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Forgery: Modus operandi (British History)
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Ishmael


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Mick Harper wrote:
You'll have to give it some gulag welly to see it really fly.


OMG. Our minds appear to be on the very same track. I too have been entertaining this notion that the Gulag Archipelego is a fake. I have absolutely no reason to think that it is. However; what I do sense is that it is a book too good to be true.

That's all I had in terms of a hunch.

Do you have any additional evidence?
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Ishmael


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Oh it's not the Gulag Archipelego you're talking about.

But I think you'll make more of a splash if you pursue my hunch.
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Mick Harper
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I want to make it quite clear that I had no 'evidence' to start with. Nor do I have the slightest suspicion that the Gulag Archipelago is a fake, whether you are talking about Solzhenitsyn's book, or the Stalinist prison and labour camp system for which he coined that term. It is only post-Soviet Russian authors who might, and I emphasise might, have either gilded the lily or, at the extreme end of possibilities, written books from the imagination rather than the lived experience.

The role played by translators and/or western publishers should also be under scrutiny, though with the same caveats. It is only my and Hatty's experience with real forgeries, if you see what I mean, that started alarm bells ringing. And, perhaps for that reason, we may not be the best judges.
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Hatty
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A review in the New Yorker (2013) by Sam Sacks calls Life and Fate the greatest Second World War book ever written.

Grossman is said to have been censored for his portrayal of antisemitism not the gulag system

The final act of Grossman’s life began in 1961, when “Life and Fate” was “arrested” by the K.G.B., who said that it could not be published for two hundred and fifty years. The reason they gave was that Grossman had placed too much emphasis on the Nazi persecution of Jews—the pointedly anti-Semitic official decree was that war chroniclers could not divide the dead into groups—but biographers have speculated that Khrushchev saw an unflattering resemblance of himself in one of the novel’s fictional commissars.

It is likely that Grossman did focus, or gave the impression of focusing, on Jewish deaths. It's a Jewish trait but he arguably had good reason even if perhaps unwise in view of the overall USSR experience

He was the star correspondent for the Red Army, and his dispatches for the newspaper Red Star documented with thrilling immediacy the Nazi lightning attack upon the U.S.S.R., the decisive reversal at Stalingrad, and the Soviet’s slow, bloody bulldozer-march to the German capital. That westward advance took him through the Nazi camps in Poland and his 1944 report “The Hell Called Treblinka” was the first article about a death camp ever published.

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/vasily-grossman-loser-saint

His report on Treblinka was published in 1946 by which time he had plenty of data on concentration camp organisation. It's like a historical account, you wouldn't be able to tell he was the first to witness the camp but it may be Russian journalese was more formal and allowance can be made for translation.

https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/essays/grossmantreblinka46.pdf
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Mick Harper
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It is certainly the kind of 'world record' that ordinarily attracts our attention. But even setting that aside ("Please," as Henny Youngman would say) I find 1944 nearly impossible. The Russians only reached Treblinka in July 1944 and it had been thoroughly ... um ... 'cleansed' by the SS before the first troops arrived. There is no chance a journalist would call it 'a hell' at that time.
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Mick Harper
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Along with these two epochal works, Vasily Grossman has another, lesser, work available ‘in the west’. It's called An Armenian Sketchbook and has its own quirky provenance. [All quotes from Hatty’s New Yorker URL]

Needing money, Grossman took on a job procured by his remaining friends in the Writers’ Union to translate an Armenian war novel by Rachiya Kocher

I don't want to be difficult or anything but Vasily had claims to speak Russian, Ukrainian and French (which his mother taught) but ... Armenian ... less so. In fact not at all and it's not a language you pick up easily, leastways not to the standard required for literary translations. But happily this didn’t matter

Oddly, the book had been brought into Russian some years earlier

So some explanation is required for a non-Armenian speaker to be given a commission to translate a book that had already been translated. The two people most responsible for Vasily’s western triumphs offer us one

in his introduction to the new edition, Robert Chandler (who translated “An Armenian Sketchbook” with his wife, Elizabeth, and who has done more than anyone to bring Grossman to English-reading audiences) suggests that the commission may have been an attempt to buy Grossman off—a harmless sinecure offered in compensation for the censorship of his novel.

That would be it. Hearts of gold. I can't think why I didn't think of it myself.

Whatever the case, Grossman went to Armenia in the winter of 1961-62 to meet Kochar and get a feel for the country

Again, I don't want to be difficult, but I've got a bit of experience myself in this area. It's quite normal to go for a chat with the original author, it's not entirely normal to want to get a feel for his country as well. That's in the book you're translating. But at least there were no language problems when they did meet, all educated Armenians in the Soviet period were fluent Russian-speakers. No, wait, surely that means... That's not important because now that Vasily was, at it were, in country, he could start jotting down material for his next work. No title as yet but a sort of travelogue with sociological underpinnings

Yet, where are the Armenians? You will find curiously few in “An Armenian Sketchbook.”
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Hatty
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Vasily knew he was dying (of stomach cancer) in 1962. Yet he passed up the chance to report the Armenian Holocaust in his 'Armenian war novel' in favour of what? A travelogue? Doesn't seem to indicate a writer of such polemical novels they have to be banned for two hundred and fifty years.

Sacks says Grossman had already written about Armenia but nobody seemed to have taken much notice

He had written a great deal about the Armenians in his celebrated wartime articles and his earlier fiction, but that was a long time ago—now “I was nobody, both as a human being and as a writer. I was a pygmy—so what did I expect?”

But apparently it wasn't his books, not even Life and Fate, that brought Grossman to the west's attention. It was his war diaries, via our most eminent Second World War historian, Antony Beevor, with subsequent help from the Guardian review. That's according to Robert Chandler, the translator of Life and Fate and other Grossman works.

Grossman is in many respects an old-fashioned writer, and perhaps for that reason literary critics have shown little interest in him. For many years it was historians—above all, Antony Beevor and Catherine Merridale—who affirmed his importance. Beevor’s recent translation of Grossman’s war diaries (A Writer at War, from which several quotations in this article are taken) has done more than anything to bring the writer to a wider public. Since publication of the diaries last year, sales of Life and Fate in Britain have grown from around 500 copies a year to 500 a month. And in March, a Guardian article by Martin Kettle praising Life and Fate led to it briefly becoming the second most popular book at Amazon UK.

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/vasilygrossman

Diaries, eh. Reminiscent of Trevor-Roper perhaps?
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Mick Harper
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To be fair, I doubt if anybody in the Soviet Union would know about the Armenian genocide.at this time. Not many in the west did. It may be that Rachiya Kocher is the original author, who at any rate seems to have been something of a composite figure. It's interesting -- but I presume coincidental -- that this is the same time that Solzhenitsyn, who also had cancer, was writing Cancer Ward.
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Hatty
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The Economist opined, five days ago, that

Like “Life and Fate”, the newly translated “Stalingrad” is a masterpiece


The Telegraph reviewer is equally impressed

In little more than three decades Vasily Grossman’s name has posthumously gone from being unknown outside the old Soviet empire to somewhere very high on the roll of the world’s 20th-century novelists. His standing in the West started, as Soviet artists’ reputations routinely did, after its erasure in the USSR.

'Little more' indeed. Over thirty years it took. Some might wonder if Vasily's new-found fame is due to the translators' publication and how much of the original shines through. All that's known about Life and Fate is 'a smuggled microfilm appeared in Switzerland' in 1974, ten years after Grossman had died.

Soviet writers' fame seems to have declined somewhat since the end of the Cold War. That could perhaps be true of everywhere else, War and Peace is from the era of the Great Novel for which modern readers allegedly have no time. But Grossman is noted for adapting to both Soviet and post-Soviet trends

Critics often divide Grossman’s life into two parts. Tzvetan Todorov, for example, says that “Grossman is the only example… of an established Soviet writer changing his spots completely. The slave in him died, and a free man arose.”
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Mick Harper
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I’ve heard of samizdat but making microfilms is not something yer ordinary dissident can do on the kitchen table. Though from a faker's point of view it is very much more disappearable. Tzvetan Todorov has unwittingly provided us with yet another world record.
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Mick Harper
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I've heard of samizdat but making microfilms is not something yer ordinary dissident can do on the kitchen table

Actually I think that's probably wrong. I recall now that quite a large illegal-but-kinda-tolerated industry had grown up in the nineteen-seventies doing things like making bootleg Beatles LP's and sub-Warholesque underground movies and stuff, so this is prolly well within reach. The whole Soviet system was quite adept at providing these safe breathing spaces. Maybe the Writers Union had a whole informal subsection devoted to producing samizdat. By their (and its) nature, the Soviet Union wouldn't have produced much of a historical record of these things.
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Hatty
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Antony Beevor and Robert Chandler (the translator) were interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about Stalingrad, the prequel to Grossman's Life and Fate. Beevor's view is that Life and Fate is the more important novel and noted that Grossman had been 'one of the first to write about Stalin'.

Chandler said the text had been edited and translated 'from notebooks from the archives'. Where personal or family archives are used, they often turn out to be scraps but then more and more documents surface, commensurate with the person's fame. It may be the 'archives' were official state archives, though he didn't say, because the book had been published in 1952 in Russia, in a censored form, but if so would the rejected parts have been destroyed rather than kept?
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Mick Harper
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I've listened to it now and I must say I was highly unimpressed. The account of Treblinka made absolutely no sense. Chandler claims that Grossman put the whole inner working of the camp together by 'interviewing people who lived nearby'. Apart from that being impossible in itself (how would they know? how would Grossman even know where Treblinka was?), why choose Treblinka which had been completely destroyed by the Nazis in 1943 when other camps were still up, if not running. It was though the first to be overrun by the Red Army and therefore at least a candidate for a '1944' description. Most were liberated in 1945. Sorry to be so neutrally grisly.

As for Grossman's books themselves I was deeply sceptical with all the talk of notebooks and archives. It certainly doesn't seem to have been a straightforward translation gig. One of the translators doesn't even speak Russian! Still Beevor was impressed and I'm a big fan of Beevor so it's not something I'm going out on a limb over.
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