LIFE AND FATE. By Vasily Grossman. Translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler. Harper & Row. 880 pp. $22.50.

SINCE THE EARLY '60s, when Nikita Khrushchev's "thaw" unloosed an avalanche of dissident novels and plays, we have come to expect certain traits from Soviet writing, at least of the kind that finds its way to the West: innovative techniques, surrealism, the fancy footwork of multiple puns and ironies. Thus we have the black humor of a Sinyavsky, the picaresque satire of a Vladimir Voinovich, the modernist pointillism of the late Yuri Trifonov. What, then, is the American reader accustomed to the experimentalism that has characterized much of dissident Soviet fiction to make of Life and Fate -- a 900-page epic about the siege of Stalingrad, written in the solemn, lucid and philosophical manner of a 19th-century master? Read it, and rejoice that the 20th century has produced so thoughtful and so profound a literary humanist.

Vasily Grossman's life and the bizarre fortunes of his masterpiece, Life and Fate, are a macabre emblem of the history of the modern Soviet state. Born in 1905 into an assimilated Jewish family, Grossman became the highly praised author of a number of immaculately circumspect works of socialist realism. Like his more famous colleague, Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman was also an immensely popular correspondent from the front during World War II. He was the first writer in the world to report on a Nazi concentration camp, and with Ehrenburg, he compiled a Black Book cataloguing the destruction of Russian Jewry under Nazi occupation (his own mother was murdered in the Berdichev ghetto).

The Black Book, which to this day remains unpublished in the Soviet Union, was only the first of a succession of unpublishable works. After the war, Grossman ran headlong into the official anti-Semitism that marked Stalin's last years. His first Stalingrad novel, For a Righteous Cause (1952) -- a dully orthodox monument of socialist realism to which Life and Fate is the sequel -- was attacked for choosing a Jew as its central hero, and Grossman was denounced and hounded by a timid literary establishment. It was then that this Russian patriot and former Marxist almost despite himself discovered his Jewish identity and began work on the masterpiece that would make him, in the literary historian Simon Markish's words, "the first free voice of the Soviet nation."

The novel's fate is itself unique in Soviet letters. Emboldened by Khrushchev's 1961 speech to the 22nd Party Congress confirming hs intention to "de-Stalinize" the country, Grossman submitted his manuscript of Life and Fate for publication. Soon after, two KGB officers appeared at his door and "arrested" the novel. All drafts and notes were seized; even, it is rumored, the very typewriter ribbons were placed under lock and key. When Grossman lodged a bewildered protest, he was told by the party ideologue Mikhail Suslov that Life and Fate could not be published for another 200 or 300 years. This judgment, the novelist Vladimir Voinovich has observed, suggests something of the enduring value which party chiefs recognized in a work more seditious (because more universal) than Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.

The suppression of Life and Fate was a mortal blow to its author. "I was strangled in a doorway," he told a friend. Grossman died in 1964, but his novel has miraculously survived, smuggled out of the country in microfilm.

Life and Fate takes place in 1942 -- a pivotal year during which the Red Army, after a series of devastating retreats, unexpectedly reclaimed the besieged city of Stalingrad and routed the German army from the Volga and the Ukraine. Set on the battlefields of Stalingrad, in Nazi concentration camps and Siberian gulags, in the interrogation room of the Lubyanka and in Hitler's headquarters, Life and Fate tells the story of an extended family whose scattered fortunes embrace the entire history of 20th-century Europe.

Among the novel's chief protagonists are Mostrovskoy, an Old Bolshevik imprisoned behind enemy lines; Viktor Shtrum (clearly a self-portrait of the author), a Jewish physicist evacuated to Kazan, and his sister-in-law Yevgenia, an enigmatic siren torn between her love for a tank commander at Stalingrad and her loyalty to her ex-husband who has been arrested on charges of espionage.

The sufferings and self-revelations of these characters provide us with some of the most troubling and occasionally uplifting examinations of the human heart to be found in contemporary literature. Under this category comes the letter Shtrum's mother writes on the eve of certain death in a Nazi- run ghetto, and the confrontation between the fanatical Marxist Mostrovskoy and a German interrogator who tries his faith by revealing the undeniable congruence between communism and fascism. Under this category, too, comes the epiphany of an elderly spinster, Sonya Leviton, who discovers in the Nazi gas chamber a sudden and boundless love for the Jewish people akin to a mother's love for her children.

GROSSMAN'S VIEW of human nature is at once tenderly forgiving and quite merciless. We are exposed, for instance, to the all-too- realistic succession of emotions -- from exultant resistance to depression and submission to gloating smugness and final resolve -- that accompanies Viktor Shtrum's buffetings by the state: first lionized for an important scientific discovery, he is then denounced by the party as an enemy of the people and finally saved at the 11th hour by Stalin's intervention and persuaded by sheer relief to sign a letter vilifying other prominent Jewish intellectuals.

Life and Fate is not without its failings. Grossman was deprived of any chance to revise his manuscript as he intended. It is blunt and sometimes hasty in style (despite Robert Chandler's fine translation); the dialogue occasionally clanks with the rather mechanical effusions characteristic of socialist realism. In addition to these drawbacks, only a handful of the novel's cast of hundreds (including such historical figures as Hitler, Stalin and Eichmann) achieve a distinctive individuality. At the same time, however, so compelling are Grossman's dramatic powers that the reader feels himself by turns to be suffocating in a Nazi gas chamber, undergoing torture at the hands of the Soviet secret police, and gaining victory on the battlefield.

Life and Fate is above all a novel of ideas, in the 19th-century sense. Its great subject is human freedom, as exercised in those minute acts of "senseless kindness" by which ordinary men and women wage war against the forces of enslavement, forces which are embodied in our own time by communism, fascism, and their common scourge, anti-Semitism. Grossman's excoriation of these evils is the more effective and the more ennobling for being clothed in a gently majestic humanism which renders this work not only an evocation of an era, but a novel for all time.