The Road by Vasily Grossman, a collection of short fiction and articles (translated and edited by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler) is published this month in paperback amidst a positive extravaganza of renewed interest in the author of Life and Fate, a vivid account of the lives of a vast cast of characters living through battle of Stalingrad, and regarded by many as the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century.
This week and next sees the celebration and broadcast on Radio 4 of Life and Fate, (also translated by Robert Chandler and first published in the UK in 1985). Admirers and scholars of Grossman gathered last Friday in Oxford to take part in a two-day conference hosted by St Peter’s College and the BBC, which has shown possibly unprecedented commitment to the work by giving it every drama slot on Radio 4 apart from The Archers for an entire week. The dramatisation is the brainchild of Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4, but his enthusiasms have been transferred to his successor, Gwyneth Williams. Kenneth Branagh takes the role of Viktor Shtrum, supported by David Tennant, Janet Suzmann, Greta Scacchi, Sam West, Harriet Walter, Kenneth Cranham and others.
But how to break up such a novel without losing its vast epic quality? Life and Fate offers a rich historical panorama on the one hand, and on the other an emotionally resonant mosaic of humanity. Radio script writers Jonathan Myerson and Mike Walker discussed the enormous challenge of distilling 900 pages and a cast of a thousand characters into thirteen Chekhovian episodes, a process that has taken four years from conception to broadcast. (The extent of their meticulous work on the project might be encapsulated in the fact that sound recorders were dispatched to the Tank Museum in Dorset to fire up an original T-34.)The writers and producers hope that they have brought across the essence of the work by building up complex layers of narrative through dialogue and through the emotions of their characters. On Sunday at 3 p.m. we can hear if they’ve been successful, or whether, as one panellist feared, it might turn out to be a “Stalinist version of the Archers”.
This week’s edition of Start the Week – with Antony Beevor (author of Stalingrad and editor of Vasily Grossman’s A Writer at War, Linda Grant (who has written an introduction to the latest paperback edition of Life and Fate), and novelist Andrey Kurkov – was recorded during the conference, and you can read more about that here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/2011/09/andrew_marr_-_life_and_fate.html. Discussing the historical and literary context of Life and Fate, and Grossman’s career as a brilliant war journalist (see A Writer at War and The Road) were Robert Chandler and Lyuba Vinogradova, primary researcher for Stalingrad and Grossman’s A Writer At War, whose forthcoming books on Russian woman snipers and pilots will be published by MacLehose Press.
Robert Chandler’s translation of Life and Fate was first published in 1985, even though Grossman had completed it many years earlier in 1959. It had been submitted for publication in 1960, after which Grossman’s apartment was raided and any material relating to the book confiscated. Politburo’s chief Mikhail Suslov informed him months later that it would not be published for two or three hundred years, a measure both of the threat that it represented for the Soviet Union, and a recognition of its potential longevity. But Grossman had taken the precaution of distributing one or two copies amongst trusted friends; writer and broadcaster Zinovy Zinik remembers Samizdat copies of the novel circulating in Moscow in the early 1960s. The novel then began a tumultuous historical journey of its own: with the help of Soviet dissident and future Nobel prize winner Andrei Sakharov it was smuggled out of Russia on microfilm in the mid-seventies, already ten years after Grossman’s death, and published for the first time in Switzerland in 1980.
See the Radio 4 website for more links and information relating to the dramatisation.