Posts Tagged ‘Robert Chandler’

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.

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

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.

In English at last: Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad,” and how nations can be both victims and perps

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Grossman as a reporter for the Red Star. In Germany, 1945.


A few days ago, Vasily Grossman‘s 1952 Stalingrad arrived at my Stanford mailbox – a surprise for me, and an absolute miracle for Russian literature. It’s the first-ever translation of the “prequel” to Life and Fate (we’ve written about that book here and here and here). Both books have been considered a twentieth century update of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But there’s a significant difference: while Count Tolstoy tended to focus on the stories of aristocrats, Grossman, a Ukrainian Jewish journalist and soldier who had written about the opening of Treblinka (he was there), “accords a proper humanity to his subsidiary cast of steelworkers, factory chemists and Red Army soldiers, who battle against the odds from their ice-bound dugouts and foxholes,” according to Ian Thomson, writing in the London’s Weekly Standard. But there was another big difference: the Soviet Union didn’t want Grossman’s stories told, and did its best to suppress and destroy the manuscript. Evans tells that story, too, in London’s The Telegraph. 

Chandler and his wife and co-translator for Stalingrad, Elizabeth Chandler, are already getting the reviews most writers dream of. According to Robert Chandler, “Vasily Grossman was a man of unusual courage, both physically and morally. He spent longer than any other Soviet journalist in the thick of the fighting on the right bank of the Volga, in the ruins being fought over building by building and even room by room. And then, within months of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, he was writing some of the first articles and stories published in any language about the Shoah.”

From Evans in The Telegraph:

“I read Life and Fate on a trip to Moscow during the post-Soviet badland years, at the very end of the last century. Its vividness and power were so extraordinary that I felt my understanding both of that century, and of human love and fragility, shift on their foundations.

“The appearance of Stalingrad, Grossman’s prequel to Life and Fate written a decade earlier, is then a cause for excitement. Why do we so admire him? If you haven’t read him, you may be surprised that he does not feel ‘new’. His prose is plain, rugged, nearly old-fashioned. He has none of the bravura of Bulgakov, Olesha or Platonov, not much of the refinement of Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn. He is Hemingway without the modernism (and exalted masculinity).” [Solzhenitsyn … refined? – B.H.]

“But a choice of detail, a descriptive lovingness in his sentences (he revels in lists as much as a panning movie camera), and a tireless curiosity about people under stress from tectonic events, enable him to articulate with an arresting empathy how it feels to be alive and human under such pressure. His minute and compulsive interest in his characters might feel intrusive, if his understanding were not so true. When, at Stalingrad’s start, Pyotr Vavilov, a middle-aged kolkhoz [collective farm] worker, receives his call-up papers in the summer of 1942, his first worry is that he cannot leave his family enough wheat and firewood to see them through the winter:

That night Vavilov stood in the moonlight, chopping up the tree stumps stacked under an awning behind the shed… Marya – tall, broad-shouldered and dark-skinned like her husband – was standing nearby. Now and again she bent down to pick up stray pieces of wood and occasionally she gave her husband a sideways look… Neither was speaking, which was their way of saying farewell. All around was silence. Like soft linseed oil, the moonlight covered the ground, the grass, the broad fields of young rye and the roofs of the huts, dissolving in the puddles and little windows…

“That’ll do,” said his wife. “You’re not going to lay in enough firewood for the whole of the war.”

According to Thomson in The Evening Standard, “For good or ill, no definitive version of Stalingrad exists. The ‘official’ version published in Moscow in 1954, one year after Stalin died, was heavily cut by the Central Committee and contained drearily propagandist overtures to collective farm output. Thanks to the editorial endeavours of Grossman’s superb translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Stalingrad has now been restored to the version that Grossman himself might have wanted.”

According to Evans in The Telegraph:  “Stalingrad (flawlessly translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler), beyond its breathtaking fictional panorama, is, I think, even more moving because it also tells the story of a liminal moment, a moment that is briefly innocent both of the full hell of the Holocaust that Grossman would go on to document in Life and Fate, and of the knowledge we now have, that nations can be both victims and perpetrators.”

Read The Telegraph review here. Read The Evening Standard review here.

One of the top six writers of the 20th century? Stalin didn’t think so.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

The Soviet FD locomotive, featured in “Immortality” (Photo: LHOO/Peter van den Bossche)

Who was the greatest writer of the 20th century? Not many would put Andrey Platonov in the top half-dozen. But Nobel prizewinning poet Joseph Brodsky did.

“I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for.  They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrey Platonov and Samuel Beckett…. They are summits in the literary landscape of our century … What’s more, they don’t lose an inch of their status when compared to the giants of fiction from the previous century,” he said. Gorky, Bulgakov, and Pasternak might have seconded the vote for Platonov. Unfortunately, Stalin called him scum.

He ended his days sweeping streets.

According to The Irish Times literary critic Eileen Battersby writing eight years ago: “The poet Joseph Brodsky divided the world into those who had read Platonov, and so merited the title of readers, and those who had not, and thus were dismissed outright as lesser mortals. For Brodsky, Platonov ‘simply had a tendency to see his words to their logical – that is absurd, that is totally paralysing – end. In other words, like no other Russian writer before or after him, Platonov was able to reveal a self-destructive, eschatological element within the language itself.’”

At the time I first heard about him, however, I don’t think The Foundation Pit had been published in English yet. But now you can read Platonov’s short story “Immortality,” which Platonov published in 1936, breaking years of silence and official censure. (This short story was published an editorial saying the author had overcome his “grave, creative errors.”) The story is an experiment in social realism, but perhaps the best of that misguided genre had to offer – and, as the son of a railway worker, it perhaps borrows a bit of his own history.

It begins:

After midnight, on the approach to Red Peregon station, the FD locomotive began to shout and weep.1 It sang in the winter darkness with the deep strength of its hot belly and then began to change to a gentle, weeping human breathing, addressing someone who was not replying. After falling briefly silent, the FD again complained into the air: human words could already be discerned in this signal, and whoever now heard them must have felt pressure on his own conscience because of the engine’s torment—helpless, heavy rolling stock hung on the maternal hook of her tender and the station’s approach signal was signaling red. The driver closed the last steam cutoff—the signal was still an obstinate red—and gave the three toots of a complete stop. He took out a red handkerchief and wiped his face, which the winter night’s wind was covering all the time with tears out of his eyes. The man’s vision had begun to weaken and his heart had become sensitive: the driver had lived some time in the world and travelled some distance over the earth. He did not curse into the darkness at the fools in the station, though he was going to have to take two thousand tons, from a standstill, up the incline, and the friction of the locomotive’s metal wheel rims would draw fire from the frozen rails.

The selfless hero of the story is the station chief Emmanuil Semyonovich Levin. His housekeeper approaches his room to wake him up:

The telephone above her boss’s bed was silent; her boss also slept and his body, accustomed to brief rest, was gathering strength, quickly, hurriedly—his heart had stilled in the depth of his chest, his breathing had shortened, supporting only a small watchful flame of life, each muscle and each tendon was secretly tugging, struggling against monstrosity and the creases of daytime tension. But in the darkness of a mind abundantly irrigated with blood, one quivering spot still gleamed, shining through the half-dark of eyes half-shuttered by lids: it was as if a lamp was burning on a distant post, by the entry switch of the main track coming out from real life, and this meek light could be transformed at any moment into a vast radiance of all consciousness and so set the heart to run at full speed.

The translators are Lisa Hayden and the matchless Robert Chandler. (And read Chandler’s fascinating discussion of Platonov in The Guardian here.) Read Platonov’s “Immortality” in its entirety over at E-flux here.

Vasily Grossman recalls a bleak Christmas in wartime Russia

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

nyrbSara Kramer of the NYRB Classics dropped me a line yesterday to let me know that my submission for “A Different Stripe” had worked its way to the top of the “Coffee and Classics” stack (that must be some backlog; it’s been five months); see it online here. (And send your own submissions to this address.) The book I featured is Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate. Helen Pinkerton sent us a mini-review here, calling it “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read”. The wartime book was judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the the state. Many readers are coming to share Helen’s opinion about its greatness. Author Martin Amis, for example, said that “Vasily Grossman is the Tolstoy of the U.S.S.R.”

Meanwhile, the submission gave Sara a chance to reread the bleak Christmas scenes from the book:

The soldiers … dragged another crate up to the stove, prised open the lid with their bayonets and began taking out tiny Christmas trees wrapped in cellophane. Each tree, only a few inches long, was decorated with gold tinsel, beads and tiny fruit-drops.

The general watched as the soldiers unwrapped the cellophane, then beckoned the lieutenant towards him and mumbled a few words in his ear. The lieutenant announced in a loud voice:

“The lieutenant-general would like you to know that this Christmas present from Germany was flown in by a pilot who was mortally wounded over Stalingrad itself. The plane landed in Pitomnik and he was found dead in the cabin.”

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, translated by Robert Chandler