A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Grossman wrote a first draft of Everything Flows in the mid-1950s. Like many of his works, it began as a response to an event of historical importance – in this case, the release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners from the Gulag in the mid-1950s. In 1956, on the anniversary of Stalin’s death, the poet Anna Akhmatova famously said, ‘Now those who have been arrested will return, and two Russias will look each other in the eye – the Russia that sent people to the camps, and the Russia that was sent to the camps.’ Grossman and Akhmatova were never – as far as I know – in direct contact with each other, but Akhmatova’s words well encapsulate the theme of Grossman’s short novel.
On returning to Moscow after twenty years in the camps, Ivan goes to visit his cousin Nikolay Andreyevich, a successful scientist. Both cousins have high hopes of this meeting; both look forward to telling their stories. Ivan hopes that this will release him from the burden of all that he has seen and suffered in the camps; Nikolay hopes to be absolved from the guilt he feels on account of all the many shameful compromises he has made over the years. In the event, however, Nikolay feels threatened by Ivan’s presence – and the breath of the camps he brings with him – and no real conversation, no true exchange of stories, takes place. Ivan leaves abruptly, lonelier and more burdened than ever.
The rest of the novel can be read as Ivan’s attempt to understand what has gone wrong – in his own life, in his cousin’s life, in the life of his friends and the woman he once loved, in Russian life as a whole. A meeting with someone who once informed on him is followed by an account of an imaginary trial: the reader is asked to pronounce judgment on four informers, four different ‘Judases’. The arguments Grossman puts into the mouths of the counsels for both the prosecution and the defence are unexpected and lively; as members of the jury, we – the readers – are repeatedly taken off guard, repeatedly forced to change our minds. Eventually the trial falls apart, dissolved by the reflection that the living have, without exception, compromised themselves and that only the dead – who, of course, cannot speak – have the right to pass judgment.
The failed conversation between Ivan and his cousin is balanced, in the second half of the novel, by a conversation between Ivan and Anna Sergeyevna – his landlady and, eventually, lover. She too has a story to tell; she was complicit, as a minor local official, in the Terror Famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 – an act of genocide that led to the deaths of between three and five million peasants. She tells her story lucidly, with absolute trust, and with absolute truthfulness. She is not trying to escape her pain by inflicting it on Ivan, nor is Grossman trying to escape his own pain by inflicting it on the reader.
Anna’s story inspires Ivan to meditate further on the past: on his own experience of prison and the Gulag, on the sufferings of women in the camps, on the destruction of Soviet science in the late 1940s, on the ‘Russian soul’, on the apparently unshakeable law according to which every attempt to modernize Russia – by Peter the Great, by Catherine the Great, by Lenin, by Stalin – has been accompanied not by a growth of freedom but by an intensification of slavery. These last chapters, mistakenly seen by Russian nationalists as ‘Russophobic’, may well be the greatest passage of historico-political writing in the Russian language.
I first heard of Vasily Grossman nearly thirty years ago. My friend Igor Golomstock, an émigré Russian art critic, gave me 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!’ A few weeks later Igor – who is not easily deflected – sent me the transcripts of four half-hour programmes about Life and Fate that he had composed for the BBC Russian Service. I read these transcripts and was gripped. I then discovered, as many other people have done since, that once I began reading Life and Fate – instead of simply 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…
This initial encounter with Grossman seems to have set a pattern for me. One or another aspect of Grossman’s work keeps taking me by surprise; again and again I catch myself underestimating him. Seven or eight years ago, before attending a conference on Grossman, I re-read Life and Fate for the first time since I had finished checking the proofs of the translation some eighteen years earlier. I was afraid I might be disappointed, that I might come to feel I had previously overestimated the novel. What happened was the opposite: I was taken aback by the delicacy of much of the writing. Grossman had more in common with Chekhov – almost certainly his favourite writer – than I had realized.
As for Everything Flows, I had imagined that it would be relatively easy to translate. Grossman’s language is not full of slang or peasant dialect, nor does it contain much in the way of word play or neologisms. Nor is it like the strange, dislocated language of his close friend Andrey Platonov – the only one of his contemporaries whom Grossman wholeheartedly admired. And yet, when I was revising the first draft of the translation, I kept feeling puzzled. In some way I could not understand, it often seemed flatter than the original. It took me a long time to realize that I was still underestimating Grossman, that there was still much in the original that I had only partially understood.
Whether Grossman is recounting an argument between a husband and wife or whether he is discussing political history, his thought is constantly changing direction, moving in unexpected zigzags. Again and again, when a paragraph of our translation seemed dull, I eventually realized that there was some aspect of the Russian that I had failed to take in, let alone reproduce in English. I had flattened Grossman’s thought, ironed it out, smoothed over the wrinkles. The work of revision seemed like restoring a painting – removing layers of varnish in order to reveal fine contrasts of tone or texture.
Everything Flows and the last of Grossman’s short stories not only extol freedom – they also embody freedom. The subject matter is mostly dark, but the liveliness of Grossman’s intelligence – and I hope that his intelligence now lives in the English as it does in the Russian – makes these works surprisingly heartening.
Everything Flows and Life and Fate are published in the UK by Harvill Secker and in the US by NYRB Classics.
You can read Robert Chandler on Platonov here.
The bilingual journal Cardinal Points (Stosvet Publishing House) has more material by and about Grossman.
Robert Chandler has worked mainly as a teacher of the Alexander Technique and a translator of Russian literature. He spent a year in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, as a student at the University of Voronezh – where he first read the work of Andrey Platonov, who was born in Voronezh, and Osip Mandelstam, who was exiled there.
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 The Captain’s Daughter. His translation of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway won the AATSEEL (American Association of Teachers of Slavonic and East European Languages) translation prize for 2007. Andrey Platonov’s Soul, of which Robert Chandler is a co-translator, won the AATSEEL prize in 2004. Robert Chandler is the editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics) and the author of Alexander Pushkin (in the Hesperus ‘Brief Lives’ series).