Vasily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad, newly translated from the Russian by husband and wife Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and publishing in June from New York Review Books, is a book of three parts and 959 pages. It has an introduction, an afterword, and a pleasant forest-green spine. These markers of being are remarkable given the fact that an original Russian edition of this translation of Stalingrad doesn’t exist.
In truth, the Chandlers’ translation of Stalingrad draws on three published Russian editions of Grossman’s novel, which are all different from one another, plus several typed drafts and handwritten notes. The new translation is the result of the Chandlers’ “detailed comparison” of the three versions, and of their determination to prove that the novel can stand up to its better-known sequel, Life and Fate, which has long been recognized as Grossman’s masterpiece.
The idea that Stalingrad must be Grossman’s lesser book is a legacy of Soviet censorship, Robert says. Grossman wrote the novel in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when all literature in the Soviet Union had to follow the tenets of socialist realism. Official doctrine demanded a “historically specific depiction of reality,” in which characters would undergo “ideological rework… in the spirit of socialism.”
Writing that was judged insufficiently socialist realist by censors would remain unpublished, and its author might be sent to a labor camp or killed. Given these possibilities, Robert explains, “no writer in the Soviet Union ever wrote without an awareness of how the authorities would react, and every editor was, in effect, a censor.”
For Grossman, a sense of danger seems not to have been intuitive. Born in Ukraine in 1905, he studied chemistry in Moscow and then worked in a Donbass mine as an engineer. But writing drew him, and he returned to Moscow and published two novels and a short story praised by Maxim Gorky, then the Communist party’s favored writer. During Stalin’s purges, Grossman’s second wife was arrested by the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB. Daringly, Grossman wrote a letter arguing for her innocence, and she was released. And when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman—a 35-year-old Jewish intellectual who couldn’t shoot—volunteered for the Red Army. He was sent to the front as a journalist for the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper.
Elizabeth speaks of the “emotional balance and steadiness of imagination” characteristic to Grossman’s prose. It was perhaps this equanimity, and his knack for getting a good interview, that made Grossman’s articles the newspaper’s most popular pieces. In August 1942, he went to Stalingrad.
“Grossman’s evocation of the inner life of young men who know they are certain to die within the next 24 hours is remarkably convincing,” Robert notes in his introduction to the novel. For much of the five-month Battle of Stalingrad, in which two million people died, Grossman lived alongside the Soviet soldiers fighting to take back Stalingrad from Axis forces. He spent hours talking with snipers, nurses, and divisional commanders; he saw them crossing the Volga under fire to enter the bombed-out city. Sometimes he traveled with them.
Writing of this wartime crossing in his novel, Grossman describes a sublime steppe landscape that becomes riddled with the corporeal—with corpses: “Millions of stars gazed down at the city and the river, listening to the murmur of water against the shore…. Some dark object slid down the river, painfully slowly, and there was no way of knowing whether it was a boat without oars, the swollen corpse of a horse or part of a barge destroyed by a bomb.” Grossman’s characters also embody this strange wartime synthesis: some are terrified while others sit calmly in their fired-upon barges and boats, making plans to read the day’s paper.
Like Grossman, the Chandlers also became interviewers as they worked on Stalingrad. Specialists and scholars, including Yury Bit-Yunan, Brandon Schechter, and Pietro Tosco, were particularly helpful, and “there are dozens of other people—translators, writers, friends, military historians, historians of the coal mining industry—who have read drafts,” Robert says. These readers helped the Chandlers accurately render details of life in the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
Under the title For a Just Cause, Grossman’s novel was finally published in 1952 in a “heavily censored” version, Robert says. Two somewhat less censored editions followed in 1954 and 1956. The English translation of Stalingrad restores Grossman’s preferred title and “follows the third edition for the general plot and the ordering of the chapters.”
It also includes, as the Chandlers often emphasize, “several hundred of the vivid, comic, and surprising passages” that were published in only some of the Russian editions, and passages that were never published, such as those describing a Red Army commander reminiscing about making his wife a dress, a doctor complaining about overcrowding at a hospital, a roach “scuttling across a map” of military operations, mentions of a postwar future, and a woman with a tomato.
The censors struck out anything that wasn’t politically on-message, as well as any details that weren’t elevated enough, Robert says, to be mentioned in connection with the venerated Red Army. Men sewing, crowded hospitals, bugs, the future, and errant vegetables were, inconveniently, just real—not socialist realism.
In Grossman’s reality, people were struck out too. He was one of the first journalists to write about the Holocaust, in which his mother was killed. But after the war, he signed a document giving credence to Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges. It’s possible that Grossman’s momentary lapse came because he feared that his next novel, Life and Fate, would be censored. He was right: Life and Fate, the sequel to Stalingrad, was clearly no longer bound by the strictures of socialist realism. The KGB confiscated the manuscript in 1961. Grossman died in 1964, and the book remained unknown until it was published in Switzerland in 1980.
It was through this Swiss, Russian-language edition, 40 years ago, that Robert Chandler first encountered Grossman. The art historian Igor Golomstock suggested that Robert take it on as a translation project. At the time, Robert was just starting out as a translator, and his immediate reply was that he “did not read books as long as Life and Fate in Russian, let alone translate them.”
The chapter that Robert eventually translated interested the British publisher Collins Harvill, who bought the book and published it in 1985. And the Chandlers’ collaboration began when Elizabeth retyped several chapters of Robert’s full translation of Life and Fate and then offered to type his translation of Andrey Platonov’s novel Happy Moscow. “We gradually got into discussing, and improving, more and more passages,” she says. They’ve continued this way of working through subsequent translations of Grossman, Platonov, and Pushkin.
Robert, who is the fluent Russian speaker, prepares drafts he reads aloud to Elizabeth. “Whenever either of us feels that something is unclear or that the tone is wrong, we discuss that sentence, batting different versions between us, until we feel we have got it right,” he says.
“If translations fail, this is very often not because they are inaccurate but because they fail to convey an author’s voice,” Elizabeth says. “With time, one gets a sense of what words a particular writer would or wouldn’t use. Grossman, for example, is often extremely funny, but he is seldom mocking.”
Life and Fate is the achievement of the broad, lucid view of Soviet life toward which Grossman had been working, and in which both humor and deep pathos have a place. But this view was already apparent in Stalingrad. In the novel, even Grossman’s worst-tempered characters are afforded moments of insight and clarity—and, Elizabeth says, “unlike nearly all his Soviet contemporaries, he treats even his German characters with respect.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.