Whether you agree that the Russo-Jewish writer Vasily Grossman is as much a part of the Russian canon as Chekhov, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, there can be little doubt that for such a significantly gifted prose writer, Grossman has been sorely overlooked.
As his devoted translator Robert Chandler explained, although Grossman died in 1964, it is only in the last five years via his masterpiece Life and Fate that he has reached a worldwide audience; and whilst his work is now available in Russia, his overt criticism of Russian nationalism means he is still unpopular with the current regime.
Born in 1905 in the largely Jewish town of Berdichev in the Ukraine, Grossman had early success as a writer. But it was following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941 that Grossman unexpectedly came into his own, writing for Red Star, and becoming renowned for his fearless reporting – perhaps most famously in his unflinching postwar account of Treblinka.
It was his fiction that Chandler firmly focused on, however, tracing his work via the influence of Chekhov, and his veneration and criticism of Isaak Babel – a playwright and author ten years his senior, who was eventually tortured and shot by the NKVD. An event recounted in Grossman’s short story ‘Mama’ that the actress Janet Suzman movingly read from to close the evening.
Chandler pointed out that whilst Babel had a fascination with violence and those who held it, Grossman was the polar opposite. Even when depicting the notorious head of the NKVD, Nikolay Yezhov, who signed off so many lives during the Great Terror, including Babel’s, before being murdered by the authorities, Grossman considers his characters with a ‘universal compassion’. His work’s recurring motif is the mother-child bond that often appears as his characters are heading to their death. (Grossman himself was haunted by his mother’s murder in a mass execution of Jews by the Nazis in the Ukraine.)
Chandler was deeply knowledgeable, quietly spoken, and engrossed in his consideration of the relationship between Grossman, Babel, and another forgotten Russian author and journalist colleague of Grossman’s, Platonov, so it was as well that the acclaimed actress Janet Suzman was on hand to bring to life in two extended readings the power and humour of Grossman’s prose.
She read from the aforementioned ‘Mama’ and the opening of Grossman’s first acclaimed story ‘In The Town of Berdichev’, a direct response to Babel’s story-cycle Red Cavalry (both are set in the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-21) that turns on its head the older writer’s depiction of men being initiated into a brutal male world, and instead brings us the tale of Vavilova – a strapping female commissar who is initiated into the secrets of motherhood… at least for a while.
There was so much that could have been discussed, and so little time, but what was clear is that Grossman is a writer we need to read. The Road, a collection of his works edited and introduced by Chandler, is an excellent place to start.
AC Goodall is a writer, editor and bookseller from London. http://www.acgoodall.com