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An Interview with Robert Chandler

The Road, Robert Chandler’s new collection of translations of Vasily Grossman’s short stories and essays, will be published by MacLehose Press on 14th October 2010. On Monday 4th October at 6.30pm, he will be giving a talk about Grossman at Pushkin House, 5a Bloomsbury Square, to mark the publication. Here I talk to Robert about Grossman’s writing and his place in Russian literature.

Sarah Young: Robert, your translation of Life and Fate was first published 25 years ago. Did you always intend to return to translating Grossman? Why did you wait so long?

Robert Chandler: I wanted to re-translate Everything Flows long ago (it was first translated rather clumsily and with many errors as early as 1973, under the title Forever Flowing), but my publishers did not think there would be enough interest. Four or five years ago I realized that interest in Grossman was growing very fast indeed, and so I spoke to Harvill Secker again. This time they agreed enthusiastically. And by then I also had an excellent American publisher who was interested in Grossman: NYRB Classics.

SJY: Your new book The Road includes not only Grossman’s short stories, but also essays and letters. Is your decision to combine different genres in one volume an indication of the way you view him as a writer?

RC: Yes, Grossman’s fiction is always firmly grounded in fact. And his journalism is best seen as a sustained effort to imagine the historical truth and to present it as vividly as possible. The Road includes two pieces about the Shoah. ‘The Old Teacher’ is a short story written in 1943, a fictional account of one of the Nazi massacres of Jews that took place on Soviet soil. ‘The Hell of Treblinka’ is a long journalistic article, one of the first publications about a Nazi death camp in any language. The two pieces clearly belong to different genres, but the differences between them are superficial. Both are imbued with the same powerful emotional understanding. Both pieces are written from several perspectives: from Grossman’s own perspective, from that of the victims and from that of the perpetrators. Coleridge once defined true imagination as ‘the power to disimprison the soul of fact’, and I have often quoted this in reference to Grossman. Grossman was endowed with an imagination of supreme power and above all steadiness. And he employs this imagination  in all his work, both in his fiction and in his journalism.

SJY: Grossman has still not achieved the recognition he deserves, in Russia particularly. Is this primarily because of his often painful subject matter?

RC: Certainly, this is part of the reason. Many Russians just don’t want to have to think any more about the Gulag or the Terror Famine. There was a moving moment during the audience discussion after a talk of mine at Pushkin House in June. Irina Brown, who was recently commissioned by Scottish Opera to direct a mini-opera based on ‘The Last Letter’ from Life and Fate, described the reactions of her Russian friends when she spoke to them about Grossman. Many of them found him unbearable; they did not want to read him ever again. Life and Fate ‘had answers to so many questions that you had held inside yourself since childhood’ that the experience of reading it was overwhelming.

And yet there are clearly many people who do feel the need to read about such matters. Another member of the same audience wrote to me the following 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. 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.’

I also once read an interview with a French theatre director. During the audience discussion after a performance of a one-woman play also based on ‘The Last Letter’, an elderly Jewish woman got up and said, ‘I never received a “last letter” from my own mother but now it feels as if I did.’ This simple comment constitutes as profound a validation of the purpose of art as I have ever come across.

SJY: But I sometimes wonder if there might be some other reason for Grossman’s lack of recognition in Russia. Might it also be something to do with Grossman’s particular approach to his subject matter?

RC: Twentieth-century Russian literature is full of brilliant stylists – Babel, Dobychin, Zoshchenko, Platonov. In comparison, and especially on first reading, Grossman can seem somewhat plodding. He never tries to dazzle the reader. He uses unusual language or metaphors only occasionally only when no other words will do. It takes time to realize the depth of perception beneath the often ordinary surface of his writing. I have again and again come to feel that I myself have underestimated particular works of Grossman. Much of Everything Flows went over my head when I read it in Russian. I needed to translate it in order to grasp anything approaching the full subtlety of Grossman’s thinking. It is possible that even Russians have not yet learned to read this book with sufficient attention.

Even when Grossman is at his most poetic, I have been oddly slow to appreciate the power of his images. The following paragraph from ‘The Sistine Madonna’ now seems to me as powerful a passage of religious writing as I have ever read, but the image of Christ bearing his cross emerges from the historical context with such absolute naturalness that I paid little attention to these lines until one of my very last revisions of the translation. On the face of it, Grossman is simply describing a ‘kulak’ who has been dispossessed and deported to Siberia:

‘I saw her son, already thirty years old. He was wearing worn-out soldiers’ boots so completely worn out that no-one would even take the trouble to remove them from the feet of a corpse and a padded jacket with a large hole exposing his milk-white shoulder. He was walking along a path through a bog. A huge cloud of midges was hanging above him, but he was unable to drive them away; he was unable to remove this living, flickering halo because he needed both his hands to steady the damp heavy log on his shoulder. At one moment he raised his bowed head. […] I saw his eyes and I knew them at once. They were the eyes that look out from Raphael’s painting.’

And I am certainly not alone in having sometimes underestimated Grossman. Many reviews of the first edition of my translation of Life and Fate were somewhat lukewarm. Twenty-five years later nearly every review of Grossman’s work is passionately enthusiastic. In Spain and Poland Life and Fate is a best seller. In England, BBC Radio 4 is preparing an eight-hour dramatization of Life and Fate, to be broadcast in late 2011. In Russia, however, this process of revaluing Grossman seems to be taking longer.

But what do you think, Sarah? Why do you think this is? And can you say a few words about your experience of teaching Grossman, something I have never done myself, apart from in translation classes?

SJY: I wonder whether it has anything to do with Grossman’s background as a socialist realist. The absence of surface artistry can make his works look as though they’re still operating in that tradition, even when the content and authorial stance have changed quite radically. A similar thing happened to Yuri Trifonov, another very subtle, powerful writer whose reputation doesn’t seem to have recovered – works like House on the Embankment and Disappearance bear a superficial resemblance to the socialist realist works of his youth, but they’re very different.

Grossman’s works do have an extraordinary emotional impact that I think all his readers feel – my students have been very struck by the power of Anna Mikhailovna’s story of the famine in Everything Flows, for example. And it isn’t just that it’s a moving story – it’s the fact that it raises questions of responsibility and truth, that it’s not only about the victims’ suffering, but also about the perpetrators, and how they become victims, albeit in a different way. So it not only avoids sentimentality, it’s also deeply troubling, difficult to read in terms of its moral honesty as well as its descriptive power.

In a way I think this can be so draining that it counts against him. I can certainly identify with the feeling of not wanting to read Grossman again, especially Life and Fate. And without wishing to sound trivial, the size of that book is also problematic. I know lots of Russians, particularly of the older generation, find Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales almost unreadable, and they can only get through one story before they are overpowered by him. But that single story is at least a completed work in its own right. Being overpowered by a work the length of Life and Fate makes it more difficult to go back to. Then there’s the question of recommending him to friends and students. I frequently do so, but generally with a warning, because there are aspects of his work that are so disturbing – the gas chamber scene in Life and Fate is the most obvious example, but not the only one – that people need to know what they’re letting themselves in for. That particular section of Life and Fate probably ought to be compulsory reading, though.

But curiously, despite the immediate emotional effect, in my teaching I’ve also noticed a delayed reaction to Grossman. A couple of my students who started out saying that they really weren’t convinced by him and didn’t think Everything Flows was particularly interesting or remarkable later changed their minds completely and saw it as one of the most important texts we studied. In part I think that is because it doesn’t appear particularly crafted, on the level of language or structure. Some people find the mixing of genres problematic, and feel that the analysis of Russian history and of Lenin’s responsibility for ‘Stalin’s crimes’ is out of place. I think on first reading it can just look uneven, as though he didn’t know whether he was writing fiction or an essay. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that you can see it as an attempt to encompass different forms of testimony. Perhaps that, writ large, is why he’s only just coming to public attention now. His faults are too obvious and his strengths are too well hidden for him to be fully appreciated at first sight. Or maybe I’m just projecting my own perceptions onto my students.

All of this, in any case, provides a starting point for teaching Grossman. Juxtapose the apparent lack of artistry with the emotional effect he has, and you can begin exploring how he creates this impact, and then you start discovering that it is all far more carefully constructed than it appears to be. Discussing Grossman’s role as a witness has also been important and fruitful. The fact that he bears witness to the most terrible events of the twentieth century mostly from the outside, and yet his works are increasingly recognized as some of the most important testimony to those experiences, must be significant. As with the elderly Jewish woman you mention who never received a last letter, Grossman seems to have the capacity to speak for those who cannot speak – and here we’re touching on Primo Levi’s notion of the true witnesses being those who did not survive. I wonder whether it was his experiences on the front line at Stalingrad that made him understand so clearly what testimony and witnessing were.

Turning to the short stories in The Road, You didn’t include Grossman in your 2005 collection for Penguin Classics, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (a book that everybody should own!). If you were working on that now, would you do so?

RC: Yes, I would certainly include two or three of the stories Grossman wrote in his last years. Not one of my Russian friends ever talked to me about Grossman’s stories, and somehow I never got round to reading them. I just took it for granted that he was greater as a novelist than as a short-story writer. For the main part, my friends and colleagues gave me excellent advice. Thanks to them, I ended up including a number of fine writers I had not known beforehand – Dobychin, Teffi, Krzhizhanovsky. But, as I have said, almost everyone underestimates Grossman. His last stories are, I believe, better written than Life and Fate and in many ways more daring. If Life and Fate has something in common with a Shostakovich symphony, the stories Grossman wrote during his last three years after the ‘arrest’ of Life and Fate are more like Shostakovich’s quartets. They not only extol freedom they also embody freedom. The subject matter is mostly dark, but the liveliness of Grossman’s intelligence makes them surprisingly heartening.

Something a little similar happened with Solzhenitsyn. The story ‘Kak zhal’’ (‘What a Pity’ – included in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida) is one of the very finest, and certainly the most delicate, of his short works but it is barely known even to Russians. It never circulated in samizdat, and it was first published only in 1978, over 20 years after he wrote it. Somehow it just never got noticed. But in Grossman’s case, our collective blindness is less excusable. Several of his last stories were published as early as the 1960s, in easily accessible Soviet periodicals.

SJY: I think in many ways the sheer volume of Solzhenitsyn’s writing and the fame his major Gulag works achieved ended up overshadowing the real artistic achievement of some of his short stories, including those that were published in the 1960s. ‘Matryona’s Home’ is incredibly moving and memorable, even if some consider the symbolism slightly overpowering. Perhaps in the case of Grossman, it was his war journalism that formed the public perception of him and crowded out some of his other works. I’m a newcomer to his short stories as well, and they’ve certainly come as a revelation to me. Would you like to say more about one of your favourite stories?

RC: Grossman’s stories are often about events of historical importance, but he presents them from an unexpected perspective. ‘The Dog’, for example, is about a stray mongrel who is being prepared to be the first living creature to be sent into space and then return again to earth. While she is undergoing her training, the usually tough-minded chief scientist grows unexpectedly attached to her, imagining not so much that she will penetrate the cosmos as that the cosmos will penetrate her. The dog, who had always clung to her freedom, grows unexpectedly attached to the scientist. The story ends with the dog returning to earth and, eventually, greeting the scientist. She licks his hands so eagerly that he is unable, for some time, ‘to see the eyes that had taken in the universe.’ One friend of mine said that ‘The Dog’ has a shamanistic quality. She is right. But the story is so unlike anything else I have ever read that I was unsure, at first, what to make of it. I liked it very much, but I found it hard to trust my judgment. I was afraid that I might be being sentimental. It was a relief to find that everyone to whom I showed the story shared my enthusiasm.

SJY: Grossman uses unusual perspectives to great effect. In ‘Mama’, the story about Ezhov’s adopted daughter, the narrative point of view moves between Nadya, the little girl, and her Pushkinian nanny Marfa Domityevna, but it’s more than a standard estranging technique. It subverts the dynamics of power. As the purges devour the Ezhov family and their circle, their power is shown to be illusory, while the helpless, uncomprehending child and the nanny who sees and understands survive (even if we don’t see what happens to the nanny, she has the wisdom of ages so becomes a sort of immortal figure whatever her physical fate). The end of the story seems almost triumphant in its ordinariness, and echoes the beginning, when the Ezhovs visit the orphanage, and the ‘normality’ of the baby is emphasized. Stories like this show that he isn’t a ‘styleless’ or ‘formless’ writer, but nevertheless, Grossman seems like quite a departure from the other Russian writers you work on, such as Pushkin, Leskov and Platonov. Do you see his writing as having something in common with these other authors?

RC: Platonov and Grossman are, of course, very different in many ways. They were, in a sense, following opposite paths. Platonov began as a poet, then turned to highly idiosyncratic prose and went on to write more and more plainly. Grossman began as a journalist, then turned to fairly conventional prose and went on to write more and more poetically and succinctly. Nevertheless, the two writers evidently found much in common. Ortenberg writes in his wartime memoirs, ‘Grossman, like his friend Andrey Platonov, was not a talkative person. The two of them sometimes came to Red Star, settled on one of the sofas […] and stayed there for an entire hour without saying a word. They seemed, without words, to be carrying on a conversation known only to them.’ Lipkin, for his part, describes Platonov as ‘more independent in his judgments’ and Grossman as a ‘more traditional’ writer. He goes on to relate how he used to sit with Platonov and Grossman on the street opposite Platonov’s apartment. The three of them would take turns making up stories about passers-by. Grossman’s were detailed and realistic; Platonov’s were ‘plotless’, more focused on the person’s inner life, which was ‘both unusual and simple, like the life of a plant’.

Still more interesting, however, is the extent to which Grossman, throughout the period from Platonov’s death in 1951 to his own death in 1964, seems to have absorbed something of Platonov’s idiosyncratic style and vision – almost as if he were trying to keep Platonov’s spirit alive. ‘The Dog’ is about a mongrel by the name of ‘Pestrushka’ the first living creature to survive a journey in space. With her capacity for devotion, her past life as a homeless wanderer, and her quick understanding of technology, Pestrushka has much in common with Platonov’s peasant heroes. In another story, ‘The Road’, Grossman seems more Platonov-like than Platonov himself. Platonov often shows us uneducated people grappling with difficult philosophical questions; Grossman presents us with a mule who not only resolves Hamlet’s dilemma about whether to be or not to be but even arrives at the concept of infinity.

SJY: What’s your next project?

RC: I’m working now on a companion volume to my Penguin Classics anthology of Russian short stories. It will be titled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. It will include both genuine folk tales and adaptations of folk tales by a number of well-known authors.

SJY: And finally something I’ve often wondered about: You don’t (appear to?) work on Russian poetry, although you do translate poetry from other languages, and are a poet yourself. Is there a reason for that?

RC: I’m not sure. I have published translations of a few poems by Anna Akhmatova and Arseny Tarkovsky. And I have translated some of Pushkin’s poetry: the verse passages contained in ‘The Egyptian Nights’ and The Captain’s Daughter, and also some poems, and fragments of poems, I needed to quote in the ‘Brief Life’ of Pushkin I wrote a couple of years ago. In my twenties I tried to translate poems by Mandelstam, but I never felt quite able to find the right poetic form in English… And during the last fifteen years I have come to feel that Platonov uses language more creatively even than Mandelstam, Pasternak or Tsvetaeva. The part of me that might otherwise want to engage more with Russian poetry prefers to stay with Platonov’s extraordinary prose.

SJY: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Grossman. The Road will certainly bring new readers to him and contribute to his growing reputation in English-speaking countries. I look forward to continuing the conversation on Monday 4th at Pushkin House.

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