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by Robert Chandler
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
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
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official, in the implementation of measures that exacerbate the famine. We cannot help but identify with Anna and so we too feel guilty; Grossman does not allow the reader the luxury of indignation. Everything Flows also includes an extraordinary mock trial: the reader is asked to pronounce judgement on four informers. The arguments Grossman gives to both prosecution and defence are lively and startling; as a reader, one is constantly changing one’s mind. Grossman is still not widely read in contemporary Russia. Nationalists cannot forgive him for a long meditation in Everything Flows on “the slave soul” of Russia. Many Russians have simply not yet had time to digest the vast amount of previously forbidden literature that was first published in the late 1980s. The Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov, for example, has told me that he read so much during those years that he can no longer remember who wrote what. And then, after the collapse of communism, Russians were thrown into a world so unfamiliar and frightening that they had little time or energy to think about their Soviet past. But many other groups of readers are now being drawn to Grossman: Ukrainian émigrés, who value him for his writing about the terror famine; Jews, who value him for what he has written about the Shoah; people with an interest in the history of the second world war and the relationship between communism and fascism; journalists, who see him as an exemplary war correspondent. It is interesting that a recent European conference celebrating the centenary of Grossman’s birth was held at a Catholic centre in Turin and that several of the writers, critics and journalists who most admire Grossman—Gillian Slovo, Martin Kettle and John Lloyd among others—are ex-Marxists. Both Catholics and Marxists tend to expect art not only to be a source of joy, but also to provide moral guidance and a greater understanding of reality.
was born on 12th December 1905 in Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. His parents were Jews and they originally named their son Iosif, but this obviously Jewish name was later russified to Vasily;
ASILY SEMYONOVICH GROSSMAN
the family was well off and assimilated. At some point in his early childhood, his parents separated. From 1910 to 1912, the young Grossman and his mother lived in Switzerland, probably in Geneva. His mother, Yekaterina Savelievna, was later to work as a French teacher. From 1914 to 1919 he went to secondary school in Kiev and from 1924 to 1929 he studied chemistry at Moscow State University. There he realised that his vocation was literature. He never, however, lost interest in science; Viktor Shtrum, the central figure of Life and Fate and in many respects a self-portrait, is a nuclear physicist. (Primo Levi, another great witness to the Shoah, worked as an industrial chemist. Like Grossman, he is a master of precise description.) After graduating, Grossman moved to the industrial region of the Donbass, in east Ukraine, working as an inspector in a mine and a chemistry teacher in a medical institute. In 1932 he returned to Moscow, and in 1934 he published both “In the Town of Berdichev”—a short story that won the admiration of writers as different as Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaak Babel—and a novel, Glyukauf, about Donbass miners. In 1937 Grossman was admitted to the Union of Soviet Writers. His novel Stepan Kol’chugin was later nominated for a Stalin prize. Critics often divide Grossman’s life into two parts. Tzvetan Todorov, for example, says that “Grossman is the only example… of an established Soviet writer changing his spots completely. The slave in him died, and a free man arose.” But it is wrong to draw so clear a distinction between the “conformist” writer of the 1930s and 1940s and the “dissident” who wrote Life and Fate and Everything Flows in the 1950s. Glyukauf may seem dull today, but it must once have had the power to shock: in 1932 Gorky criticised it for “naturalism”—a Soviet codeword for presenting too much unpalatable reality. At the end of his report Gorky suggested that the author should ask himself: “Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph?” Even then such a cynical attitude to truth would almost certainly have been anathema to Grossman. It is hard, however, not to be impressed by Gorky’s intuition about Grossman as a potential heretic. In 1961, after the manuscripts of Life and Fate had been confiscated,
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