Life and Fate on Radio 4’s Start the Week – and bumping into an old friend

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Saturday 10th September 2011

Another upside of working from home (see previous blog), is that every now and again you can escape from work without a grumpy boss raising an eyebrow.

So yesterday I walked to St Peter’s College in Oxford to listen to a special recording of Andrew Marr’s Start the Week. The beautiful Victorian chapel was packed to the gunnels for the event, one of a series of discussions to mark Radio 4’s forthcoming dramatisation of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It promises to be one of the must-listens of the year, with Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant starring, yet I’m ashamed to admit that until this week I barely knew anything about Grossman.

But as Marr (shorter and more dapper in real life than I’d expected) and his guests – historian Antony Beevor and writers Linda Grant and Andrey Kurkov – revealed, Grossman’s story is a tragic, but fascinating one.

Scientist turned writer Grossman was a formidable journalist. Writing for Red Star, the Red Army’s newspaper, he wrote eyewitness accounts of the Soviet retreat, the defence of Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin. He was also the first journalist to reach the hideous Nazi concentration camp of Treblinka.

After the Second World War, he became increasingly critical of the Stalinist regime. In the early 1960s, after he submitted Life and Fate for publication, Politburo ideology chief Mikhail Suslov decided it could be published – but not for 200 years. KGB officers raided Grossman’s flat and seized the manuscript, copying paper and even his typewriter ribbons. Grossman died in 1964 assuming that nobody would ever read his novel. Actually, it turned out later that he’d given a copy to a friend and a network of dissidents managed to smuggle it out of the country.

Many critics now compare Life and Fate, the history of a nation told through one family’s eyes, to War and Peace. In fact Linda Grant told the Oxford audience that she’d not only failed to finish War and Peace but that she reckons Life and Fate is a better novel. That was enough for me. After the talk I dashed straight round to Blackwell’s in Broad Street to buy a copy. Not only that, when the Radio 4 dramatisation starts on September 18 I’m going to be glued to the radio. Meanwhile you can hear the Start the Week debate on Monday at 9am.

PS: “That’s funny,” I thought as I headed home along a packed Cornmarket. “From the back that man walks just like my old friend Pete Davies. He’s got exactly the same long stride and laid-back manner.” Pete and I were at school together but he lives 200 miles away in Yorkshire and I haven’t seen him for 15 years. The closer I got the more extraordinary the likeness of his walk seemed. I shouted “Pete” in a discreet way, just in case the man turned out to be a complete stranger. And guess what? The man turned round in puzzlement, glanced at me and glanced again. Slowly recognition dawned on his face. It was Pete!

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