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?


5 thoughts on “Who reads Vasily Grossman?

  1. Thank you for this post. I too was moved by what Irina Brown (the director of a mini-opera based on ‘The Last Letter’) said. And I am sure there is a lot of truth in what you yourself say about her words. Here, though, is a response from another member of the audience, who wrote to me the next morning: “I gave my mother ‘Everything Flows’ for her 86th birthday, as she is familiar with the events Grossman writes about, having survived the famine in Ukraine, the German occupation, slave labour camp in Germany, and so on… 

    “What a book to give as a present to stir up best forgotten horrors, but she thought it both wonderful and terrible – it made her relive everything as if it were yesterday she said, but such wonderful writing… and so exact… It was exactly like that, she said, exactly.  She read it through a sleepless night.

    Grim stories need to be told and read, and Grossman tells them – my mother is thrilled that her life stories are being confirmed… and not dismissed in disbelief.”

    Best Wishes, Robert Chandler


  2. I really enjoyed your comments. I was at Chandler’s talk too, and my reaction was similar to yours. I have been considering your idea of ‘reading at a safe distance…’ It is true I am closer to the famine than the average British person as my husband’s beloved grandfather lost his entire family of 10 to starvation, and was later imprisoned in a German camp. But my view is that at the end of the day we are all human beings, therefore we are all potential saints or Stalins. I want to know what happened within people to make them act the way they did, while recognising that I potentially could do the same (judge not etc…). This for me is the great strength of Grossman. In both these books he writes in a way that enhances understanding. And the better we understand ourselves the less the likelihood of similar horrors repeating themselves
    All the best
    Caroline Walton

    Robert Chandler gave me the link to your blog


    1. Thanks Caroline – and Robert, too.
      I suppose what I meant was that for someone who had actually lived through these things the experience of reading Grossman is especially painful as it effectively makes them re-live these traumatic events – whereas for those ‘at a safe distance’ this isn’t the case. But I completely agree with you that ‘we are all potential saints or Stalins.’ As you say, although it is easy to accept this, nowhere do you actually feel it more acutely than with Grossman’s writing. A sort of moral realism, you could say.


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