The second session from Sunday’s World Literature Weekend event held by the London Review Bookshop provided a chance to have a debate about a wide area – Central Europe.
Penguin has recently published a ten book series under the umbrella the Central European Classics and the series editor Simon Winder was flanked by several translators Michael Hofmann, George Szirtes and Tomáš Zmeškal to talk about what it meant to be central European when the books that covered the start of the last century up to around the end of the second world war and what it means now.
There were several conclusions that are worth capturing and sharing here.
The first, and once you think about it one of the most obvious, is that most of these writers were describing a world that no longer exists. Winder talked about one writer who had not only the name of his home ton changed but his entire country subsumed into another.
Add to that the quite widespread phenomenon of having cultures that hated each other tightly packed together and you had a melting pot of languages, migration both voluntarily and compulsory as well as war.
This produces an almost dream like quality to most of the writing where the world’s that the writers inhabit are often imagined and fluid. That is a theme that the assembled speakers agreed went through the classics series.
The second theme was around the idea of an anti-state position. Michael Hofmann said that at first he didn’t understand why Thomas Bernhard had been included until he came to look at it from this anti-state point of view. he said that during his writing career Bernhard was racked on the knuckles with writs and legal actions but had been slightly further east he would have been imprisoned and much more heavily censored.
Finally when it came to looking at the future there was a feeling that central Europe was potentially re-emerging having been squeezed out of common parlance after the end of the second world war. With the collapse of the Austro Hungarian Empire, then years later the spread of Soviet satellite states Europe became divided into East and West with not a great deal of room for the Central states to have their own identity in the middle.
That could potentially change as the political geography of Europe changes. The writers in the series are still read by their native Czech and Hungarian readerships and there was a sense that the world and mentality that emerges through the pages of the books in the Penguin series could come out of the shadows once more.
Having been lucky enough to get to the London Review Bookshop World Literature Weekend at the British Museum yesterday I wanted to provide my thoughts and views from the two sessions that I attended.
The first session provided a chance to hear from a living relative to one of Russia’s greatest 20th century authors, Vasily Grossman. I will post thoughts on the second session tomorrow.
His daughter from his first marriage, Yekaterina Korotkova-Grossman, was in London for the first time to talk not just about her father and his work, but also her own memoirs of growing up in a Soviet world during and after the traumatic Second World War.
She was joined by the translator of her father’s work, most recently Everything Flows, Robert Chandler who is also an authority on the work he has spent a great deal of time and energy translating.
Grossman is well known for the masterpiece Life & Fate (my review from a while ago is here) covering the horrors of the Second World War and the events in Stalingrad. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.
Yekaterina recalled the devastation that her father felt when he tried and failed to get Life & Fate published and how years later when she tried to get support from writers and the authorities for publication how most of them did not have the guts or the gumption to support her.
It was eventually published in Russia in 1988 and became a ‘must read’ book with some of the same publishers that had turned it down using the poor excuse of thinking this was a different book from the one they originally read as a way of saying they had not quite understood what they potentially were working with.
There were then questions around his other work with Everything Flows and For a Just Cause both being mentioned as books that have moments that rival Life & Fate.
Chandler said that a great deal of Grossman’s sophistication, particularly with historical writing, had been overlooked and deserved to be recognised.
But the session really belonged to Yekaterina. Speaking occasionally in English but with great fluidity and humour when she returned to her native Russian she painted a picture to the audience, via her translator, of a childhood in a poor world that was also a fickle one.
Waves of antisemitism washed over her father and she told of her experience as a teacher who was attacked by colleagues who accused her father of being a coward for not repenting and admitting he was wrong. She rightly argued it was a cowards way out to tow the party line.
She said that her father might be associated with writing about some of the most horrific events in Russian history but he was essentially an optimist and thought human beings could improve themselves. His optimism she said was higher than those people currently living in Russia.
She has written one volume of her memoirs and is working on another at the moment to cover the years she lived in Tashkent. She has that ability to describe so well a lost world. A world that was full of fear and poverty but one that was incredibly interesting.
As she said of her experience of reading her father’s work for the first time it described , “a poor world but you wanted to live there”.