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Moments of Moral Choice

“JE DIRAI NON, MIO PADRE”: Moments of Moral Choice in the Work of Vasily Grossman, Andrey Platonov and Varlam Shalamov.

A seminar with Robert Chandler

Senate House, Malet St, London WC1 6 December, 5:30pm

The seminar, which is open to all, begins at 5:30pm in the Bloomsbury Room (G35) on the ground floor of Senate House (south block), Malet Street, WC1.The talk will be followed by questions and discussion, and then by a glass of wine.

Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov were close friends, and Grossman gave the main speech at Platonov’s funeral. Varlam Shalamov greatly admired Platonov’s work; the hero of one of his stories is based on Platonov. Though Shalamov and Grossman did not know each other, they were both, in the mid-1950s, writing some of the first Soviet accounts of the Gulag. Their testimonies remain unsurpassed. Chandler will be examining the connections – and disagreements – between these three writers, all of whom he has translated.



Robert Chandler On Vasily Grossman (Part V)

Robert Chandler On Vasily Grossman (Part IV)

Robert Chandler on Vasily Grossman (Part III)

Robert Chandler On Vasily Grossman (Part II)

Robert Chandler Week

In September this year, Britain was overtaken by Vasily Grossmania. Radio 4′s week-long of Life and Fate sent the novel to the top of Amazon’s charts for a heady few days; people could be seen reading it on the tube; a Russian TV station sent a news crew to investigate: they slapped a bookswap sticker on a copy of The Road and left it on top of a bus-stop ticket machine to see just how gripped the nation was.

So it seemed that at some point, we would have to turn to the man who knows more about Vasily Grossman – surely – than any other in Britain, and that, of course, is his translator, who has translated two novels and the volume of short stories published by MacLehose Press. Over the next week we will be posting clips from an extensive and fascinating interview with Mr Chandler filmed at his West London home. Here is the first part.

More On Vasily Grossman Month

The Road by Vasily Grossman, a collection of short fiction and articles (translated and edited by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler) is published this month in paperback amidst a positive extravaganza of renewed interest in the author of Life and Fate, a vivid account of the lives of a vast cast of characters living through battle of Stalingrad, and regarded by many as the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century.

This week and next sees the celebration and broadcast on Radio 4 of Life and Fate, (also translated by Robert Chandler and first published in the UK in 1985). Admirers and scholars of Grossman gathered last Friday in Oxford to take part in a two-day conference hosted by St Peter’s College and the BBC, which has shown possibly unprecedented commitment to the work by giving it every drama slot on Radio 4 apart from The Archers for an entire week. The dramatisation is the brainchild of Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4, but his enthusiasms have been transferred to his successor, Gwyneth Williams. Kenneth Branagh takes the role of Viktor Shtrum, supported by David Tennant, Janet Suzmann, Greta Scacchi, Sam West, Harriet Walter, Kenneth Cranham and others.

But how to break up such a novel without losing its vast epic quality? Life and Fate offers a rich historical panorama on the one hand, and on the other an emotionally resonant mosaic of humanity. Radio script writers Jonathan Myerson and Mike Walker discussed the enormous challenge of distilling 900 pages and a cast of a thousand characters into thirteen Chekhovian episodes, a process that has taken four years from conception to broadcast. (The extent of their meticulous work on the project might be encapsulated in the fact that sound recorders were dispatched to the Tank Museum in Dorset to fire up an original T-34.)The writers and producers hope that they have brought across the essence of the work by building up complex layers of narrative through dialogue and through the emotions of their characters. On Sunday at 3 p.m. we can hear if they’ve been successful, or whether, as one panellist feared, it might turn out to be a “Stalinist version of the Archers”.

This week’s edition of Start the Week – with Antony Beevor (author of Stalingrad and editor of Vasily Grossman’s A Writer at War, Linda Grant (who has written an introduction to the latest paperback edition of Life and Fate), and novelist Andrey Kurkov – was recorded during the conference, and you can read more about that here: Discussing the historical and literary context of Life and Fate, and Grossman’s career as a brilliant war journalist (see A Writer at War and The Road) were Robert Chandler and Lyuba Vinogradova, primary researcher for Stalingrad and Grossman’s A Writer At War, whose forthcoming books on Russian woman snipers and pilots will be published by MacLehose Press.

Robert Chandler’s translation of Life and Fate was first published in 1985, even though Grossman had completed it many years earlier in 1959. It had been submitted for publication in 1960, after which Grossman’s apartment was raided and any material relating to the book confiscated. Politburo’s chief Mikhail Suslov informed him months later that it would not be published for two or three hundred years, a measure both of the threat that it represented for the Soviet Union, and a recognition of its potential longevity. But Grossman had taken the precaution of distributing one or two copies amongst trusted friends; writer and broadcaster Zinovy Zinik remembers Samizdat copies of the novel circulating in Moscow in the early 1960s. The novel then began a tumultuous historical journey of its own: with the help of Soviet dissident and future Nobel prize winner Andrei Sakharov it was smuggled out of Russia on microfilm in the mid-seventies, already ten years after Grossman’s death, and published for the first time in Switzerland in 1980.

See the Radio 4 website for more links and information relating to the dramatisation.

MacLehose Monday: Robert Chandler

For this week’s MacLehose Monday we return to Vasily Grossman’s The Road and its prolific editor and translator Robert Chandler.

Chandler has previously translated Grossman’s novels, Life and Fate and Everything Flows, as well as co-translating works by Andrey Platonov and editing Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida.

The Road - published earlier this month – is Chandler’s selection from Grossman’s essays and shorter fiction, spanning his whole career and charting the evolution and refinement of his style.

Sarah Young is a lecturer in Russian at The School of Eastern European and Slavonic Studies. She recently interviewed Chandler for her website and has kindly allowed us to host a selection on the Quercus blog.

The full text of this fascinating and in-depth discussion of Grossman, his short fiction and his place in Russian literature can be accessed at:

SJY: Your new book The Road includes not only Grossman’s short stories, but also essays and letters. Is your decision to combine different genres in one volume an indication of the way you view him as a writer?

RC: Yes, Grossman’s fiction is always firmly grounded in fact. And his journalism is best seen as a sustained effort to imagine the historical truth and to present it as vividly as possible. The Road includes two pieces about the Shoah. ‘The Old Teacher’ is a short story written in 1943, a fictional account of one of the Nazi massacres of Jews that took place on Soviet soil. ‘The Hell of Treblinka’ is a long journalistic article, one of the first publications about a Nazi death camp in any language.

Grossman was endowed with an imagination of supreme power and above all steadiness. And he employs this imagination in all his work, both in his fiction and in his journalism.

SJY: Grossman has still not achieved the recognition he deserves, in Russia particularly. Is this primarily because of his often painful subject matter?

RC: Certainly, this is part of the reason. Many Russians just don’t want to have to think any more about the Gulag or the Terror Famine. And yet there are clearly many people who do feel the need to read about such matters. I also once read an interview with a French theatre director. During the audience discussion after a performance of a one-woman play also based on ‘The Last Letter’ [the final piece in The Road], an elderly Jewish woman got up and said, ‘I never received a “last letter” from my own mother but now it feels as if I did.’ This simple comment constitutes as profound a validation of the purpose of art as I have ever come across.

SJY: But I sometimes wonder if there might be some other reason for Grossman’s lack of recognition in Russia. Might it also be something to do with Grossman’s particular approach to his subject matter?

RC: Twentieth-century Russian literature is full of brilliant stylists – Babel, Dobychin, Zoshchenko, Platonov. Grossman, in contrast, never tries to dazzle the reader. He uses unusual language or metaphors only occasionally only when no other words will do. It takes time to realize the depth of perception beneath the often ordinary surface of his writing. Even when Grossman is at his most poetic, I have been oddly slow to appreciate the power of his images.

SJY: I’m a newcomer to his short stories as well, and they’ve certainly come as a revelation to me. Would you like to say more about one of your favourite stories?

RC: Grossman’s stories are often about events of historical importance, but he presents them from an unexpected perspective. ‘The Dog’, for example, is about a stray mongrel who is being prepared to be the first living creature to be sent into space and then return again to earth. While she is undergoing her training, the usually tough-minded chief scientist grows unexpectedly attached to her, imagining not so much that she will penetrate the cosmos as that the cosmos will penetrate her. The dog, who had always clung to her freedom, grows unexpectedly attached to the scientist. The story ends with the dog returning to earth and, eventually, greeting the scientist. She licks his hands so eagerly that he is unable, for some time, ‘to see the eyes that had taken in the universe.’