What is Vasily Grossman’s novel like in Russian? “One of his strengths is that he does not try to dazzle the reader,” says his translator.


At 2014’s international conference on the 50th anniversary of the death of Vasily Grossman.

Vasily Grossman is one of my all-time favorite writers, and Life and Fate one of my all-time favorite books (I haven’t started Stalingrad yet, but I expect I’ll add it to the shortlist). I’ve written about Grossman here and here and here.

Moreover, Robert Chandler is a remarkable translator. (He translated Life and Fateand now, with his wife Elizabeth Chandler, Stalingrad.) So good, in fact, that some of my Russian friends have insisted that the English translation is better than the Russian original. True? 

I had the nerve to approach Robert Chandler himself for an answer the questions, and a few others: What are Grossman’s books like in Russian, and what is inevitably lost, or created, in the English? And, with all due modesty, does he think the translations exceed the original?

The kindly translator sent me this reply:

Dear Cynthia,

In answer to your question: Andrey Platonov – an equally great writer himself, and a close friend of Grossman – followed a very different path. His first published book was poetry and much of the prose he wrote relatively early in his career, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, is complex and innovative. From the mid-1930s he began to write more transparently. His later prose, though extremely subtle, has at least the appearance of simplicity. Grossman’s writing evolved almost in the opposite direction. He began as a journalist and wrote better and better throughout his career. The last and greatest of his short stories (“Mama,” “The Road”) attain the level of poetry.

I would not for one moment imagine I could improve on the style of these last stories. The long novels, however, are inevitably uneven. There are paragraphs, and sometimes chapters, that are beautifully written, and there are also passages that are repetitive and ponderous. I have, on occasion, eliminated some of the repetitions.

One of Grossman’s strengths is that he does not try to dazzle the reader. He uses the plainest language adequate to the task. Some Russian readers, however, seem unable to see the depth of thought and powerful imagination that lie beneath the surface ordinariness of much of his writing.

One more point: Stalingrad IS a greater novel in English than in any published Russian version – but that is simply because we have been able to restore many brilliant passages from Grossman’s early typescript that his editors compelled him to omit.

Perhaps we too easily forget the way these manuscripts were written on the trot, hidden, transcribed, destroyed, and eventually recovered – it’s not the same as an academic novel written during a residency on the Amalfi coast.

In any case, those of you in New York City will have a chance to ask a few questions of your own. There will be a panel on Stalingrad at McNally-Jackson Bookstore, on Monday, June 24, 2019 – 7 p.m. Address:  52 Prince Street. Panelists include: Sam Sacks, the fiction critic at the Wall Street Journal; Phil Klay is a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War and the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, and Edwin Frank, founder and director of the NYRB Classics series. Read more about the event here.

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