Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate” has been hailed as a C20 “War and Peace”. In reality, however, “Life and Fate” is only the second half of a dilogy. The first half of this dilogy was published in 1952; Grossman wanted to call it “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 incorporate changes, sometimes the addition of entire chapters. And all these versions 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. Sometimes 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 is mentioned many times. We learn who carries it across the front line, who passes it on to whom, 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 eloquent - as if its content is too awful for anyone to take in.
Robert Chandler's translations from Russian include many works by Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov. He has also compiled three anthologies for Penguin Classics: of Russian short stories, of Russian magic tales and, with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. He is a co-translator of three volumes of memoirs and stories by Teffi. His short biography of Alexander Pushkin was recently republished by Pushkin Press. Teaching is increasingly important to him, and he runs a monthly translation workshop at Pushkin House .