domingo, 3 de marzo de 2013

Life and Fate: Introduction + Links

Life and Fate [Zhizn' i sud'ba] (NYRB Classics, 2006)
by Vasily Grossman [translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler]
USSR, 1960

As an out of sequence addendum to my four previous posts on Life and Fate, I'd just like to put in a quick plug for translator Robert Chandler's excellent 20-page introduction, "'Speaking for Those Who Lie in the Earth': The Life and Work of Vasily Grossman": the centerpiece of a critical apparatus which also includes a short piece on the historical background to the work, a note on the text and the translation, and a page of bibliographical recommendations entitled "A Few Books about Stalinist Russia and Vasily Grossman." For those who aren't all that familiar with either Grossman or his doorstopper of a novel, here are a few of the more salient biographical and/or textual tidbits cribbed from Chandler's intro to help contextualize the Soviet writer's masterpiece.  To begin with, Chandler notes that Grossman's mother, Yekaterina Savelievna Grossman, the dedicatee of Life and Fate, was killed by the Germans in September 1941 in Berdichev, Grossman's Ukrainian birthplace, "along with most of the other 30,000 Jews who lived [there]" (x-xi).  Guilt over his failure to see that his mother was safely evacuated, together with his firsthand observations of the evidence of the large-scale Nazi butchery committed at Babi Yar and Treblinka after the tide of the war had turned, appear to have fortified Grossman's resolve to provide witness as a journalist and a novelist "on behalf of those who lie in the earth" as he once wrote to a colleague (xxiv).  Chandler also claims that Grossman's war reporting made him one of the first people to provide an account of the Shoah anywhere and that his 1944 article "The Hell of Treblinka," "the first article in any language about a Nazi death camp," was accordingly "republished and used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials" (xiii).  Unfortunately for Grossman and regardless of the importance of his reporting, "the official Soviet line, however, was that all nationalities had suffered equally under Hitler; the standard retort to those who emphasized the suffering of Jews was 'Do not divide the dead!'" (ibid.).  Still, after Stalin's death in 1953 and Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Grossman and some other public intellecuals apparently believed that criticisms of the Soviet régime such as those launched by Life and Fate might finally receive a more tolerant public hearing under Khrushchev's "Thaw."  Grossman misread the political tea leaves, though, and Life and Fate was itself arrested.  Here's Chandler's telling of the story:

In February 1961, three KGB officers came to the flat to confiscate the manuscript and any other related material, even carbon paper and typing ribbons.  This is only one of two occasions when the Soviet authorities "arrested" a book rather than a person; no other book, apart from The Gulag Archipelago, was ever considered so dangerous (xv-xvi).

Grossman, who'd been told by the powers that be that his dangerous book couldn't be published for another 200 or 300 years, understandably was crushed, complaining to a friend: "They strangled me in a dark corner" (xvii).  However, other copies of the manuscript, a work that Chandler argues "is important not only as literature but also as history; we have no more complete picture of Stalinist Russia" (xiv-xv), would be smuggled outside of the country and survive to see the light of day after Grossman himself had died.  As a final tribute to Grossman, whose bravery and passion as a novelist really got to me during my reading of and thinking about Life and Fate, I hope you'll forgive me the relaying of one last telling detail from Chandler.  After speaking about the novelist's belief that it was the victims themselves, all the dead but naturally closest to home his mother, who inspired and sustained him to help "fulfill his duty toward the living," Chandler shares this poignant anecdote about Grossman's appeal to Khrushchev about the death sentence given his work (xxiv-xxv):

Grossman's feelings are revealed still more closely in the letter he wrote to his mother on the twentieth anniversary of her death: "I am you, dear Mama, and as long as I live, then you are alive also.  When I die you will continue to live in this book, which I have dedicated to you and whose fate is closely tied to your fate."  His sense of his mother's continued life in the book seems to have made him feel that Life and Fate was itself a living being.  His letter to Khrushchev ends with a challenge:  "There is no sense or truth in my present position, in my physical freedom while the book to which I dedicated my life is in prison.  For I wrote it, and I have not repudiated it and am not repudiating it....  I ask for freedom for my book.

 It isn't difficult to find information about Life and Fate online.  However, I intend to add links to several bloggers I read who have written about the work (if you wind up on the list but don't want to be, just let me know).  Also, please note that Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat will be hosting a group read of Grossman's Everything Flows in late October as part of her Literature and War Readalong 2013.  Hope you can join in.

Dwight, A Common Reader

Himadri, The Argumentative Old Git
"The earth does not want to keep secrets": the writings of Vasily Grossman

Lisa Hayden Espenschade, Lizok's Bookshelf
World War 2, Life, Fate, and Spiritual Entropy

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman 

Pollo, 0 en literatura
¿Qué nos jugamos esta semana?  Vida y destino

9 comentarios:

  1. Did you ever read Babi Yar by Kuznetsov? I would recommend at least tapping into it for the testimony of Dina Pronicheva, who as I recall was only one of maybe two? or very few at any rate, survivors. (Her testimony was used for the controversial novel The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas who, like Grossman, brought nonfiction to life, so to speak, with his depiction of Pronicheva's fate. She is called Lisa, and also known as psychiatric patient Anna G. in the novel.)

    I have been to Babi Yar, by the way, and it is very true, or at least was when I was there, that the emphasis is made that "all nationalities had suffered equally under Hitler" - you would never know that the primary victims were Jews.

    1. Thanks for the recs on the Kuznetsov novel/memoir and the D.M. Thomas novel, Jill. I wasn't familiar with either of them, but they sound like things I should be--esp. the Kuznetsov work. Interesting to hear your confirmation of Chandler's side note. He spends a little more time on this sort of intentional historical forgetfulness in his essay on Grossman, ascribing some of the blame to anti-Semitism (inc. Stalin's) and some of the blame to Soviet state unwillingness to acknowledge that some Ukrainians collaborated with the Germans.

    2. I found the anti-Semitism and racism towards blacks quite striking during the years when I was studying (and visiting) the Soviet Union, because in the Forties, American blacks such as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes were all ga-ga over how tolerant and accepting Soviet society was. (Then again, one of Robeson's Jewish friends was hauled out of prison prior to his execution to greet Robeson during his USSR visit, and of course monitored to make sure he did not tell Robeson that he was to be killed before Robeson's plane was back off the ground. Robeson's other Jewish friends kept "disappearing" or "died in an automobile accident" and the like.) I would posit two things that were going on. One was that Jews then were much more of a threat since they constituted an outsized portion of the intellectual and power elites. The other is that being so nice to blacks was a great propaganda move vis-a-vis the US, which railed about freedom for the Soviet people even while denying it to its own minorities. I don't know if I agree with Chandler about the Ukrainian protection because the Russians and the Ukrainians loathed one another. Except I suppose for the outside world they wanted to put on a front of cohesiveness and all-around love and toleration. ... Well, obviously I need to read it! :--)

    3. Jill, Chandler's point has less to do with the Soviet authorities wanting to protect the Ukrainians' reputation and more about the Soviet leaders wanting to perpetuate the myth that no Soviet citizens would have sided with the invaders. Antony Beevor's military history of the battle for Stalingrad has some more details along these lines along with the fact that both the Soviets and Nazis took part in executing deserters, people who wanted to surrender, and even people who had been captured by the enemy and later released when they were battling for the city. Having never been outside France and Spain in Europe, I envy you your travels in and study of Russia even if much of what you experienced there or learned about the country in earlier times was "striking" in bad ways. Cheers!

  2. Thanks for the mention(s). Chandler's intro is a helpful read before and after reading the novel (and fortunately available online). But then most of what I've read for him about the writers he translates has been great.

    1. My pleasure, Dwight--it was quite a treat to know that I'd have your posts to look forward to as I made my way through the successive stages of Grossman's novel. Now I just have to free up some time to read some of the many fine bibliographical suggestions that have come in from you and the others during Life and Fate's run on the blog the past few weeks!

  3. I have been reading your posts on Grossman with great interest. Ever since I first read "Life and Fate" some 12 or so years ago now, I have been captivated by this very great writer. Thanks for the link above to my blog.

    Another writer of the same era whom Robert Chandler champions, and whom he rates alongside Grossman, is Andrey Platonov. Platonov has not proved as popular as Grossman, however, as he is a more experimental writer, and does not speak quite so directly as does Grossman. I'm not entirely sure that I always follow Platonov. Nonetheless, Robert Chandler (with various colleagues) has translated many of Platonov's works, and these translations are well worth getting to know. The collection of short stories, "The Return and Other Stories", seems to me an excellent point of entry.

    (Incidentally, for those who live in or around London, Robert Chandler often gives very interesting talks and lectures on 20th century Russian literature.)

    1. Himadri, thanks for both your kind comment on the posts--judging from the dwindling number of comments on them, I was beginning to fear that I was driving some readers away--and for your thoughtful Andrey Platonov recommendation. I suspect I'll likely choose between The Foundation Pit and the title that you suggest here whenever I get around to him, but it's nice to hear you and Dwight over at his blog say such intriguing things about the chap. P.S. I wish I lived near enough London to be able to hear Robert Chandler speak in person (very envious of you!), but unfortunately Boston's subway system has yet to come up with a Chunnel train of its own. Drats! :(

  4. Richard -This was really a great series on Life and Fate, and only now do I realize that I never went back to read Chandler's introduction! (I usually prefer to dive right in, and then go back and read introductory material after). Also, thanks for posting the links - and to you and your readers for the extended bibliography. I had the Beevor book next to me during my own reading of Life and Fate and was particularly interested in comparing his opening chapter with Grossman's treatment of the same scene (Beevor seems to have relied heavily on Grossman). Another work I found inadvertently useful was Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary, both for introducing me to a lot of the Soviet figures who would later crop up in Life and Fate and, especially, for its having conveyed with such power the hopes embodied in the Soviet revolution and the gradual replacement of them by totalitarianism. One last recommendation - which probably overlaps Chandler's introduction - is an excellent piece on Life and Fate in the Guardian by novelist John Lancaster.