The Russian writer's novel "Life and Fate"—often compared with "War and Peace"—was first published in English in the mid-1980s. But only now is interest taking off among a wider publicby Robert Chandler / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
It is easy for a translator to exaggerate the importance of what he is working on. In the early 1980s, while I was translating Life and Fate—Vasily Grossman’s epic novel about the second world war and totalitarianism—I was certain that it was a very great work. As the years passed and few people either in Russia or the west seemed to be paying much attention to it, I began to doubt my judgement. It was a joy, therefore, to reread the novel last winter, for the first time in 20 years, and realise that I had underestimated Grossman’s greatness. Life and Fate is not only a brave and wise book; it is also written with Chekhovian subtlety.
Collins Harvill published my translation of Life and Fate in 1985. The reviews were mostly positive but sales were disappointing, especially in view of the fact that the book had been a bestseller in France; one of Grossman’s central themes—the identity of fascism and communism—was clearly a more pressing concern in a country where communism was still a significant political force. And there were English critics who thought Grossman dull. Anthony Burgess, for example, seemed irritated by George Steiner’s judgement that “novels like Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel and Life and Fate eclipse almost all that passes for serious fiction in the west today.” Burgess accused Grossman of lack of imagination—a surprising thing to say of a writer able to describe so convincingly the last moments of a child dying in a Nazi gas chamber.
When Igor Golomstock, the émigré art critic, first showed me a copy of the original Russian edition of Life and Fate, published in Lausanne in 1981, and suggested I try to persuade a publisher to commission a translation, I laughed. I did not read books of that length, I said, let alone translate them. A month later, Igor gave me the texts of four radio programmes about the novel that he had made for the BBC Russian service. To my surprise, I was gripped, and soon I was translating a sample chapter. The huge number of characters and sub-plots make Life and Fate seem daunting, but once one starts reading, its clarity and compassion make it quite accessible.
Grossman is in many respects an old-fashioned writer, and perhaps for that reason literary critics have shown little interest in him. For many years it…