Who reads Vasily Grossman?

Last night I went to a really good talk on Vasily Grossman by Robert Chandler, his translator, down at Pushkin House in Bloomsbury Square. It was meant to be Robert Chandler and Yekaterina Korotkova-Grossman, Grossman’s daughter, but she was held up by visa troubles.

Vasily Grossman

I was expecting it to be about Everything Flows, Grossman’s last novel, which Chandler has just translated, but he spoke more about Life and Fate. Chandler was very interesting about the difficulties of translating subtleties – how on his first crack at Life and Fate he missed the significance of a section set in the Nazi extermination camps which opposes faith and responsibility. When he came to revise his translation, Chandler re-read this section and realised its significance, altering his work accordingly, adding emphasis to draw out this debate for the English reader. Talking about the previous translator of Everything Flows, Chandler said that they had smoothed over some of the complexities of Grossman’s language – complexities which made it difficult to translate but more rewarding to read. This seemed to be a balancing act: how does a translator draw out meaning from one language to another without losing subtleties?

All very interesting. The audience questions – which dragged on a bit, in a stuffy room – seemed preoccupied with the question of why Grossman is not more widely read in Russia, considering he has a respectable international following, as the recent Guardian editorial proves. Various answers were posited, along the usual lines: Russians generally don’t want to dwell on the events of the Soviet, especially Stalinist, past, and Grossman puts these at the centre of his work. He deals with uncomfortable ethical questions; his style is too journalistic, or too associated with socialist realism; or alternatively, the view was that everyone read Grossman, Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov twenty years ago, ‘dealt with it’ then and now they don’t want to think about it any more.

Just as I was getting restless, moving ahead to thoughts of my dinner, a woman offered her opinion as to why Grossman was ignored. She was fresh from involvement in a 15 minute opera called The Letter, based on the famous chapter from Life and Fate; I’m afraid I can’t remember her name, but she was Russian, and had asked various Russian friends about Grossman. Her view was that he wasn’t read in Russia because it was simply too painful. She said that there was so much going on in Life and Fate, that it ‘had answers to so many questions that you had held inside yourself since childhood’ (I’m quoting from my faulty memory) that to read it was an almost overwhelming experience. Friends who ‘read everything’ told her they never wanted to read Grossman again, because it was too powerful – too honest.

This completely silenced the room for a moment. It’s been a while since I read Life and Fate but it remains the book that has taught me the most about Soviet Russia. The speaker said that the experience of it was like living another life, which is a good way of putting it. I think this is both the reason why it is popular outside of Russia and unpopular within – because it draws you in, overwhelmingly. This is an instructive experience for those at a safe distance from the subject matter, but I imagine it would be extremely uncomfortable for those within. It taught me another lesson too: my heart sinks when it’s time for Audience Questions as it often descends into Audience Opinions, but this was really thought-provoking.

I’m hoping to make it along to Robert Chandler’s next talk, when perhaps he will talk a bit more about Everything Flows. Also, with any luck, Yekaterina Korotkova-Grossman will have made it into the country. In fact, the whole of the London Review Bookshop’s World Literature Weekend sounds fantastic: the Paul Celan talk on the 1st is also high up my list. Who needs Hay, when you’ve got Bloomsbury?


Impossible poetry anthologies, and fridge poems

For a while now I have been on an impossible quest to find the perfect poetry anthology. In my mind, this Platonic volume manages to embody several contradictory properties. It must, first off, be compact enough to be carried around on a day to day basis, in case I get bored on a bus somewhere. For some reason I do most of my poetry reading on public transport – perhaps those Poems on the Underground posters have conditioned me into it. Poems are so much better suited to travel-reading than novels – they ask for plenty of staring out of windows in between lines. They interact more interestingly with your environment more than novels, which simply usurp your reality with their own.

So this book has to be small enough to be carried everywhere, ready to be pressed into service at a moment’s notice – but it must also, as near as possible, contain every single interesting poem in the English language. I’ve given up on the idea of it containing translations of every single poem I like in any other language as well. I mean, I don’t want to be completely unrealistic. There are certain touchstone (ha!) poems that I look for in the index – Prufrock, Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’ or Flea, Wyatt’s ‘Whoso List To Hunt’, a decent slug of Keats, something other than’ The Road Not Taken’ by Frost (not that I have anything against it, other than it’s always there), Gray’s Elegy, and various others. Ideally it would have a healthy number of the twentieth century poets on my list as well, but these tend to be siphoned off into separate anthologies.

So far the nearest I’ve got is probably Dover Thrift Editions’ 100 Best Loved Poems ed. Philip Smith, although it doesn’t have any Eliot in it at all. It is 99 pages long and eminently handbagable, and has a good selection of standards- old stuff I wish I knew off by heart. Plus it only costs £1.25 new. On the down side, the current cover is rather hideous, and limiting itself to 100 poems means it is missing a lot of obvious things.


Better older cover

Before this I was reduced to lugging around Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language, which is a great anthology, but a doorstop of 1000 pages. 1000 thin pages, as a friend pointed out, and thin pages weigh more. It is naturally more comprehensive, but if weight was no concern I could carry around my Norton Anthology, which is more comprehensive still, and doesn’t share Bloom’s aversion to the twentieth century. But the shorter edition of that runs to 1400 pages. I love the way you can get lost in the Norton Anthology – in fact, I’ve lost things in it, whole other books – but it’s no good for the 91 bus.

I also recently picked up I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud: And Other Poems You Half-Remember from School which has a lovely cover and a reasonable selection, but it relies far too much upon extracting bits from longer works. Obviously you can’t have the whole of Paradise Lost or Don Juan but the couple of stanzas from The Wasteland and the first page of Prufrock seem very strange when cut off from their relations. I’d rather they had chosen either Prufrock or Wasteland and given the whole of one than amputated parts of both.

This book also has nice little snippets of information about the poets.

I now have a good shelfload of old anthologies of English verse harvested from charity shops, but they all seem to cut off after about 1920 – if I wanted to be cover all eventualities I’d have to carry a twentieth century book too. Things translated from other languages are given separate volumes again. Poetry anthologies these days seem to be becoming either more specialised, or completely and hideously populist, with chick-lit covers and titles like The Nation’s Bestest Favourites or whatever.

My quest for the perfect anthology has been preoccupying me for months now. I wouldn’t mind compiling my own, but then I’d lose the element of surprise which is so lovely with this sort of thing. So I’ll keep looking.

Until then – as this is a two-for-one kind of post – I’ll offer you some poems David and I discovered last night while we were reading the instruction manual for the new fridge. This is made up of a selection of direct quotes:


Do not hang something on

the door to avoid timing and

falling of the refrig erator

and dropping of foods.


Vegetable drawer

It is for storage vegetable.


Do not put combustibles in

your refrigerator like gas for

light et, banana oil, alcohol,

gasoline, binder, propane,

binder, propane gas and etc.


Do not crow the refrigerator.

Do not put the following articles on top:

unstable and heavy articles, beating things like voliage regulator,

container filled with water.


Do not touch the frozen foods in freezer with wet hands

for the water on your hands may be frozen and suck to the food you couch.


Unusual Noises

The refrigerator is not placed steadily.

The refrigerator torches the wall.

Drain-tray water is falling off.

The outer refrigeration-tube are toughing each other

or the refrigeration tube are torching the inner side of the cabinet.


Do not place anything that make echo near the refrigerator.

Do not place refrigerator in the moist place to avoid the metal parts rusty.

If the power is off too long, before the power on, please check the freezer

compartment bottom and the drawer bottom whether exist melted water

or deposited water or not, if exist, must clean it

with cloth to avoid food and ice frozen together.


You must cut the big meat into small pieces to avoid hard cutting when cook.