— from Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, a BBC4 dramatization.
But then this radio dramatization caught my ear, and I was hooked. As it stars Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, you could say the production is of decent quality. I have trouble with audiobooks and radio plays in general in that they tease me into believing they're conducive to multitasking. But I can't do it. If I'm to get anything out of them, I need to give them my attention, at which point I figure I might as well just read the book. I ended up listening to most parts of this drama twice, to ensure I had the characters and events straight, but I was very glad to do so.
Some of the early great lines include: "How could I talk to a woman who thought Balzac wrote Madame Bovary?" and: "A way to a Russian's heart is through his brain."
As you might guess from the book's title, there's a great deal of philosophizing going on.
There's some similar musing about science. That there's no such thing as Stalinist science, or Jewish science, etc, it's just science, that's all, but of course not everyone sees the world this way. Isn't that mind-boggling? That someone could dispute your science because it wasn't Soviet enough?
Then there's love.
I wanted to tell him everything, and I told him nothing at all. I wanted to ask him everything, and I asked him about eating black bread. Is it possible to lose everything because we don't speak when we must? I was an idiot...
[Oh, I have been an idiot. Listening to this production is an emotional double-whammy these days, for what it is and for the real life it reminds me of.]
It's quite a drama. There are funny bits, and poignant bits, and clever bits, and bits that made me cry. There's a lot about doing the right thing, and a lot of "if we only knew," and of course we never do, which makes it all the harder.
Some people see it as a counterpart to Tolstoy's War and Peace. I think there's more war, and less peace, in Life and Fate. Maybe only it seems more brutal because these historical events are closer in time. But the comparison captures the right sprawl, and there's a similar quality of introspection.
The radio drama leaves some plot points unresolved. Perhaps they are treated this way in the book as well. I'm tempted to find out.
The BBC4 Life and Fate page has a couple video clips featuring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, on the story but also on the nature of radio drama, as well as some other background material. Apparently the podcasts are no longer available for download, but if you ever come across the opportunity to give them a listen, take it.
The Times Literary Supplement