Archive for the ‘Russian literature’ Category
It’s not often that Radio 4 clears its entire drama schedule for a week and replaces it with a single nine-hour radio play. Yet on the week of the 18th September that is precisely what will happen. The play—Life And Fate, with Kenneth Branagh in the starring role—is an adaptation of the postwar novel by little-known Russian writer Vasily Grossman.
Although Life and Fate centres around the moribund physicist Viktor Shtrum and the epic battle of Stalingrad, the novel weaves hundreds of interrelated stories and characters together to show a vivid cross-section of life under Stalin. Grossman was a high-profile frontline reporter during the war, and his fiction displays the same perceptiveness and honesty for which his journalism was renowned. Stories and characters arise and subside like waves in the broad river of humanity, winding through the horrors of the Eastern Front; the result is a novel that manages to be at once sweepingly panoramic and minutely detailed.
Life and Fate, by all accounts, is a work of colossal genius. Martin Amis called Grossman “the Tolstoy of the USSR,” and the historian Antony Beevor—speaking on a special Grossman edition of Start The Week on Radio 4 today—described the book as “one of the greatest Russian novels of the twentieth century.” Mark Damazer, the former controller of Radio 4 who commissioned the drama adaptation, was more laudatory still, calling Life and Fate “the best and most important novel of modern times.”
Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960, but because of the novel’s dissidence—it dared to compare Nazism and Stalinism, for example—the manuscript was confiscated by the KGB, who famously seized the typewriter and carbon paper that Grossman used to write it. A decade and a half later, a small group of radicals managed to smuggle a microfilm version of the book under the Iron Curtain; an English edition was finally published in 1985. Frustratingly enough, by that point all eyes were on Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak and Life and Fate was eclipsed.
This new radio adaptation should bring the work to light again, though for the best parts of Life and Fate, you have to read the book. Continue reading on the Prospect Magazine website
It features a dense collection of video footage, manuscripts and — last but not least — life-sized cardboard cutouts of the writer. It has travelled from St Petersburg to Jerusalem, Buenos Aires to New York, and this time it was headed for Oxford, where a special edition of Radio 4’s Start the Week, dedicated to Grossman, was being recorded. Known for his monumental depictions of life during the second world war and under Stalin, the Russian writer remains relatively obscure. But Maddalena insists that he is in the same class as Tolstoy and Chekhov. “I am trying to spread the word,” he says. “Everyone should read Vasily Grossman. It will change your whole perspective on life.”
The professor is not the only person with a passion for Grossman. Nor is he the most formidable. Other fans are said to include Martin Amis (who dubbed Grossman “the Tolstoy of the USSR”), Tom Stoppard and Mark Damazer, master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, who until recently was controller of Radio 4.
One of Damazer’s final decisions as controller was to commission an eight-hour dramatic adaptation of Grossman’s magnum opus, Life and Fate, a momentous 855-page novel centred on the battle of Stalingrad. The main strand of the story follows the Shaposhnikov family through their experiences of life under Stalin and the horrors of the Final Solution. Other narratives, however, sprawl out from this central core, providing a rich tableau of life and fate in the Soviet Union of the “great patriotic war”. The central character, Viktor Shtrum — widely seen as Grossman’s alter ego — is a physicist burdened with the knowledge that his best work is behind him. (Grossman himself was a trained engineer.) In the radio play, this role will be played by Kenneth Branagh.
“I first read Life and Fate five years ago,” Damazer says. “In addition to being a colossally serious book, the novel is a page-turner. I was desperate to know what happened and read at a gallop, late into the night.” Damazer became absorbed into the world of the book and did not emerge for almost four days.
“I was completely secure in my own mind that it was a work of thundering brilliance and importance. I knew then that I would spend a large part of my time proselytising for it and getting it onto the radio.”
Antony Beevor, author of A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, will be one of the guests on Start the Week. “Life and Fate is one of the greatest Russian novels of the 20th century,” he says, weighing his words carefully. “It is even more important than Dr Zhivago and The Gulag Archipelago. It forms an incredibly powerful portrayal of the struggle between Stalinism and Nazism, and the way it affected the population. It reveals the gross contradictions and dishonesties of life under Stalin.” According to Beevor, Grossman’s moral and physical courage “shines out” in the book. “It struck me straightaway,” he says. “Life and Fate drew the comparison between Stalinism and Nazism, which was almost suicidally brave. It made Grossman the first dissident.”
Grossman was born in the Ukraine in 1905. During the war, he was a special correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, and became known as the most perceptive eyewitness of the Soviet front lines. His courage under fire, as well as his seemingly charmed life — a hand grenade once failed to explode between his feet — earned him the nickname “Lucky Grossman”. He was among the first to write about the horrors of the Holocaust, and The Hell of Treblinka, his depiction of the liberation of the death camp, ranks among the finest such accounts ever written.
Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960, and — some say naively — submitted it for publication. The KGB’s response was incisive.
Within months, they had “arrested” all copies of the manuscript (as the Russians still put it), and even confiscated the typewriter ribbons with which it was written. (They also dug up a Grossman family vegetable garden, but found nothing.)
Grossman was deeply affected by the loss of his book. In a letter to Nikita Krushchev, he wrote: “What is the point of being physically free when my life’s work has been arrested?” The poet Semyon Lipkin, a close friend, recalls that the writer “aged before our eyes. His curly hair turned greyer and a bald patch appeared. His asthma returned. His walk became a shuffle”. Four years later, Grossman succumbed to cancer. He would never see his masterpiece in print.
In 1975, the writer and dissident Vladimir Voinovich made persistent efforts to convert the novel to microfilm and smuggle it out of the Soviet Union. On his third attempt, he was successful, and in 1977 it arrived on the desk of Efim Etkind, a scholar living in Paris. He painstakingly salvaged the material from the microfilm and pieced it together. The near-complete Russian text was accepted for publication in 1980. At around this time, the writer Igor Golomstock, who was then working for the Russian service of the BBC, took the manuscript to a friend, the young Russianist Robert Chandler.
“Igor came in with this huge sheaf of papers,” Chandler recalls. “He said it was an unpublished masterpiece, and I could make my name by translating it. At first, I just laughed it off. But when I started to read, I realised that here was something remarkable.” It took Chandler several years to render it into English. The result remains the definitive translation and is the one on which the dramatic adaptation is based.
One of Grossman’s most visionary skills is to articulate profound philosophical questions through the lives of ordinary people. Among Life and Fate’s key pegs, for example, is a view of history as constituting a battle between a “small kernel of human kindness” and the ruthless pursuit of an abstract “goodness”. As one character, Ikonnikov, puts it after witnessing the massacre of 20,000 Jews: “I don’t believe in your ‘Good’. I believe in human kindness… You ask Hitler, and he’ll tell you that even this camp was set up in the name of Good.” Reflecting this, in one of the book’s most powerful scenes, a young Jewish woman voluntarily goes to the gas chambers in order to comfort a small boy in his final moments. The contrast between her innate kindness and the inhumane ideology that was responsible for her murder could not be more affecting.
Grossman’s daughter Ekaterina — now 81 years old and living in Moscow — believes that Life and Fate encapsulates her father. “His mind combined the cerebral with the intuitive,” she says, “and he valued freedom above all else.
He found cruelty, hypocrisy and selfishness alien concepts, and always believed that good will prevail.” Life and Fate, she says, although painful to write, reflected all of these qualities. “He was an extraordinary man,” she says. “Even as a small child, I remember being proud of him.”
Jonathan Myerson, one of the dramatists who adapted Life and Fate for Radio 4, says: “We saw the text as a collection of Chekovian miniatures. Every episode stands on its own, which makes it easier for listeners.” This, he explains, also allowed the many powerful vignettes to come to the fore. “In one scene, an executed concentration camp victim revives, digs his way out of his grave and asks to be shot again,” Myerson says. “Grossman’s notes reveal that this was taken directly from real life.”
According to Maddalena, this unflinching realism lends gravity to his work. “Grossman makes you understand that beyond the confusion of life, there is something originally good,” he says. “He experienced all the darkness of the 20th century and still believed that freedom lies in living according to the goodness that can be found deep in our lives. That is why he is so important.”
Start the Week: Grossman, his life and legacy is on Radio 4 tomorrow; the dramatisation of Life and Fate is on Radio 4, Sept 18-25