is something self improving, one hopes, about sticking with it to the end and sharing in the common cultural experience that has so entranced others. I stuck with Henry James, Moby Dick (a pretty tough and unusual read) and I have read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time twice, with nothing but enjoyment both times. So I don’t feel incompetent to finish this book. I just was not enjoying it.

I met a very impressive and thoughtful man a few weeks’ ago, who told me that his life had changed since he had found he had cancer and was now in remission. He was a very senior EU civil servant, spoke several languages and was clearly an exceptionally erudite man. He said his whole approach to work and life had changed; he had become completely generous in his approach to other people and no longer sought to manage his staff’s work, just to encourage them. Anyway, I asked him if it had changed his attitude to reading. He said it had, in that he now read only for pleasure. In his case, this seemed to mean reading philosophy but as we get older, perhaps the pursuit of pleasure is the best motivation for reading. I am afraid this book just wasn’t giving me any.


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