For this week’s MacLehose Monday we return to Vasily Grossman’s The Road and its prolific editor and translator Robert Chandler.
The Road - published earlier this month – is Chandler’s selection from Grossman’s essays and shorter fiction, spanning his whole career and charting the evolution and refinement of his style.
Sarah Young is a lecturer in Russian at The School of Eastern European and Slavonic Studies. She recently interviewed Chandler for her website and has kindly allowed us to host a selection on the Quercus blog.
The full text of this fascinating and in-depth discussion of Grossman, his short fiction and his place in Russian literature can be accessed at:
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.
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. And yet there are clearly many people who do feel the need to read about such matters. 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’ [the final piece in The Road], 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. Grossman, in contrast, 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. Even when Grossman is at his most poetic, I have been oddly slow to appreciate the power of his images.
SJY: 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.’