Back in March, in a comment to one of my posts, I mentioned that I had been lucky enough to see the Maly Theater’s production of Life and Fate, adapted from Vasily Grossman’s (1905-1964) novel, a masterpiece of 20th-century prose. I didn’t explain, however, just how lucky I was. I had the privilege of seeing the play in the company of Robert Chandler, who brought Grossman’s epic into English and is now working on its equally rich predecessor, Stalingrad (1952-56, published in the Soviet Union as For a Just Cause). We were both deeply moved by Lev Dodin’s adaptation, and Robert has just published his penetrating review of the play on the TLS Daily.
I can add very little to what Robert has written, but I will say that I found the performance of Tatiana Shestakova, who plays Anna, Viktor Strum’s mother, utterly devastating. The play’s scenes are punctuated by Shestakova’s recitation of Anna’s farewell letter to her son, which she has managed to smuggle out of the Berdichev ghetto shortly before she is executed by the Nazi occupiers, along with most of the town’s 30,000 Jewish residents. As Robert states in his indispensable introduction to his translation of Life and Fate, “I know no more powerful lament for East European Jewry than the letter that Anna Semyonovna, a fictional portrait of Grossman’s mother, writes to her son.”
There have been other, no less powerful performances of Anna’s letter, including Frederick Wiseman’s stark film The Last Letter (La dernière lettre, 2002), with Catherine Samie playing Anna, and a BBC Radio 4 adaptation, in which Anna is voiced by Janet Suzman.
But watching Shestakova recite the letter in Russian, just a few feet away from me, was almost too difficult to bear.
I urge you to read’s Robert’s review, as well as Life and Fate itself, if you haven’t done so already. And those of you who speak Russian can hear Robert discuss the subtleties and challenges of Grossman’s prose with Vladimir Abarinov on Radio Svodoba, in an episode of the program “Above the Barriers,” which is partly dedicated to the fate of Russian literature in English translation.