Thursday, September 29, 2011

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. Wrap-up of the Radio 4 (BBC) Dramatisation.

Russian women in besieged Stalingrad.
The longer Russian version of this review is here. To read other Tetradki posts on the novel and the Radio 4 project, click on Grossman label.

BBC's Radio 4 broadcasted an 8-hour adaptation of Vasiliy Grossman's novel Life and Fate. It is a tremendous achievement by the BBC team, an achievement that brings back to international readership a 'lost' great novel of the 20th Century literature.

Fifty years ago the KGB arrested the book, Grossman was told it will not be published for another 200 years. When Robert Chandler made the first English translation 25 years ago the book was hardly noticed. Last week it shot to the top of British bestsellers list.

There are brilliant finds in transforming the novel into a drama. Producer Alison Hindell and drama writers Jonathan Myerson and Mike Walker should be feted for bringing to radio such a huge and complex work as Life and Fate.

First, they've changed the narrative from the writer's third person to the characters' first person. It produces a surprisingly fresh, sharp effect in the Viktor and Lyuda episode narrated through the eyes of Nadya, Viktor and Lyudmila Shtrums' daughter, a minor character in the novel. The script writers, while being faithful to the novel rebuild the character to a greater importance which may well be how Grossman himself intended to develop her had he time to carry on with his epic, which he had planned to be in four parts like Tolstoy's War and Peace. Nadya is based on Grossman's own daughter Katya.

Another striking find is the first person narrative of the nazi soldier – operator of a gas chamber in the concentration camp, whose main duty is to watch Jewish inmates die. It's absolutely chilling ('I'm only closing doors').

Another brilliantly played scene is from Chapter 15, Part II, the 'theoretical discussion' between an old bolshevik Mostovskoy and an SS 'thinker' Liss, when the nazi interrogator succeeds in stirring up doubts in the head of the bolshevik. 'We are your mortal enemies, yes-yes. But our victory is your victory. Do you understand? And if you win, then we will die, but also live in your victory. It's like a paradox: by losing the war, we will win the war, we will develop into a new form, but with the same essence,' says Liss.  That chapter should be republished separately, included in every anthology of modern thinking, taught and discussed everywhere where thinking and debating is still taught and allowed. And the BBC rendering does it its due credit.

Where script-writers needn't change much for the radio is Viktor's mother's last letter from the Jewish ghetto in the Ukraine just before she was killed by the nazis. Grossman's own mother perished in the first wave of the mass shootings of Soviet Jews in September 1941, exactly 70 years ago. The mother's letter is read by Janet Suzman, a great British actress who comes from a South African jewish family with a long history of campaigning for civil liberties and against apartheid.

I am not sure if merging Lieutenant Bach, a German company commander in Stalingrad, with another character, is a good idea. Bach is given the thoughts of a different character, Lennart, also a company commander, but a staunch nazi believer. Bach is a 'normal' German, has a Russian girlfriend in Stalingrad, and it seems slightly incongruous for him to report to the Gestapo chief on the moral spirit of the soldiers – 'there won't be a mutiny', the report which, in the novel, is made by the nazi party member Lennart. The Gestapo officer says words, that could easily have come from the mouth of a Soviet political officer: 'There will be no mutiny because of the genius of our leader. We've cut out the sick among us and also those who might get sick'. The nazi chief prepares to flee from the besieged city and promises Bach (in the play) a free pass out, in the novel the offer is made to Lennart. That doesn't really work quite well, I think, but, then, drama has to be concise.

I think Shtrum played by Kenneth Branagh is a bit too jovial, and both the tank commander Novikov and the commissar Krymov (David Tennant) slightly too hysterical, but, then, again that's drama.

Compositionally, Radio 4 series end with Shtrum being suck into the Soviet system of privilege for those who toe the line. Which, I thought, may be even better than the ending of the novel itself. Grossman rushed it to deliver to a deadline – and after that neither he, nor other Russian editors had a chance of putting it through a proper pre-publishing editorial and review process. When the book was finally published in Russia Grossman was 24 years dead. The novel called Life and Fate that we know today, brilliant as it is, is in fact the 'writer's cut' – the final draft version.

There are a few bits to pick, which are Russia-specific. In the Soviet Union you didn't use 'citizen' as a form of address, not in your own workplace (Shtrum does). 'Citizen' is for those who are denied being a 'comrade', i.e. 'enemies of the people'. There is the usual mistaken shift in the stress in some Russian surnames. The director of an academic institute, Shishakov, in the play is pronounced as SHE-she-koff instead of Shi-shah-KOFF, making the 'boss's name' derived from 'shishka' or 'shishak' – the big one, the important one –  sound almost the same as Chichikov (CHI-chi-koff), the comic character from Gogol's novel 'The Dead Souls'.

BBC's radioplay  is available for downloading as 13 podcasts from the BBC site. If you use iTunes you can download it in one go. The podcast page is here and the Life and Fate project page with additional information and links is here.

The radio adaptation is from the English translation by Robert Chandler (link to Amazon, some pages available to read).

Photo is from Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-F0703-0217-001, by Yakov Ryumkin, ADN/TASS.

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