We’re two weeks into the new year and stories are everywhere, it seems. There’s Melvyn Bragg and his Radio 4 series on the history of literature. It was the 4,000 year-old Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, that set humanity off on its story-telling spree, he tells us.
Then there’s War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel. Amid all the publicity, the author has been seizing every opportunity to repeat his mantra that every primary school day should end with the children being read to for half an hour.
Backon Radio 4 Sarah Wheeler has been introducing readings from the diaries of various members of Scott’s South Pole expedition, surely one of the most tragic of exploration stories. And then there was Jeanette Winterson talking passionately about why it matters to read. ‘A book is a door,’ she said. ‘On the other side lies somewhere else.’
I love that thought. The somewhere else, of course, exists only in our imaginations. But how vivid and real it can feel. Over the Christmas holidays I finished Life and Fate, the 800-page saga by Vassily Grossman set in 1942 during the battle for Stalingrad. Not the kind of thing I normally go for, I have to admit; the last big Russian I read was Dostoevsky, in my early twenties. But after Radio 4 recently gave over every drama slot for an entire week to a dramatisation of Grossman’s book, I mentioned that it sounded worth reading and was promptly given it for my birthday.
During the war Grossman worked as a journalist, reporting from the Eastern Front for the Red Army press. Witnessing the deadening hand of state ideology, even in the thick of battle, he was appalled by the similarities between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany – and went on to describe them in the novel with an almost Orwellian clarity. Before the book was even finished it had attracted the attention of the KGB, who eventually confiscated it. Grossman died in 1964but had made copies which were later smuggled to the west where it was first published in 1980.
It tells the story of Viktor Strum, a Jewish theoretical physicist, and his extended family who between them experience practically every shade of existence in the Russia of the 1940s, from the front line to the labour camps, the state-sponsored laboratory to the steppes, the Lubyanka to Treblinka. The central scene is the desperate struggle for control of Stalingrad during the pitiless winter of 1942/43; the central theme the erosion of individual destiny by the relentlessly controlling mechanism of the communist state.
As ‘somewhere else’ it wasn’t always an easy place to be, but it was an equally difficult place to leave. In my imagination I absolutely inhabited those bombed-out factories, Siberian wastelands, crumbling apartments; I lived the characters’ inner and outer struggles. The scale and ambition of the book made most of the contemporary fiction I have read seem puny and domestic. For the couple of months it took me to read it majestically enriched my imaginative hinterland and I don’t doubt that I’ve expanded personally as a result. That’s why we need to read. That’s why the bookless households inhabited by a third of children in the UK offer such a bleak prospect.