Vulpes Libris

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.

Everything flows: Robert Chandler on Vasily Grossman

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).

10 comments on “Everything flows: Robert Chandler on Vasily Grossman

  1. Jackie
    May 14, 2010

    A multi-layered review, not only of a particular book, but of the author & history behind it. The peek at how a translator works was also intriguing.This sounds like an important book, not just because of the time it was set in, but also for how those events fit into the arc of Russian history. More people, especially in America, need to know about this.
    Thanks to Mr. Chandler for this riveting review.

  2. DKS
    May 16, 2010

    Re. Again and again, when a paragraph of our translation seemed dull …

    This is something that fascinated me when I read your translation of Life and Fate. The language was so plain that at first I was bored and thought of putting the book aside, but quickly it seemed to transform itself; the author made himself known without having a voice (a voice, I mean, in the sense that a Dickens or a Woolf has a voice, some way of putting a sentence that is so characteristic that no matter what the sentence is talking about, you think, “That’s them”). He seemed to be doing things in very swift, limpid strokes, then moving on, until the whole book was a cumulation of those simple things. And I was so used to authors who announced themselves, with their voices (Woolf, Dickens), that this simple approach left me thinking — huh! Clever man!

  3. Christy
    May 18, 2010

    Great article – I hadn’t heard of Vasilly Grossman before, but I am definitely going to seek him out now. The description of Life and Fate in this article is particularly tantalizing. Thanks!

  4. Hilary
    May 19, 2010

    How delightful, and how timely, that the Guardian on 18.5.2010 made the subject of its Third Leader ‘In Praise of’ Vasily Grossman, and Robert Chandler’s work in translating him.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/18/in-praise-of-vasily-grossman

    Congratulations, and thanks for a fascinating post here on Vulpes Libris . (I cannot resist the temptation to say ‘You read it here first, folks’. Sorry about that ….)

  5. Robert Chandler
    May 22, 2010

    I am very struck by DKS’s comment. I first read Life and Fate over 30 years ago, at a time when I was interested mainly in poetry or prose that was more modernist or, at least, unusual than Grossman’s. I began reading it only at the insistence of a friend, and I was surprised how quickly it gripped me.

    My impression is that one of Grossman’s strengths is that he allowed his voice to develop very gradually. As you say, he does not appear to have felt a need to ‘announce himself’. He uses poetic imagery or other stylistic effects only when he feels unable to convey his meaning in a plainer way.

    But he is a writer who went on developing throughout his career. In his last works he more often achieves the intensity we associate with great poetry. In his 1955 essay ‘The Sistine Madonna’, for example, he compares a deported kulak working in a forest to Christ: ‘I saw her son, already thirty years old. He was wearing worn-out soldiers’ boots – so completely worn out that no one would even take the trouble to remove them from the feet of a corpse – and a padded jacket with a large hole exposing his milk-white shoulder. He was walking along a path through a bog. A huge cloud of midges was hanging above him, but he was unable to drive them away; he was unable to remove this living, flickering halo because he needed both his hands to steady the damp heavy log on his shoulder. At one moment he raised his bowed head. […] I saw his eyes – and I knew them at once. They were the eyes that look out from Raphael’s painting.’

    I think I probably could recognize most paragraphs (though probably not individual sentences) from Grossman’s last works as being by him. There is a particular vitality in the way he tells a story or expresses a thought. His thought doesn’t just move predictably, in a straight line. It keeps changing direction – sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a small way. Reproducing these turns of thought was one of the biggest challenges in translating him.

  6. Heidi
    October 19, 2010

    Could any help…I am trying to find a Vasily Grossman book in its original Russian. Life and fate or Everything Flows would be great. Thank you.

  7. Valerij Tomarenko
    October 31, 2010

    @ Heidi
    You will find the Russian versions of Everything Flows and Life and Fate
    on fictionbook dot ru.

    @ Robert Chandler
    Thanks for a great translation and many an insightful comment and observation regarding one of the great authors of the last century.

  8. Thomas
    January 10, 2011

    Grossman’s sublimation of “freedom” as the final goal, sense and meaning of life throughout his whole oeuvre is fascinating. But in the last chapters of “Everything flows”, right at the moment I hoped to read finally a more specific argumentation on his idea of “freedom”, Grossman overwhelmed me with the opposite discours! On this passage even Robert Chandler himself wrote the following:
    “I am certain that Grossman thought of himself as an optimist, someone who believed that all life – including human life – was bound to develop towards a greater degree of freedom. On the other hand, the arguments Grossman gives to Ivan’s pessimistic cellmate are extremely powerful ones. In this respect Grossman has something in common with Dostoevsky, a passionate believer who stated the case for atheism as powerfully as it has ever been stated.”
    Although the comparison with Dostoevski was very inspiring to me, it leaves me partly unsatisfied, since “freedom” is such an essential aspect of Grossman’s idea of humanity.
    Can anyone give me more insight on this point?
    Thomas.

  9. Pingback: Life, Fate and BBC adaptations: the case of Robert Chandler « Vulpes Libris

  10. Pingback: Everything Flows | Scripturient

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This entry was posted on May 14, 2010 by in Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: general, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , , , .

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