Monday, January 25, 2010

A Russian titan revealed ...

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler (NY Review of Books, $14.95)

When the KGB raided the apartment of Soviet writer Vasily Grossman after he submitted to the authorities his master work, Life and Fate, the secret police confiscated manuscripts, carbon copies, notebooks and even the typewriter ribbons used in its production.
At the time – sometime in late 1959 or early 1960 – a representative of the Soviet government told Grossman his novel (decades later described by Le Monde as the “the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century”) could not be published in the Soviet Union for at least 200 hundred years.
Grossman died in 1964 never knowing if his stories and novels would ever be published.
The New York Review of Books recently published a translation of Grossman's final novel, Everything Flows, a complex and compelling denunciation of totalitarianism translated by Robert Chandler.
Book Serf: When one considers the obstacles to publishing in the Soviet Union at the time, does it border on the miraculous that we have anything from Vasily Grossman let alone books as powerful and deathless as Life and Fate and Everything Flows?
Robert Chandler: In one sense: Yes. During the War, Grossman was often called ‘Lucky Grossman,’ because of the number of occasions that he narrowly escaped death. There was one occasion, for example, when a grenade landed between his feet – and did not explode. And Grossman was certainly lucky that Stalin died in March 1953 – otherwise he might well have been executed during the anti-Jewish campaign that was then gathering momentum. But in another sense: No. The Soviet Union was a society that attached great importance to the written word. There is a great deal of fine work – Bulgakov’s novels, Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, Mandelstam’s poetry, most of Platonov’s longer works – that had to wait anything from 30 to 60 years before being published. In each of these cases, the mansucripts were carefully preserved. Bulgakov, Platonov and Mandelstam were fortunate in that their widows were devoted, tenacious and long-lived. Krzhizhanovsky’s lover, on the other hand, entrusted his manuscripts to the State Literary Archive, which took equally good care of them.
BS: This is a rhetorical question: The Berlin Wall is down and the Soviet Union no longer exists as it once did. Why should contemporary readers care about Grossman?
RC: Freedom always has its enemies, in every society. The best answer is that given by a Gulag survivor by the name of Yelena Vladimirova: I write in the name of the living That they, in turn, may not stand In a silent, submissive crowd By the dark gates of some camp.These lines were used as an epigraph to Till my Tale is Told, a collection of women’s memoirs of the Gulag. The translation is by John Crowfoot.
BS: Everything Flows was left unfinished. But as the novel comes to its truncated end, Ivan Grigoryevich is in the midst of an epic philosophical debate between a Hegelian view of history and rationality and a more pessimistic view of chaos espoused by his cellmate. On which side do you think Grossman eventually fell? Was he at heart an optimist or a pessimist about human beings?
RC: Hard to say. I am certain that Grossman thought of himself as an optimist, someone who believed that all life – including human life – was bound to develop towards a greater degree of freedom. On the other hand, the arguments Grossman gives to Ivan’s pessimistic cellmate are extremely powerful ones. In this respect Grossman has something in common with Dostoevsky, a passionate believer who stated the case for atheism as powerfully as it has ever been stated.
BS: At times I felt as I was reading Everything Flows that I'd read my way out of a novel and into a work of history. I decided that if Everything Flows was indeed a work of history, that it was a superb and artful work of history. Does it matter what we call different sections of Everything Flows, history or fiction?
RC: No, I don’t think it matters. Even in the 1940s Grossman was writing works that blur different genres. In a letter that he wrote to his mother in 1950, nine years after she was shot by the Nazis, he says, ‘I knew that you were no more. But I did not know what a terrible death you had died; I learned about this only when I came to Berdichev and questioned people about the massacre that took place on 15 September 1941. I have tried dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times to imagine how you died, how you walked to your death.’ Grossman means what he says. He did everything in his power to imagine how his mother died. He retraced her last steps, he carried out interviews, and he used his imagination. The chapter from Life and Fate that has become known as ‘The Last Letter’, the article ‘The Murder of the Jews in Berdichev’ (included in A Writer at War) and the short story ‘The Old Teacher’ (to be included in The Road – our next collection of Grossman’s writings) are all borne of the same impulse. If we accept Coleridge’s definition of Imagination as ‘the power to disimprison the soul of fact,’ then they are all born of disciplined, passionate imagination. And so is Grossman’s 1944 article about Treblinka. And his evocation, in Everything Flows, of Lenin.
BS: Faulkner said that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past. He was writing about the South. But he could just as easily have been talking about Russia, yes?
RC: Grossman’s passionate good sense is more needed in Russia than ever. Unfortunately, he is not widely read in Russia today. He is more popular throughout the English-speaking world and in most other European countries. Worst of all, it may well be that his relative lack of popularity has come about not in spite of, but because of, his good sense. In Putin’s Russia, most people do not want to be told that there was little to choose between Nazism and Stalinism.
Russian nationalists are even more offended by Grossman’s brilliant deconstruction, in Everything Flows, of the myth of the Russian soul. In order to spare themselves the pain of having to attend to Grossman’s analysis, Russian nationalists – entirely without justification – classify Grossman as a Russophobe. The general prevalence of antisemitism makes it easy for them to do this.
BS: Grossman is not a polemicist is he?
RC: Grossman wrote a first draft of Everything Flows in 1955. Between 1961 and 1964 Grossman returned to the novel and inserted a great deal of new material. The Lenin chapters were the last to be written. In a sense these chapters are very polemical indeed. It was permissible in the early 1960s to attack Stalin, but Lenin was still on his pedestal. It is impossible even to imagine the book being published during Grossman’s lifetime - the Lenin chapters would have been far too shocking.
Nevertheless, I agree with my editor, Edwin Frank, who wrote to me after first reading our translation, ‘The Lenin section seems to me not so much a furious denunciation as the outline of a tragedy, Grossman's as much as the Soviet Union's.’ It is entirely possible that Grossman’s original intended simply to attack Lenin but that his intelligence and compassion proved too great. Rather than being the object of a polemic, Grossman’s Lenin becomes a tragic hero.
BS: Anna spends a great deal of time discussing her role as an activist during the Great Famine. That section is followed by a three-page chapter describing the deaths of a mother, father and child. Those three pages are harrowing. Can you discuss Grossman as an artist as opposed to strictly an historian or witness?
RC: Before translating Grossman’s chapters about the Terror Famine, I read Robert Conquest’s fine historical work about this period, The Harvest of Sorrow. Conquest often quotes from Grossman, and he also quotes from a large number of Ukrainian memoirs by survivors of the famine. Grossman and these memoirists write in a similarly bare, factual style and they say essentially the same things – and yet I could always immediately recognize which passages were by Grossman and which were by other people. Somehow Grossman’s selection of details was always more vivid.
BS: Is there anything else about Grossman and Everything Flows that contemporary readers should know about but that I've failed to bring up?
RC: The qualities of Everything Flows and the stories Grossman wrote in his last few years show up especially clearly in comparison with the stories he was writing in the 1950s. 'Tiergarten' (1953-55) is an interesting but not entirely successful story set in a Berlin zoo during the very last days of the war. The story contains perceptive observations about the nature of totalitarianism and the importance of freedom, but these observations are repetitive and ponderous. It is as if Grossman is himself like a caged animal, going over the same ground again and again, unable to break out into the artistic freedom he longs for.
His last works, however, not only extol freedom but also embody freedom. His thinking is complex, and it again and again moves in an unexpected direction. The subject matter is, in many cases, grim, but the liveliness of Grossman’s intelligence makes these works surprisingly heartening. It is also worth saying that Everything Flows is more than a testimony. It is a fine and important testimony, but it is also a subtle examination of the difficulty of testifying. Anna’s lucid account of her involvement, as a low-level Party activist, in the Terror Famine is deeply moving, but Nikolay’s confusion, the lies and equivocations he comes out with in order to avoid speaking truthfully about his own past are no less memorable.

Robert Chandler writes at length about Vasily Grossman at:

An interview with Robert Chandler about his translations of Andrey Platanov can be found here:

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