Censorship—And Eloquent Silences

Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Marshall D. Shulman Seminar Room (1219 International Affairs Building, 420 W 118th St)

Please join the Harriman Institute, Read Russia, and the Russian Library for a talk with literary translator Robert Chandler.

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate has been hailed as a 20th century War and Peace. However, Life and Fate is only the second half of a dilogy, the first half of which was published in 1952. Grossman wanted to call this earlier work Stalingrad, though it was published under the title For a Just Cause. The characters in the two novels are largely the same and so is the story line; Life and Fate picks up where For a Just Cause ends, in late September 1942. The first novel is in no way inferior to Life and Fate; the chapters about the Shaposhnikov family are both tender and witty, and the battle scenes are still more vivid and moving. The one important difference is that in the later novel Grossman writes openly and directly about questions that, in the earlier novel, he can address only in code.

Between 1952 and Grossman’s death in 1964 there were six different published editions of For a Just Cause. Several versions incorporate changes, sometimes the addition of entire chapters, and all differ considerably from an early typescript that Robert Chandler has recently obtained. These differences show us which aspects of the novel most perturbed editors and censors.  Often it seems to have been more a matter of tone than of content.

One of the most memorable chapters of Life and Fate is the last letter written from a Jewish ghetto by Viktor Shtrum’s mother—a powerful lament for East European Jewry. The words of this letter do not appear in the first novel, yet the letter’s presence makes itself powerfully felt and it is mentioned many times. We learn who carries it across the front line, who passes it on to whom, and how it eventually reaches Viktor. Grossman describes the difficulty Viktor experiences in taking it in and his inability to talk about it even to his family. The absence of the letter itself is eloquentas if its content is too awful for anyone to take in.

The Harriman Institute thanks Read Russia and the Russian Library for their cosponsorship of this event.