Posts Tagged ‘Vasily Grossman’

In Praise of Purgatory: translator Robert Chandler writes in The Financial Times

Friday, October 1st, 2021
Dante, Beatrice, the Eagle, and the collective voice of the just

The supreme translator honors the supreme poet. It is the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri‘s death – and Robert Chandler, who has translated Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate and Stalingrad, among other Russian stunners, turns his attention from the Russian classics to Dante’s Italian masterpiece.

A sadist? We think not.

The occasion for the article is a new translation of The Purgatorio, by poet D.M. Black, published by New York Review Books with a preface by Robert Pogue Harrison, who estimates that there are more than a hundred translations of The Divine Comedy into English already. So why do we need a new one? Because The Purgatorio is special.

If Russia seems a long way from Florence, Chandler threads the connections together in his new article, “Divinity and Damnation: Why Dante Still Matters,” at The Financial Times: “Anna Akhmatova’s last public appearance was in October 1965, during a celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.  In a moving affirmation of loyalty, she wrote in her preparatory notes that the deepest bond between her and her fellow-poets Nikolay Gumiliov and Osip Mandelstam, both killed decades earlier by the Soviets, was ‘love for Dante.’” (Mandelstam described the Divine Comedy as a perfect crystal with 14,233 facets – the number of lines in the poem.)

Readers are generally drawn to the Inferno, partly because of the set pieces like Paolo and Francesca, but also for the same reason people prefer horror films to mid-century musicals.

“Some have see Dante as a vengeful sadist, while for T. S. Eliot he was an epitome of classical restraint.  Some see Dante as a mystic visionary; others see the Divine Comedy as Thomas Aquinas’s Aristotelian Catholicism put into verse,” Chandler writes. “In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Judith Thurman has described him, during his long exile from Florence, as ‘an itinerant diplomat and secretary for the lords of northern Italy’ and as an ’embittered asylum-seeker.’”

I’ll plump for The Purgatorio too. It has more movement. But Stanford’s William Mahrt would also point out that it is the only one of the three sections of the Divine Comedy that has music. There is no music in The Inferno – just noise and wails and grunts. The Paradiso leads us beyond music. But the Purgatorio rings with hymns and psalms and chant. Chandler adds: “The Purgatorio, however, is a more satisfying whole.  The structure is more meaningful, the verbal music more delicate – and, above all, it is more human.  In Hell and Paradise everyone is fixed in their despair or bliss; in Purgatory everyone and everything is in flux.  Sinners struggle to resolve their inner conflicts.  Above all, there is a sense of freshness and hope.”

Chandler, translator extraordinaire

Chandler concludes: “The Purgatorio is, above all, a search for meaning, and in the final cantos Beatrice enables Dante to understand that the only source of meaning is love.  One of Black’s previous publications is titled Why Things Matter: The Place of Values in Science, Psychoanalysis and Religion (Routledge, 2011).  Both in this translation and in his afterword Black shows us why Dante matters, and how, 700 years after his death, he can still help us to understand what may give meaning to our own lives.”

Read the whole thing here.

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.

Eating and (mostly) drinking with Fyodor Dostoevsky

Friday, June 8th, 2018

‘Take some cold coffee and I’ll pour a quarter of a glass of brandy into it, it’s delicious …”

A man after my own heart. Unfortunately, he’s a baddie. Fyodor Kamarazov is the father of The Brothers Karamazov – licentious, wheedling, self-exculpatory, self-indulgent. Nonetheless, he had the right idea about ice cold coffee. I have it every morning. It’s basic. No frills. Nothing to cook or bake. On a tense, nervous afternoon pounding out a rough draft, half-a-shot of brandy in very strong coffee works wonders.

He knew a thing or two about onions, too.

Ahhh… the simple life. Gluttony is thought to be on the way out – or is it?  Go into Whole Foods. See the pyramids of oranges and onions. Watch the worshippers crowding around the displays, conducting pilgrimages through the aisles. You tell me that’s not a temple? Food has become both the religion of our time and the object of worship.

No surprise. We live in perhaps the first era in history where food is not the biggest chunk of our budget – it’s dwarfed by our Wifi bills, car payments, rent and mortgage. We can get plenty of anything from the supermarket – from kimchi to kiwi fruit. So now  we want not quantity, but quality. A certain tiny fish from the mid-Atlantic, lightly sautéed in organic butter and sage leaves, served on patta sal. Then we take selfies with it and post them on Facebook.

Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s  The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps my all-time favorite novel. So I was intrigued to see Valerie Stiverlatest entry in her “Eat Your Words” column in The Paris Review here.  This time she’s “Cooking with Dostoevsky.”  You can even make learn to make kvass from fermented Russian bread. The chef d’œuvre, however, is the onion vatrushki.

Her take on the Russian masterpiece is so-so, but she appreciates the virtues of a good onion:

“An Onion” is one of the most famous chapter headings in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and refers not to Russian cuisine, in which onions are a staple ingredient, but to a story the character Grushenka tells about a wicked old woman being pulled up from the fires of hell by holding onto an onion proffered by her guardian angel. The woman lived a bad life but once gave an onion to a beggar, and it’s this single good deed that might save her. The anecdote is meant to demonstrate the possibility of God’s forgiveness, and its teller, Grushenka, says of herself in one of the book’s climactic scenes, “Though I am bad, I did give away an onion,” indicating her readiness to be saved. (As for the old woman, the other dammed souls try to grab her feet and be pulled up too, and she selfishly starts kicking them away. The onion breaks, “and the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day.”)

And that, of course, sent me to my bookshelves, for I remembered that the same story is retold, in a slightly different way, in another of my favorite books: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. I didn’t find it, but I found this instead: “Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.” Grossman was a reporter for the Red Army covering the defense of Moscow and the fall of the Berlin during World War II. He was also Jewish, and reported on the opening of Treblinka. He continues:

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

Meanwhile, enjoy Grushenka’s pear tarte – “Grushenka,” of course, means “little pear” in Dostoevsky’s Russian.

Zbigniew Herbert, Vasily Grossman, and “a small kernel of human kindness”

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016


Grossman saw it all firsthand in the Red Army.

Many of you may remember my post some weeks ago on Vasily GrossmanLife and Fate (here). If you read the whole excerpt, you may wonder what becomes of Ikonnikov, the Tolstoyan Russian prisoner in a German concentration camp, who refuses to pour cement for a gas chamber.

He dies, of course. But in his last scribblings, he maintains that “Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.” He explains:

“My faith has been tempered in Hell. My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.


Shouldering a lot.

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

As I was reading those words, I remembered something very similar from Warsaw poet Zbigniew Herbert – a writer who, as Seamus Heaney said, “shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” In his essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” Herbert describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:

When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.

Van Oldenbarnevelt

A crumb of helpless goodness for him.

The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.

Life and Fate: “There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction.”

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016


War correspondent Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Germany.

Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics) was deemed so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only was the manuscript confiscated – the typewriter ribbons used to type it were taken as well. As Book Haven readers know, I’ve been ploughing through the 880-page epic tale of World War II, which eloquently, powerfully, unforgettably describes the dark forces that shaped the 20th century (more here and here). It made a five-hour delay at the Denver Airport bearable, certainly by comparison with the circumstances writer and journalist Grossman describes. The author had witnessed the Battle of Stalingrad as a war correspondent, and provided the first eyewitness accounts of an extermination camp, from Treblinka.

Here’s an moving excerpt, from a conversation in a German concentration camp. The characters: Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy is an Old Bolshevik, often in fierce argument with Chernetsov, a former Menshevik. Ikonnikov is a former Tolstoyan; Gardi is an Italian priest (and a “Vernichtungslager” is a German extermination camp):


Russian soldiers and inmates at Treblinka. (Photo: Yad Vashem)

Ikonnikov’s hands and face were smeared with clay. He held out some dirty sheets of paper covered in writing and said: ‘Have a look through this. Tomorrow I might be dead.’

‘All right. But why’ve you decided to leave us so suddenly?’

‘Do you know what I’ve just heard? The foundations we’ve been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.’

‘Yes,’ said Chernetsov, ‘there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.’

He looked round. Mostovskoy thought Chernetsov must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to an Old Bolshevik. He probably felt proud to be seen like this by the Italians, Norwegians, Spanish and English – and, above all, by the Russian prisoners-of-war.

‘But how can people carry on working?’ asked Ikonnikov. ‘How can we help to prepare such a horror?’

Chernetsov shrugged his shoulders. ‘Do you think we’re in England or something? Even if eight thousand people refused to work, it wouldn’t change anything. They’d be dead in less than an hour.’

grossman‘No,’ said Ikonnikov. ‘I can’t. I just can’t do it.’

‘Then that’s the end of you,’ said Mostovskoy.

‘He’s right,’ said Chernetsov. ‘This comrade knows very well what it means to attempt to instigate a strike in a country where there’s no democracy.’ …

Chernetsov’s blind, bloody pit stared at Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy.

Ikonnikov reached up and grasped the bare foot of the priest sitting on the second tier of boards. ‘Que dois-je faire, mio padre?’ he asked. ‘Nous travaillons dans una Vernichtungslager.’

Gardi’s coal-black eyes looked round at the three men. ‘Tout le monde travaille là-bas. Et moi je travaille là-bas. Nous sommes des esclaves,’ he said slowly. ‘Dieu nous pardonnera.’

C’est son métier,” added Mostovskoy.

‘Mais ce n’est pas votre métier,’ said Gardi reproachfully.

‘But that’s just it, Mikhail Sidorovich, you too think you’re going to be forgiven,’ said Ikonnikov, hurrying to get the words out and ignoring Gardi. ‘But me – I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free! I’m building a Vernichtungslager; I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed here. I can say “No.” There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say “No!” Je dirai non, mio padre, je dirai non.’

Gardi placed his hands on Ikonnikov’s grey head.

‘Donnez-moi votre main,’ he said.

‘Now the shepherd’s going to admonish the lost sheep for his pride,’ said Chernetsov.

Mostovskoy nodded.

But rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.


A powerful antidote to the current election cycle

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

grossmanLike so many Americans, I am disheartened by the current election cycle and its dispiriting daily news. Here’s one antidote: instead of the political blogs, try reading Vasily Grossman‘s Love and FateIt has been sitting on my bookshelves for about a year, awaiting the right moment. Try the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet gulags, and the Nazi death camps, to give you a sense of scale.

Here’s Grossman take on the times being out of joint, a bracing reminder that we all can’t roll with it, all the time. Who, after all, would want to be the man of the hour in the U.S.S.R. of Joseph Stalin?

“There is nothing more difficult than to be a stepson of the time; there is no heavier fate than to live in an age that is not your own. Stepsons of the time are easily recognized: in personnel departments, Party district committees, army political sections, editorial offices, on the street … Time loves only those it has given birth to itself: its own children, its own heroes, its own labourers. Never can it come to love the children of a past age, any more than a woman can love the heroes of a past age, or a stepmother love the children of another woman.

“Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come – and you don’t even know it.”

Anyway, I’ve already voted by mail in the primaries. Wake me up in November. Meanwhile… back to my book.