“What can I say about people? They amaze me as much by their good qualities as by their bad qualities. They are all so different, even though they must undergo the same fate. But then if there’s a downpour and most people try to hide, that doesn’t mean that they’re all the same. People even have their own particular ways of sheltering from rain.”
He gave his guest some more vodka, but himself just had some tea and a crust of bread. He seemed indifferent to the pleasures of the table.
—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
Show us that you’re not indifferent to the pleasures of the table! Email a picture of an NYRB Classic, along with tea or coffee or vodka, to this address and we will post it here, making you an honorary member of the Classics and Coffee Club.
—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
Up for a late spring/early summer reading challenge? The NYRB Classics Goodreads Book Club is tackling Life and Fate as their May/June read. At a robust 896 pages (that’s including the very-helpful “List of Chief Characters” at the back), this book has already resulted in four separate discussion threads on the reading group site—it’s just that good/long.
"I have written in my book what I believed, and continue to believe, to be the truth. I have written only what I have thought through, felt through and suffered through."
— Vasily Grossman, 1961, in a letter to Khrushchev upon the confiscation of the manuscripts for his WWII masterpiece, Life and Fate. The novel was considered so dangerous by Soviet officials that not only the manuscript, but also the ribbons upon which the novel was typed were confiscated. Now that’s pretty “dangerous.”
To celebrate this tremendous achievement of dissident literature, here’s the haunting opening chapter of Life and Fate, masterfully translated by Robert Chandler:
There was a low mist. You could see the glare of headlamps reflected on the high-voltage cables beside the road.
It hadn’t rained, but the ground was still wet with dew; the traffic-lights cast blurred red spots on the asphalt. You could sense the breath of the camp from miles away. Roads, railway tracks and cables all gradually converged on it. This was a world of straight lines: a grid of rectangles and parallelograms imposed on the autumn sky, on the mist and on the earth itself.
Distant sirens gave faint, long-drawn-out wails.
The road drew alongside the railway line. For a while the column of trucks carrying paper sacks of cement moved at the same speed as an endless train of freight wagons. The truck-drivers in their military greatcoats never once looked at the wagons or at the pale blurred faces inside them.
Then the fence of the camp appeared out of the mist: endless lines of wire strung between reinforced-concrete posts. The wooden barrack-huts stretched out in long broad streets. Their very uniformity was an expression of the inhuman character of this vast camp.
Among a million Russian huts you will never find two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar-roses, should be identical… If you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate.
The grey-haired engine-driver watched casually yet attentively. Concrete posts, revolving searchlights on high masts, and glass-domed towers flashed by. In the domes stood guards with mounted machine-guns. The driver winked at his mate and the locomotive gave a warning hoot. A brilliantly lit cabin passed by, then a queue of cars beside a striped level-crossing barrier and a red traffic signal.
From the distance came the hoot of an approaching train. The driver turned to his mate. ‘That’s Zucker. I can tell by the whistle. He’s already unloaded. Now he’s taking empty wagons back to Munich.’
There was a deafening roar as the two trains met. The air was torn apart, patches of grey flashed past between the wagons—and then the torn shreds of space and grey autumn light were woven together in a seamless cloth.
The driver’s mate took out a pocket-mirror and looked at his smudged cheek. With a gesture, the driver asked if he could borrow it himself.
'Honestly, comrade Apfel,' said the mate excitedly, 'if it wasn't for all this disinfecting the wagons, we'd be back home by supper-time. As it is, we'll be out till four in the morning. As though they couldn't be disinfected back at the junction!'
The old driver had heard this complaint many times before. ‘Give a good long hoot,’ he said. ‘We’re to be put straight through to the main unloading area.’
"The final act of [Vasily] Grossman’s life began in 1961, when Life and Fate was ‘arrested’ by the K.G.B., who said that it could not be published for two hundred and fifty years.”
Holiday shopping late last year our eyes were caught by the cover of My Ideal Bookshelf. It’s a collection of book selections by over one hundred cultural figures, the books that matter most to them, edited by Thessaly La Force and with beautifully painted spines by Jane Mount. Of course our automatic response was to see which NYRB titles made the grade, and after going through the entire book we can present our findings to you, dear reader:
Hilton Als chose Peasants and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov: “I began to see that was creating a universe out of cloth. He was creating stories about his society, Russia, in miniature. He wasn’t doing these big Tolstoyan numbers. He was building brick by brick.”
Rosanne Cash chose Here is New York by E. B. White (from the Little Bookroom imprint).
Tobias Frere-Jones chose Ounce Dice Trice by Alastair Reid and Ben Shan.
Daniel Handler chose The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati: “The voice is erudite but useless. It’s supposed to be omniscient but it doesn’t know everything. It worries. It’s philosophically digressive.”
Maira Kalman chose Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser.
George Saunders chose Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.
Vendela Vida chose Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick.
“I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”
It’s that time of the year again, when everyone is posting their “Best Books of the Year” lists. And few places do it better that The Millions, who ask authors to name their favorite books of the ending year.
Here’s a round-up of our titles in The Millions’s lists:
If this is reminiscent of War and Peace, it should be; Grossman, a war correspondent who visited the front as often as he could and shared as much as he could of the soldiers’ lives, carried a copy with him and read it constantly, and he was deliberately creating a counterpart to Tolstoy’s epic. A foolish undertaking, you might think, but he pulled it off. His huge novel has nothing in common with the modernist works that stand beside it on the shelf of twentieth-century Russian masterpieces, Bely’s Petersburg and Olesha’s Envy [also published by NYRB Classics] and Nabokov’s The Gift; there are no magical interludes or language games or hidden messages, just a well-told tale of an extended family caught up in circumstances beyond their, or anyone’s, control.
But two books left the deepest impression on me in the year almost past. Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966 and reissued in 2009 by NYRB Classics. Set in the Pacific Northwest, it’s about gambling, drinking, prison, and an unlikely but believably rendered relationship between two unlucky men. It’s a hard-boiled existentialist novel, and ultimately unlike any other I’ve read.
One of my favorite novels is Skylark, by the great Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi (1885–1936). Thus I was very happy, earlier this year, to see New Directions bring out the first English translation of Kosztolányi’s final novel, Kornél Esti, and I’ve finally gotten round to reading it. Esti lacks the tightly plotted economy of Skylark, in which every word is perfect — in fact it’s hardly a novel at all, but a group of loosely linked, peripatetic stories that proceed from birth toward death, and the stories aren’t really stories but a high-concept mix of urban legends, folk tales, and sitcom premises — the German university president who can only sleep during lectures; the heroic life-saver who thereafter becomes a terrible nuisance; the kleptomaniac who steals words from books. Like Skylark, it’s a tender comedy tinged with the absurdity of life, the thrill of sociability, and the imminence of death, which I guess is exactly the kind of book I like.
Justice, humility, self-deception, degradation, grace, the acquisition of some small wisdom, and the complex relationships between them are among the matters that are explored, with great subtlety, over the course of Clarence’s journey, but no description of the book’s content nor speculation on its purposes can begin to suggest the pleasure of reading it. This resides in the author’s wit, charm, finesse, and originality, and in his elegant, vividly imagistic prose, gorgeous even in translation from its original French, shining and breathing with vitality.
Sarah J. Young has an excellent roundup of writings by and about Vasily Grossman, including many for Russian readers, and loads we hadn’t seen before.
Continuing our celebration of Banned Books Week, today we are focusing on Vasily Grossman and his novel Life and Fate. Here is Robert Chandler from the introduction to our edition describing the difficulties Grossman faced publishing his work, Life and Fate, which was only published in Russia in 1988, twenty-four years after Grossman died:
"In October 1960, against the advice of his two closest friends and confidants, Semyon Lipkin and Yekaterina Zabolotskaya, Grossman delivered the manuscript to the editors at Znamya. It was the height of Khruschev’s ‘The Thaw’ and Grossman clearly believed that the novel could be published. In February 1961, three KGB officers came to the flat to confiscate the manuscript and any other related material, even the carbon paper and typing ribbons. This is one of only two occasions when the Soviet authorities ‘arrested’ a book rather than a person; no other book, apart from The Gulag Archipelago, was ever considered so dangerous. Grossman refused to sign an undertaking not to speak of the this visit, but in other respects he appeared to cooperate, taking the KGB officers to his cousin and his two typists so they could confiscate remaining copies of the manuscript. What the KGB, somewhat surprisingly, failed to discover is that Grossman had made two other copies; he had left one with Semyon Lipkin and the other with Lyoloa Dominikina, a friend from student days who had no connection with the literary world.”