Robert CHANDLER on Vasily GROSSMAN
Robert Chandler, the translator of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and Everything Flows, talks about the works of the writer
I FIRST HEARD of Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) nearly 30 years ago. I went to see my friend Igor Golomstock, an émigré Russian art critic. He held out a large volume—the first, Swiss-published edition of the Russian text of Life and Fate—and said, ‘Robert, if you want to establish yourself as a translator, you should translate this!’ In reply I simply laughed and said, ‘Igor, I don’t even read books as long as that in Russian, let alone translate them!’ Igor, however, is not someone easily deflected. A few weeks later he sent me the transcripts of four half-hour programmes about Life and Fate that he had done for the BBC Russian Service. I read these transcripts and was gripped. I quickly discovered, as many other people have done since, that once I began reading Life and Fate—instead of just worrying about its length—I found the book surprisingly hard to put down. Grossman’s descriptions of the fighting at Stalingrad seemed extraordinarily vivid. I could sense a bold and powerful intelligence behind the passages comparing Nazism and Stalinism. And the last letter written by the hero’s mother from a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, before her death in one of the massacres that were the first stage of the Shoah, was as moving as anything I had ever read. Somehow I ended up doing as Igor suggested ...
Now, decades after Igor first introduced me to Grossman, I am more grateful to him than I can say. Not only does Life and Fate itself seem still finer than I had realized, but I have also come to see that Grossman wrote a number of short works that are no less great.
When I received the first copies of this NYRB Classics edition of our translation of Everything Flows, my first feeling of all was surprise. I felt startled by the small size of the book. I could hardly believe that so many unusual perceptions about so many subjects—marriage, the ‘Russian soul’, Lenin, Stalin’s paranoia, the whole sweep of Russian and Soviet history— could have been compressed into such a small space. A fifth of the length of Life and Fate—which once looked so frighteningly long—this odder, more modernist, more idiosyncratic novel now seems equally broad in its scope and still more profound in its insights.
To translate a writer means to live in their world for a long time. There are fine writers—Isaac Babel is one—whose worlds I find so disturbing that I do not want to inhabit them again. There are other writers whose company, no matter what subjects they write about, is always a joy. Translating Alexander Pushkin always leaves me feeling clearer-headed, deeply refreshed. Translating Andrey Platonov—the only one of his contemporaries, incidentally, whom Grossman whole-heartedly admired—jolts me into glimpsing whole new worlds of thought and feeling. As for Grossman himself, I think of him as a supremely trustworthy guide. There is an integrity in him that enables him to write about the most terrible matters—the Gulag, the Shoah, the Terror Famine in the Ukraine—without making the reader feel violated. Many writers write about these horrors because they are in pain and they imagine that their own pain will lessen if they manage to hurt their readers. Other writers are like prosecuting lawyers. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for example, sometimes appears to seize on each new horror with delight—as if he looks on some terrible evil simply as a piece of evidence, as a weapon that will help him to make his case. Grossman, in contrast, seems uncommonly pure. He appears to write simply because he knows that a particular story needs to be told, that it is man’s duty to remember the dead. His chapters about the Shoah and the Terror Famine have the healing power of ritual lament, of the finest passages of Dante or the Bible. After a French-language staging of ‘The Last Letter’, a play based on the famous chapter from Life and Fate, a Jewish member of the audience said to the director, ‘I never received a last letter from my mother. Now it feels as if I did.’ It is hard to imagine a more moving tribute—to the director, to the actor and to Grossman himself.
The French poet Eugene Guillevic, whose ‘Charnel Houses’ (1947) is one of the first, and finest, poetic responses to the Shoah, once wrote, ‘Yes, even horror can be lived out in poetry. This is not to say that poetry weakens or diminishes horror—what it perhaps means is that poetry translates horror to that level where, lived out through poetry, it is no longer degrading.’ These words seem more applicable to Grossman’s sober, factual, yet strangely luminous prose than to any other literature that I know.
I recently met Grossman’s daughter, Yekaterina Korotkova, in Moscow. She has just written this to me, ‘I have always thought that the two chapters from Everything Flows about the Famine in the Ukraine are the most powerful in all Grossman’s work. Terrible, shocking chapters, written from inspiration. I especially admire the brief second chapter—the unbelievably sad, yet radiant story of the life of a small family. A story about modest people who had led a difficult life, about their self-abnegation, about their great love. I do not know whether Grossman met these people in reality, or whether he imagined them. I know only that he truly loved them. He wrote about this family twice: in the novel For a Just Cause and in Everything Flows.’ Yekaterina Korotkova goes on to say how upset she was when a literary editor in the days of perestroika, who had agreed to publish these two chapters in a journal (the journal’s title—as it happens—was ‘The Family’!) chose to omit this last chapter without consulting her. When he eventually told her what he had done, he dismissed this chapter as ‘a mere makeweight’. Korotkova, naturally, was deeply upset. This is not, of course, the only time that Grossman’s work was mauled by editors and censors. I do not, in fact, know of any other writer every step of whose career—both during his life and after his death—has been marked by such long delays and tedious, protracted battles. There are, for example, twelve extant complete versions of For a Just Cause, and there were no less than three occasions between 1949 and 1952 when the journal ‘Novy Mir’ had the novel set up in type—only for the authorities to change their minds and give orders for the type to be broken up. As for Life and Fate— even after the satirist, Vladimir Voinovich, had smuggled a microfilmed text to the West, it took him almost five years to find a publisher for the Russian text—mainly because of antisemitism among Russian émigrés.
Grossman’s thoughts are almost always more subtle, more unexpected, often more poetic, than is immediately obvious. I am grateful to Anna Aslanyan for checking our translation so thoroughly and bringing my attention to the many passages I had unwittingly obscured or over-simplified. I am grateful, as always, to my wife, Elizabeth, who has worked with me on every sentence of the translation. And I am grateful for the understanding of my editor, Edwin Frank, who, after reading this translation for the first time, wrote: ‘The book is, in spite of the story it tells, wise and beautiful ... The book is an act of witness but it is also literature—literature reconceived in response to the obligation to witness. And it is, in its own way, as vast a book as Life and Fate.’
VASILY SEMYONOVICH GROSSMAN was born on December 12, 1905, in Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. In 1934 he published both “In the Town of Berdichev”—a short story that won the admiration of such diverse writers as Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaak Babel—and a novel, Glyukauf, about the life of the Donbass miners. During World War II, Grossman worked as a reporter for the army newspaper Red Star, covering nearly all of the most important battles from the defense of Moscow to the fall of Berlin. His vivid yet sober “The Hell of Treblinka” (late 1944), one of the first articles in any language about a Nazi death camp, was translated and used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials. His novel, For a Just Cause (originally titled Stalingrad), was published in 1952 and then fiercely attacked. A new wave of purges—directed against the Jews—was about to begin; but for Stalin’s death in March 1953, Grossman would almost certainly have been arrested. During the next few years Grossman, while enjoying public success, worked on his two masterpieces, neither of which was to be published in Russia until the late 1980s: Life and Fate and Everything Flows. The KGB confiscated the manuscript of Life and Fate in February 1961. He was able, however, to continue working on Everything Flows, a work even more critical of Soviet society than Life and Fate, until his last days in the hospital. He died on September 14, 1964, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of Berdichev, in which his mother had died.
ROBERT CHANDLER’s translations of Sappho and Guillaume Apollinaire are published in the series “Everyman’s Poetry.” His translations from Russian include Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Aleksander Pushkin’s Dubrovsky and The Captain’s Daughter. Together with his wife, Elizabeth, and other colleagues he has co-translated numerous works by Andrey Platonov. One of these, Soul, was chosen in 2004 as “best translation of the year from a Slavonic language” by the American Association of Teachers of Slavonic and East European Languages (AATSEEL); it was also shortlisted for the 2005 Rossica Translation Prize and the Weidenfeld European Translation Prize. Chandler’s translation of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway won the AATSEEL Prize for 2007 and received a special commendation from the judges of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize. He is the editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and the author of a biography of Alexander Pushkin.