Monday, June 21, 2010

World Literature Weekend - Yekaterina Grossman

Having been lucky enough to get to the London Review Bookshop World Literature Weekend at the British Museum yesterday I wanted to provide my thoughts and views from the two sessions that I attended.

The first session provided a chance to hear from a living relative to one of Russia's greatest 20th century authors, Vasily Grossman. I will post thoughts on the second session tomorrow.

His daughter from his first marriage, Yekaterina Korotkova-Grossman, was in London for the first time to talk not just about her father and his work, but also her own memoirs of growing up in a Soviet world during and after the traumatic Second World War.

She was joined by the translator of her father's work, most recently Everything Flows, Robert Chandler who is also an authority on the work he has spent a great deal of time and energy translating.

Grossman is well known for the masterpiece Life & Fate (my review from a while ago is here) covering the horrors of the Second World War and the events in Stalingrad. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.

Yekaterina recalled the devastation that her father felt when he tried and failed to get Life & Fate published and how years later when she tried to get support from writers and the authorities for publication how most of them did not have the guts or the gumption to support her.

It was eventually published in Russia in 1988 and became a 'must read' book with some of the same publishers that had turned it down using the poor excuse of thinking this was a different book from the one they originally read as a way of saying they had not quite understood what they potentially were working with.

There were then questions around his other work with Everything Flows and For a Just Cause both being mentioned as books that have moments that rival Life & Fate.

Chandler said that a great deal of Grossman's sophistication, particularly with historical writing, had been overlooked and deserved to be recognised.

But the session really belonged to Yekaterina. Speaking occasionally in English but with great fluidity and humour when she returned to her native Russian she painted a picture to the audience, via her translator, of a childhood in a poor world that was also a fickle one.

Waves of antisemitism washed over her father and she told of her experience as a teacher who was attacked by colleagues who accused her father of being a coward for not repenting and admitting he was wrong. She rightly argued it was a cowards way out to tow the party line.

She said that her father might be associated with writing about some of the most horrific events in Russian history but he was essentially an optimist and thought human beings could improve themselves. His optimism she said was higher than those people currently living in Russia.

She has written one volume of her memoirs and is working on another at the moment to cover the years she lived in Tashkent. She has that ability to describe so well a lost world. A world that was full of fear and poverty but one that was incredibly interesting.

As she said of her experience of reading her father's work for the first time it described , "a poor world but you wanted to live there".


Mar said...

Wonderful description of an event that clearly was interesting to listen to, but also left a great impression.

It's unbelievable how publishers were quick to claim rights to the fame by accusing the text had been altered afterwards.

I haven't read this book yet, but will be asking my library to order for me this summer.

Thanks for sharing the day with us.

Simon Quicke said...

Thanks Mar it was a great event and yes there are now several books i am going to purchase as well following the talk.

Anonymous said...

sounds like a great event ,must get to read his books at some point simon ,all the best stu

Simon Quicke said...

Thanks Stu yes they are well worth reading