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Writing that was judged insufficiently socialist realist by censors would remain unpublished, and its author might be sent to a labor camp or killed.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.
In the mornings they set out paper bowls of cantaloupe at RT’s Flag Bar in Baltimore, which is an upgrade over the stale peanuts you’ll find elsewhere. Then again, there’s a handwritten sign above the register that says, “Remember BENGHAZI” so it’s not all pleasant. I know because this year I read a lot in bars, and RT’s is where I really began.
When you bring a book to a bar, you get entertainment and a shield. Healthier than a phone, reading a book dissuades would-be chatterboxes more effectively than pretending to check your email. Some will persist, and we usually wish they wouldn’t, but there’s no such thing as an impenetrable defense. RT’s was a refuge from the heat, so I locked my bike and read Heather Christle’s poems. I was so entranced I forgot about the cantaloupe. In the summer I felt snowed in.
At Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis, the bartender told a patron that she wouldn’t have worn her overalls if she’d known she’d be working that day. That’s another thing about reading in bars: you can eavesdrop. At the Moose on Monroe, some dude named Frisco tried to tell me all about “boilermaking” while I read Sam Pink’s The Garbage Times / White Ibis. Minnesotans will talk even when you are aggressively uninterested in what they’re saying, sometimes to no one but themselves, but it’s easy enough to grunt or autopilot your way through a few “no kiddings” until they move on. Bars there hold weekly meat raffles. One of the novellas in Pink’s book takes place inside a frigid, dank dive. I thought about that when I noticed someone had written “DO NOT TOUCH ALL WINTER” above the Knight Cap’s thermostat.
Reading Harry Crews practically apparates whiskey into your hand no matter where you are, so it was ticklish to learn Joe Lon, his protagonist in Feast of Snakes, owned a package store full of brown liquor. In the back, a lady named Hard Candy placed bets on how quickly a snake could eat a rat, and while I read that scene I put my feet up on the rail at Butts & Betty’s in case something slithered by. One of the bartenders is a notary public, and she pours Beam like she’s giving it away.
At St. Roch Tavern north of Marigny, I took a break from reading Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love because he described being “drunk as a boiled owl,” and I needed a minute to process that visual. Moments later, bingo night started. While not as insufferable as karaoke, bingo makes considerable commotion so I moved across town to Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge. I read the rest of the book under the red glow of ten thousand string lights. Snake’s has changed in recent years, and it felt sanitized compared to how I remembered it. Fittingly, the last story in Brown’s collection might be the worst piece I’ve read since undergrad, and I slogged through it next to two loud Tulane students before I left.
Your second bourbon’s treachery is how it tells you you’re good for four, but in the Fairmont Dallas lobby bar, that’s manageable because the pours are piddly. Before checking into my room, I polished off Christina Thompson’s New Zealand memoir, which I enjoyed well enough however I wish it lived up to its title, even though nothing ever could: Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.
Bars conducive to reading need good light. You want lantern vibes. A gentle din is better than music but, paradoxically, both are preferable to silence. The downside of a totally quiet bar is that when someone inevitably opens their mouth, or the phone rings, the noise is too crisp to ignore.
I like reading at Standings in the East Village because I lack the constitution to pay attention to baseball statistics and Vegas odds, and those two subjects dominate conversations in the place. Not long ago I finished The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in the corner, and drew three circles around this line: “Insecurity crawfished through his blood, leaving him powerless again.”
The other night at ChurchKey, which was far too dark, I read Patricia Lockwood’s essay on Lucia Berlin, which was incandescently bright. Lockwood nailed the aspects of Berlin I love most. A Manual for Cleaning Women showed me how vividly someone can convey the careworn sense of a place, and while Evening in Paradise is less polished and consistent, its descriptions of places and sounds are no less wonderful. Few writers have had better ears for dialogue and acoustic details than Berlin, which is why I gasped when Lockwood wrote, “The problem is that if you’re a person who loves perfect sounds, bars are always full of them.” In one of her stories, Berlin’s protagonist asks what the difference is between a connoisseur and a wino. “The connoisseur takes it out of the paper bag.”
Dive bars are timeless. You cannot imagine them opening; they’ve just existed. Newer bars are usually harder, louder, less respectful to readers. You need to pick particular books depending on your venue. No one should read the canon at the Budweiser Brew House in the St. Louis airport. However it was a serviceable setting when I needed to finish The Strange Bird, and nothing could’ve broken my concentration. Boisterous beach bars can be navigated. I wouldn’t try to read Moby-Dick there, but Monty’s in Coconut Grove is the perfect setting for American Desperado, Jon Roberts’s mesmerizing memoir about his time as a narco kingpin. While sipping a Pain Killer, I learned the best way to kneecap someone. Under the wicker fans, I looked across Biscayne Bay and imagined picking up a loaf of bread in Bimini. I don’t think anyone’s ever read anything at Sweet’s Lounge on the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but you could play “chicken shit bingo” there for a couple bucks and write a story about it afterwards. I’d read that.
Walking home from Frazier’s, I peeked in row house windows and imagined myself hanging out with Willie and Liberty from Breaking & Entering. When Joy Williams wrote her guide to The Florida Keys, was she just casing joints like they did? Has anyone ever nailed Florida’s dreadful sublimity better than Williams? I think not. She began a chapter with the phrase, “the summer that someone was mutilating the pelicans,” and I’m still reeling.
Carol at BAR used to give a key to her regulars so they could let themselves in, but “nowadays you can’t even leave a cooler around some people.” This notion was enough to make me put down Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, the most perfect book I read all year. Imagine the trust in that bygone era. Meet oblivion like Greg.
They sold Tums and Rolaids for $1.50 at Dimitri’s before it closed and turned into a taco joint. It’s hard to explain but the vibe at the time was just right for Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which was profoundly sad and beautiful. Joyce, the bartender who makes great pit beef, had a preternatural gift for anticipating when her patrons needed another round. Broken Arrow played on the TV while one guy discussed a 4-month program training HVAC technicians, and how the irony of working on air conditioners is that you never get to feel them yourself. His companion with a cane was talking about moving to Colorado to escape the heat. It reminded me of the line in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: “what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”
Drinking while reading lubricates the mind, makes it more amenable to certain ideas. Thoughts become cloudy, not just in terms of ephemerality but also in how gracefully they brush into one another. There’s a thrum in the cerebellum when thoughts gather momentum, when the clouds pick up wind. Another benefit of reading in the bar is that by committing to the book in a public space, you become motivated to see it through. Even though nobody cares, you feel like the people around you want you to finish the book. You push forward in a way that you probably wouldn’t alone at home, surrounded by comfortable distractions. I find this useful when I want to finish a book just to finish it, after I’ve ceased enjoying the experience. Recently I pretended a couple on a Tinder date a few seats over was invested in whether or not I could get to the end of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow. It turned out they were as disinterested in one another as I was in the book, but that’s one last thing about reading in bars: when you’re done, you can get the hell out of there.
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