Sunday, February 3, 2013

Of Life and War

A couple recent acquisitions include an 1887 English translation of Tolstoy's Sebastopol Sketches and a 1985 translation of Vasily Grossman's Life & Fate.  The first was translated by Frank Millet from a French edition of Tolstoy's frontline stories from the Crimean War.  He was perhaps Russia's first war reporter.  The latter from the man regarded as the Soviet Union's premier war reporter.

Sebastopol is interesting for a number of reasons.  These sketches represent an awakening for Tolstoy as well as laid the groundwork for his triumphant work, War & Peace, as Alan Yentob noted in the History Channel documentary on The Trouble with Tolstoy.

Life & Fate is of course Grossman's most celebrated work.  The novel came to symbolize Russia's role in World War II much the same way Tolstoy's War & Peace symbolizes Russia's battle with Napoleon's grand army.  Grossman has enjoyed a lot of attention as of late, with new collections of his work, but it is fun to go back to the original in this case, at least the first English translation.

The novel was written in the late 50s, but shelved by KGB officials.  A copy was smuggled out of the country in the mid 70s, but it wasn't published until the mid 80s.  It didn't appear in Russian until the Perestroika years, serialized in Oktyabr magazine in 1988.  Grossman had died in 1964.  The Robert Chandler translation is still the one to read in English.

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