Monday, January 31, 2011

Grossman's Life and Fate to be serialised by the BBC

Vasily Grossman
as war correspondent in Germany in 1945

 (version in Russian is here) read the Tetradki review of the radio play here and download the 13 episodes of Life and Fate from the BBC web-site here. Read all Tetradki posts on Grossman here.

BBC Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams has confirmed that an epic eight-hour dramatisation of Vassily Grossman’s novel ‘Life and Fate’ will be produced and is to be broadcast in September this year. In Radio 4 ‘Feedback’ programme Williams called the project ‘agenda setting’. She also said that ‘what is relevant is important, even if it is history’ and happens in far away places. Williams pointed to the huge interest provoked by the recent radio series ‘I, Cladius’ as another example of such indirect relevance.
What transpires from the programme, which ostensibly provides the platform for the BBC producers and editors to defend their decisions and answer criticism from listeners, but often throws light on the inner workings of the corporation, is that there must have been some opposition to the production of ‘Life and Fate’ against the background of swingeing cuts at the BBC. Just a few days ago BBC announced  that 25 percent of its World Service staff is to be cut. Russian and Ukranian services, among others, will no longer broadcast through traditional radio, but only via the internet.
So, keeping the project that is to take over practically all drama slots on Radio 4 for a week must be seen as something of significant importance. That significance is not measured by the importance of Russia in modern world, but by Grossman’s exploration of the nature of totalitarianism, in broad sense – of the relationship of the people and the state. His novel is set during the second world war and describes the Battle of Stalingrad, life and death in nazi concentration camps and the Soviet repressive machine. 
The book is often said to be ‘the War and Peace’ of the 20th Century (link to a review in Russian). Grossman wrote it in 1950s, first thinking of it as a sequel to the novel Stalingrad (later retitled as For a Just Cause), but soon realising that it is a novel in its own right. Soon after Grossman submitted the novel for publication KGB raided his flat, confiscated all copies and the communist party ideology boss Suslov, who hadn’t read the book, told him that it would not be published in the Soviet Union for another 200-300 years. A copy was smuggled to the West in 1970s and published in 1980 in Switzerland. In 1988 it was published in the Soviet Union. The English translation was made by Robert Chandler, according to whom the novel slowly gains recognition in the West with annual sales going from a few hundred a year initially up to four-five thousand copies in recent years. The BBC series will put the novel into a wider public circulation.
This is what Chandler says about the novel (from an article in Prospect, note: paid site, only part of the article available):
It is easy for a translator to exaggerate the importance of what he is working on. In the early 1980s, while I was translating Life and Fate, I was certain that it was a very great work. As the years passed and few people either in Russia or the west seemed to be paying much attention to it, I began to doubt my judgement. It was a joy, therefore, to reread the novel last winter, for the first time in 20 years, and realise that I had underestimated Grossman’s greatness. Life and Fate is not only a brave and wise book; it is also written with Chekhovian subtlety.
Collins Harvill published my translation of Life and Fate in 1985. The reviews were mostly positive but sales were disappointing, especially in view of the fact that the book had been a bestseller in France; one of Grossman’s central themes – the identity of fascism and communism – was clearly a more pressing concern in a country where communism was still a significant political force. And there were English critics who thought Grossman dull. Anthony Burgess, for example, seemed irritated by George Steiner’s judgement that ‘novels like Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel and Life and Fate eclipse almost all that passes for serious fiction in the west today.’ Burgess accused Grossman of lack of imagination – a surprising thing to say of a writer able to describe so convincingly the last moments of a child dying in a Nazi gas chamber.
The BBC Radio 4 press-release about the forthcoming series:
This autumn BBC Radio 4 presents the much-anticipated eight-hour dramatisation of Life And Fate by Vasily Grossman.

For the first time on Radio 4, a single title will take over every drama slot (apart from The Archers) across a week in September, reflecting the epic span of this 20th-century Russian masterpiece.
Set against the background of the Battle of Stalingrad, the turning-point in the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War, Life And Fate follows the stories of an extended family separated by the German invasion. Flung to the four corners of the Soviet Union and beyond, they experience hardships, grief and the value of human kindness.
Recording mainly in 2011, the extensive cast includes Samuel West, Sara Kestelman, John Sessions, Kenneth Cranham and Matthew Marsh. The producer/director is Alison Hindell for the BBC.
Life and Death is online in Russian here.


The Sanity Inspector said...

I hope they post the podcasts of this program online. I've read the book, and it is indeed a shame it isn't better known. It could have used some more revision, but Grossman didn't have the chance. So, it's like a great unfinished statue, which never quite wholly emerged from the stone.

Alexander Anichkin said...

Their programmes are ususally available to listen for 7 days after the original broadcast, but not all as podcasts.

chriistopher j said...

Life and Fate is superb. Its use of simple language to convey in a complex manner the sad horrors of WWII deserves a much wider readership in the Eng-speaking world. I am so glad I found it. Do not be put off by its size or foreignness. It is written for all humanity.

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