Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 21

This post, covering Part 3, Chapter 21 is part of The Slavic Literature Pod’s chapter a day read along of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Learn more about our project here.

Viktor’s phone is silent in the evenings now. On the street, some of his fellow scientists give him a wide berth when they see him coming. Those he still speaks with urge him to write a letter of repentance. 

“‘What errors? What do you want me to repent of?’” Viktor asks. 

“‘Who cares?’” Savostyanov replies. “‘It’s what everyone does. … He admits his errors, writes letters of repentance – and then returns to work. It’s like water off a duck’s back.’” (p. 671) 

Following this conversation, Viktor goes back and forth on whether or not to write the letter — or perhaps pen a speech to deliver to a meeting at the institute. Either could give him back his life, as normal as it can be after such an experience, and all it would cost him is his dignity. 

It’s a choice faced by unknown numbers during the Soviet Union. This pressure to act a certain way has, mutatis mutandis, acted upon every character we’ve met in Life and Fate We’ve seen it in Getmanov’s subtle shaping of Novikov’s actions, on Krymov’s behavior as a commissar, on Stepan Spiridonov’s decision to stay in Stalingrad long past the point of usefulness. 

This is the first time the narrator addresses it so directly, though, describing the experience: “...an invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating … Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it for even a moment – with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.” (p. 672)