Prospect Magazine - September 2006

Page 54

portrait
by Robert Chandler

VASILY GROSSMAN
The Russian writer’s novel “Life and Fate”—often compared with “War and Peace”—was first published in English in the mid1980s. But only now is interest taking off among a wider public

I

for a translator to exaggerate the importance of what he is working on. In the early 1980s, while I was translating Life and Fate—Vasily Grossman’s epic novel about the second world war and totalitarianism—I was certain that it was a very great work. As the years passed and few people either in Russia or the west seemed to be paying much attention to it, I began to doubt my judgement. It was a joy, therefore, to reread the novel last winter, for the first time in 20 years, and realise that I had underestimated Grossman’s greatness. Life and Fate is not only a brave and wise book; it is also written with Chekhovian subtlety. Collins Harvill published my translation of Life and Fate in 1985. The reviews were mostly positive but sales were disappointing, especially in view of the fact that the book had been a bestseller in France; one of Grossman’s central themes—the identity of fascism and communism—was clearly a more pressing concern in a country where communism was still a significant political force. And there were English critics who thought Grossman dull. Anthony Burgess, for example, seemed irritated by George Steiner’s judgement that “novels like Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel and Life and Fate eclipse almost all that passes for serious fiction in the west today.” Burgess accused Grossman of lack of imagination—a surprising thing to say of a
T IS EASY

Robert Chandler’s co-translations of Andrey Platonov have won prizes in Britain and the US. Parts of this portrait are drawn from the introduction to the new NYRB edition of “Life and Fate.” See also the short story by Grossman, p60

writer able to describe so convincingly the last moments of a child dying in a Nazi gas chamber. When Igor Golomstock, the émigré art critic, first showed me a copy of the original Russian edition of Life and Fate, published in Lausanne in 1981, and suggested I try to persuade a publisher to commission a translation, I laughed. I did not read books of that length, I said, let alone translate them. A month later, Igor gave me the texts of four radio programmes about the novel that he had made for the BBC Russian service. To my surprise, I was gripped, and soon I was translating a sample chapter. The huge number of characters and sub-plots make Life and Fate seem daunting, but once one starts reading, its clarity and compassion make it quite accessible. Grossman is in many respects an old-fashioned writer, and perhaps for that reason literary critics have shown little interest in him. For many years it was historians—above all, Antony Beevor and Catherine Merridale—who affirmed his importance. Beevor’s recent translation of Grossman’s war diaries (A Writer at War, from which several quotations in this article are taken) has done more than anything to bring the writer to a wider public. Since publication of the diaries last year, sales of Life and Fate in Britain have grown from around 500 copies a year to 500 a month. And in March, a Guardian article by Martin Kettle praising Life and Fate led to it briefly becoming the second most popular book at Amazon UK. Grossman is a steady writer; he never sets out to dazzle the reader. So it is perhaps appropriate that his recognition has come about only gradually. Nevertheless, it has been clear for some time that Life and Fate is finding its place in the world. Since 2005, the centenary of Grossman’s birth, there have been two new editions of his classic in English. And in the 1990s two biographies in English were published: Frank Ellis’s Vasiliy Grossman: The Genesis and Evolution of a Russian Heretic and John and Carol Garrard’s The Bones of Berdichev. The latter emphasises Grossman’s importance as a witness to the Shoah. There is perhaps no more powerful lament for east European Jewry than the letter that Anna Semyonovna, a fictional portrait in Life and Fate of Grossman’s mother, writes to her son and smuggles out of a town occupied by the Nazis. The Last Letter, a one-woman play based on this letter, has been staged by Frederick Wiseman both in Paris and in New York. A Russian version was staged in Moscow in December 2005. Grossman will be remembered not only for his evocation of wartime Stalingrad and his accounts, both journalistic and fictional, of the Shoah. He has also left us one of the most vivid accounts of famine in world literature; his last major work, the unfinished novel, Everything Flows, includes an account of the 1932-33 terror famine in Ukraine. It is typical of Grossman that Anna, the sympathetic narrator of this chapter, is herself implicated, as a minor party

54 PROSPECT September 2006