Luba Jurgenson: “Some of Grossman’s words remain inaudible in Russia”


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“Memories and correspondence”, by Vassili Grossman, edited by Fiodor Guber, translated by Luba Jurgenson, preface by Tzvetan Todorov, Calmann-Lévy, 400 p., €22.90, digital €16.

Writer and professor of Russian literature at Sorbonne University, Luba Jurgenson has translated from Russian, her native language, Memories and correspondence, by Vasily Grossman. This volume retraces the major stages of his life and of Soviet history through his letters, his war diaries and the testimony of Fiodor Guber, his adopted son, who lived by his side from 1937 to his death in 1964. Luba Jurgenson explains how this unpublished work, with very current echoes, offers a personal and intimate vision of the novelist.

Writer and translator Luba Jurgenson, in Paris, in 2021.

What do we learn about Vassili Grossman by reading these “Memories”?

With this book, we enter the daily life of the writer, we discover the places where he lived, his work table, his culinary tastes. We learn that he liked to walk in the Moscow zoo. I know this zoo well: as a child, I used to go there often. In the Tiergarten story(appeared in worksRobert Laffont, “Books”, 2006), the Second World War is described through the eyes of a Berlin zookeeper. Since Antiquity, literature has transposed human stories into the animal world. Grossman is of course in this line. But while reading Memories and correspondenceI suddenly understood that he went to the Berlin zoo in May 1945 because it was a natural place for him to walk – and it was the whole city culture of the time that s express there.

This is a small example of how minute biographical details seen by a very close observer can contribute to a writer’s knowledge. This observer is therefore Fiodor Guber, adopted son of Grossman, whose adoption takes place in doubly dramatic circumstances. Indeed, his mother, Olga Guber, left her father for Vassili Grossman in 1935. Fedia (Fiodor) was then only 4 years old. Two years later, his father, Boris Guber, was arrested and shot as an enemy of the people. This book is thus a document on the time. It also provides valuable insight into Vasily Grossman’s relations with the Soviet literary establishment.

Is there a passage from the book that particularly strikes you?

In the fall of 1937, Olga Guber was arrested in her turn as the wife of an enemy of the people, when she divorced Boris in 1936. The children stayed with Vassili Grossman, who took great risks by welcoming them. Fyodor was told that his mother had gone to see his parents in Siberia. Micha, his older brother, understood everything about him. One morning, on waking up, Fiodor sees his mother’s bathrobe, and realizes that she has returned. This passage, written by Guber, moves me enormously. The bathrobe hanging on a door handle says with such beautiful conciseness the Great Terror (the wave of repression that hit the USSR in 1936-1938, leading to 750,000 executions and more than a million deportations to the gulag) and the rescue of Olga, signs that the child is not yet able to decipher but of which he grasps the essential.

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