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After Life and Fate: Vasily Grossman’s last stories

Yesterday we published one of Robert & Elizabeth Chandler’s new translations of Grossman’s stories, The Road. Today, Robert Chandler writes about these stories and about Grossman’s friendship with Andrey Platonov

Robert Chandler
13 October 2010

Several of Grossman’s last stories can be read as a response to the work of Andrey Platonov, the one writer among his contemporaries whom Grossman admired wholeheartedly.  Platonov was six years older than Grossman, but Grossman was the more established figure and there was at least one occasion when he succeded in being of real help to Platonov; in 1942 he asked David Ortenberg, the chief editor of Red Star, to take Platonov under his protection, saying that ‘this good writer’ was ‘defenceless’ and ‘without any settled position’.  Ortenberg duly took Platonov on as a war correspondent.  Later Grossman invited Platonov to collaborate on The Black Book; at some point in 1945 Platonov was given responsibility for all the material relating to the Minsk ghetto.[i]  During Platonov’s final illness, Grossman visited him almost daily, and he gave one of the main speeches at Platonov’s funeral.   Platonov and Grossman are in many respects very different.  Platonov’s prose often moves close to poetry whereas Grossman’s is perhaps as close to journalism as great prose can be while remaining great prose.  Nevertheless, the two writers evidently found much in common.  Ortenberg writes in his wartime memoirs, ‘Grossman, like his friend Andrey Platonov, was not a talkative person.  The two of them sometimes came to Red Star, settled on one of the sofas […] and stayed there for an entire hour without saying a word.  They seemed, without words, to be carrying on a conversation known only to them.’  Grossman’s friend Semyon Lipkin describes Platonov as ‘more independent in his judgments’ and Grossman as a ‘more traditional’ writer.  He goes on to relate how he used to sit with Platonov and Grossman on the street opposite Platonov’s apartment.  The three of them would take turns making up stories about passers-by.  Grossman’s were detailed and realistic; Platonov’s were ‘plotless’, more focused on the person’s inner life, which was ‘both unusual and simple, like the life of a plant’.

Still more interesting, however, is the extent to which Grossman, throughout the period from Platonov’s death in 1951 to his own death in 1964, seems to have absorbed something of Platonov’s idiosyncratic style and vision – almost as if he were trying to keep Platonov’s spirit alive.  ‘The Dog’ is about a mongrel by the name of ‘Pestrushka’ – the first living creature to survive a journey in space.  With her capacity for devotion, her past life as a homeless wanderer, and her quick understanding of technology, Pestrushka has much in common with Platonov’s peasant heroes.  In another story, ‘The Road’, Grossman seems more Platonov-like than Platonov himself.  Platonov often shows us uneducated people grappling with difficult philosophical questions; Grossman presents us with a mule who not only resolves Hamlet’s dilemma about whether to be or not to be but even arrives at the concept of infinity.

Vasily Grossman is the Tolstoy of the USSR.
Martin Amis

Like Platonov, Grossman moves freely between abstract ideas and an intense physicality.  The account at the end of ‘In Kislovodsk’ of a husband kissing his wife’s underwear and slippers is reminiscent of a passage from Platonov’s Happy Moscow: ‘She gave him her shoes to carry.  Without her noticing, he sniffed them and even touched them with his tongue; now neither Moscow Chestnova herself, nor anything about her, however dirty, could have made Sartorius feel in the least squeamish, and he could have looked at the waste products of her body with the greatest of interest, since they too had not long ago formed part of a splendid person’.  More Platonov-like still is the moment in ‘Tiergarten’ when a misanthropic zookeeper kisses his beloved gorilla on the lips.

Grossman and Platonov share an admiration for simple, unintellectual working people.  Lipkin has suggested that in Grossman’s case this sprang from the populist beliefs he had imbibed from his parents, whereas in Platonov’s case it was simply part of a pantheistic reverence for life in all its manifestations. By the end of Grossman’s career, however, this distinction has ceased to operate; his last stories are imbued with a pantheistic reverence very similar to Platonov’s.

There is one other, rather surprising similarity between Platonov and Grossman: both writers were more widely read than one might imagine.  Platonov’s very last important work of all – the moving, witty versions of Russian folk tales he composed after the War – was included, without acknowledgment, in millions (literally!) of copies of school text books.  Similarly, some famous lines from one of Grossman’s wartime articles are carved in granite, in huge letters, in the vast Stalingrad war mausoleum; one sentence is even tooled in gold.  But nowhere in the memorial complex is there any acknowledgment of Grossman’s authorship.  The Soviet authorities murdered or suppressed many of their finest writers, but they valued their words none the less.

 ‘The Avalanche’, a story Grossman wrote a year before his death, can be read as an expression of his anxiety about what would happen to his own legacy. An old woman has just died.  Her children and grandchildren have difficulty dividing up her belongings; some are rude and grabbing, others hypocritical.  The story ends on a note of unexpected grace; Irina, the youngest of the grandchildren, is walking down the street early on a sunny morning.  Someone on the other side of the street is whistling the Toreador’s aria from Carmen; a man walking beside Irina joins in, awkwardly humming the same aria.  The two men glance at each other.  Irina thinks, ‘Bizet’s inheritance seems so easy to share!’  Like Irina, Grossman himself can be understood to feel both envy and wonder with regard to Bizet.  A composer, at least in some respects, is more fortunate than a novelist.  A long, complex and subversive novel cannot, after all, be passed from person to person across a street.

Three other stories from Grossman’s last years, ‘The Road’, ‘The Dog’ and ‘In Kislovodsk’, all contain pointed repetitions of the phrase ‘life and fate’.  The words are like markers – or like tolling bells, telling the reader how much the loss of his novel dominates Grossman’s thoughts.

‘The Road’ (1961—62) can be read as a distillation of Life and Fate, a recreation of it in miniature.  It may even represent an attempt on Grossman’s part to compensate for the novel’s ‘arrest’, to get the better of the despair this had occasioned him.  Not even in Life and Fate itself does he so powerfully evoke the relentlessness of the long winter campaign that culminated in the Battle of Stalingrad.  The evocations of the horror of war and the miracle of love appear all the more universal because of the unexpected point of view from which the story is told – that of a mule from an Italian artillery regiment. 

‘In Kislovodsk’ – the last story Grossman wrote – is also set during the first year of the War.  Nikolay Viktorovich, a highly-placed Soviet doctor with a perhaps excessive love of comfort and beauty, is not an evil man, nor is he entirely selfish – but he has always been too ready to make compromises.  The story ends on a note of redemption.  Asked by the Nazis to facilitate the murder of the wounded Soviet soldiers who are his patients, Nikolay commits suicide.  His wife joins him.  In their last hours the usually impeccably tasteful husband and wife allow themselves to behave ‘vulgarly’, to dance to ‘vulgar’ music, to kiss goodbye to their beloved porcelain and to kiss goodbye to each other as if they were young lovers.

The abolition of absolute morality is not what ranks as Grossman’s most lasting insight; it is his more controversial one about the moral equivalence between Hitlerism and Stalinism. Only the polemics of Partisan Review from the 1930s and '40s compete with the intellectual sophistication Grossman brought to bear on this wrought and by no means settled comparison. (Among leftists in the 1930s and 1940s this was perhaps the most sensitive question of all. Friendships were ended by the suggestion of such an analogy.)

Michael Weiss,  The New Republic

 

In response to the Nazis’ demands, Nikolay Viktorovich shows a moral strength he has never shown before.  By most people’s standards, Grossman himself showed great moral strength throughout his life – but his own standards were severe and there is no doubt that he criticized himself for the various compromises he had made over the decades.  Until the ‘arrest’ of Life and Fate Grossman had tried to work within the system; only during his last three years did he cease to make compromises.  This new intransigence cost him a great deal.  In December 1962, for example, he chose not to publish Good Wishes (his account of the two months he spent in Armenia in late 1961) in Novy mir rather than agree to the omission of a single short paragraph about the Shoah and Russian antisemitism.  Lipkin, thinking that a new publication would greatly help Grossman, both financially and with regard to his public standing, pleaded with him to yield, but to no avail.  Grossman seems to have thought it better to become a non-person than to betray himself, his people and his mother’s memory.The intensity of Grossman’s determination to behave honourably, and his awareness of how hard it is to not to yield to pressure, are well illustrated by a passage from a memoir by Anna Berzer, the editor from Novy mir responsible for publishing several of his stories in the early 1960s.  Berzer was one of Grossman’s most regular visitors during his last months in hospital, and one of only four people to whom he showed Everything Flows.  She relates how, on one occasion, Grossman awoke from sleep in her presence.  Still half in the world of dreams, he said, ‘They took me off for interrogation during the night.  I didn’t betray anyone, did I?’

Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s translation of The Road, a collection of Vasily Grossman’s stories and articles, will be published at the end of this month by the MacLehose Press in the UK and by NYRB Classics in the USA.  A new translation, by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler & Olga Meerson, of Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit will be published by Vintage Classics in November.                                   

 


 

[i] Platonov is not usually listed among the 29 contributors to The Black Book.  Nina Malygina, however, has discovered a document from the archives of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee confirming the transmission to Platonov of a variety of materials relating to the Minsk Ghetto.  Malygina transcribes this document [GARF, fond 8114, opis1, delo 945, p. 164] in her article ‘Yevreiskaya tema v tvorchestve Andreya Platonova’ in Semanticheskaya poetika russkoi literatury.  K yubileyu professora Nauma Lazarevicha Leidermana (Yekaterinburg, 2008), pp. 128-39.  A Yiddish translation of Platonov’s story ‘The Seventh Man’ [GARF, fond 8114 (Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee), opis 1, delo 271, pp. 383-98] was submitted to the journal Eynikayt but never ?? published.  The Russian original of this powerful story about a Jewish partisan on the outskirts of Minsk was first published only in 1970.  The story’s subject matter, and the fact of its submission to Eynikayt, offer further confirmation that Platonov – at least at some point – was working on the section of The Black Book relating to Minsk.  See also Shimon Redlich, War, Holocaust and Stalinism, (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), pp. 353-54.

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