Saturday, April 14, 2018

To Tackle a Russian or Not? An Epic Novel, That Is

This evening, after two walks in a very icy, wind-driven drizzle at 26 degrees F, I feel empowered.

With Life and Fate by the Russian/Soviet author Vasily Grossman at my left elbow, and a shining votive candle at my right elbow, I am declaring that I am going to start reading this 871-page novel immediately. Maybe lots of us here in "The Northeast Blue Zone," could use a good dose of Russian fatalism right now, and, as I understand it, that's what this novel can provide.

Vasily Grossman was born in 1905 in Berdichev, in the Ukraine, which was a city with one of the largest Jewish communities in eastern Europe (flyleaf). In his younger years Grossman studied chemistry and later he became a mining engineer. Yet somehow he found time at night to write. Grossman was discovered by the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, the founder of socialist realism, who helped promote Grossman's writing. (Gorky was born in 1868 and died in 1936, so that made him 49 years old at the time of the Russian Revolution.)

Grossman was a combat correspondent throughout all of World War II. He saw the worst of it--the German blitzkrieg of 1939-40, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

He finished Life and Fate in 1960, and when he submitted the manuscript for publication, it was seized by the KGB. Grossman died in 1964, never knowing that more than ten years later, a microfilm copy of his novel would be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and would be published internationally.

The only English translation of Life and Fate is by Robert Chandler,  which was completed in 1979 and published in 1980. His introductory "Translator's Notes" did make me gasp, though inwardly to be sure. I kept reminding myself that he committed the cardinal sins of translation in the late 1970s. A translator wouldn't do what he did now, but things do change from era to era.

Robert Chandler deleted what he described as overly "philosophical" and some unclear passages, amounting to a total of six pages. It was the "philosophical" deletions that got me. So Grossman meandered or waxed philosophically here and there? Just delete it?? Well, how could you? Chandler could have redacted the passages and included them in an appendix of some sort.  It doesn't seem likely that Life and Fate will get another English translation, but maybe someday. I hope so.

In any case, I'm going off to read. I have a library copy, but I'm going to buy one because I think this one will take me a while.


  1. Haven't heard of this one, but it sounds engrossing! Will be curious to hear what you think.

    1. JoAnn, my thoughts may be a while in the making. I've only had time this past week to read at night, and my start has been quite slow and deliberate. But I'm very interested in what I've read. I guess I just still feel at sea with it.