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Vasily Grossman
Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Mukovnikova
about the author 

Vasily Grossman
   Vasily Grossman

‘A Small Life’ is immediately recognizable as the work of the mature Grossman; it is as low-key, as unshowy, as ‘In the Town of Berdichev’ is showy. Here too, however, Grossman takes considerable risks – though this seems to have gone unnoticed when the story was first published in 1936. The hero, Lev Orlov, is timid and depressive; even though his first name means ‘Lion’ and his last name means ‘Eagle’, he is the antithesis of the positive hero of Socialist Realist doctrine. In November 1935 Stalin had declared that ‘Life has become better, life has become merrier’, and these words were repeated again and again – on banners and posters, in newspaper articles, in talks on the radio and in speeches at May Day parades and other public events. They were, in fact, the most popular slogan of the time. Against this background, the use of the words ‘merrily’ and ‘merriment’ and Orlov’s lack of interest in May Day festivities are more than a little provocative. During the 1930s the radio was probably the most important medium for State propaganda; Orlov’s lack of a radio is yet another indication of his alienation from Soviet life. Grossman does not, of course, overtly sympathize with Orlov’s feelings, but nor does he explicitly condemn them.
With its delicate irony and its apparent inconsequentiality, ‘A Small Life’ owes much to Chekhov. Life and Fate includes a long hymn of praise to Chekhov as the bearer of ‘the banner of a true, humane Russian democracy’, but it is worth emphasizing that Grossman’s admiration of Chekhov dates back at least to his first years as a professional writer. In ‘A Tale about Love’, a long story written in 1937, a film director and a script writer talk about their joint project in a railway compartment. They agree that Chekhov’s The Steppe – a long story in which almost nothing appears to happen – is ‘real art’. This conversation is not in any way necessary to the development of the plot. In the context of Soviet literature from the 1930s, with its emphasis on class conflict and five-year plans, it is startling – a clear declaration by Grossman of his artistic programme.

Robert Chandler


Moscow spends the last ten days of April preparing for May Day. The cornices of buildings and the little iron railings along boulevards are repainted, and in the evenings mothers throw up their hands in despair at the sight of their sons’ trousers and coats. On all the city’s squares carpenters merrily saw up planks that still smell of pine resin and the damp of the forest. Store masters use their directors’ cars to collect great heaps of red cloth.
Visitors to different institutes find that their requests are all met with the same answer: ‘Why don’t we deal with this after the Holiday?’
Lev Sergeyevich Orlov was standing on a street corner with his colleague Timofeyev. Timofeyev was saying, ‘You’re an old woman, Lev Sergeyevich. We could go to a beer hall or a restaurant. We could just wander about and watch the crowds. So what if it upsets your wife? You’re just an old woman, a complete and utter old woman!’
But Lev Sergeyevich said goodbye and went on his way. Morose by nature, he used to say of himself, ‘I’m made in such a way that it’s my lot to see tragedy, even if it’s hidden beneath rose petals.’
And Lev Sergeyevich did indeed see tragedy everywhere.
Even now as he made his way through the crowds he was thinking how hard it must be to be stuck in hospital during these days of merriment, how miserable these days must be for pharmacists, engine drivers and train crews – people who have to work on the First of May.
When he got home, he said all this to his wife. She began to laugh at him, but he just shook his head and went on being upset.
Still turning over the same thoughts, he went on letting out loud sighs until late into the night. His wife said angrily, ‘Lyova, why do you have to feel so sorry for the pharmacists? Why not feel sorry for me for a change and let me sleep? You know I’ve got to be at work by eight in the morning.’
The next day she left for work while Lev Sergeyevich was still asleep.
In the mornings he was usually in a good mood at the office, but by two in the afternoon he would be missing his wife, feeling anxious and fidgety and constantly watching the clock. His colleagues understood all this and used to make fun of him.
‘Lev Sergeyevich is already looking at the clock,’ someone would say – and everyone would laugh except for Agnessa Petrovna, the elderly head accountant, who would pronounce with a sigh, ‘Orlov’s wife is the luckiest woman in all Moscow.’
Today was no different. As the afternoon wore on, he grew fidgety, shrugging his shoulders in disbelief as he watched the minute hand of the clock.
‘Someone to speak to you, Lev Sergeyevich,’ a voice called out from the adjoining room. It was his wife. She was phoning to say that she would have to stay on at work for an extra hour and a half to retype the director’s report.
‘All right then,’ Lev Sergeyevich replied in a hurt voice, and he hung up.
He did not hurry home. The city was buzzing, and the buildings, streets and pavements all seemed somehow special, different from how they usually were. And this intangible something, born of the festive sense of community, took many forms. It could be sensed even in the way a policeman dragged away a drunk. It was as though all the men wandering about the street were related – as though they were all cousins, or uncles and nephews.
Today he would have been only too glad to saunter about with Timofeyev. It is unpleasant being the first to get back home. The room seems empty and unwelcoming, and there is no getting away from frightening thoughts: has something happened to Vera Ignatyevna? Has she twisted her ankle jumping off a tram?
Lev Sergeyevich would start to imagine that some hulking trolleybus had knocked Vera Ignatyevna down, that people were crowding around her body, that an ambulance was tearing along, wailing ominously. He would be seized with terror; he would want to phone friends and family; he would want to rush to the Emergency First Aid Institute, or to the police.
Every time his wife was ten or fifteen minutes late it was the same. He would feel the same panic.
What a lot of people there were on the street now! Why were they all sauntering up and down the boulevard, sitting idly on benches, stopping in front of every illuminated shop window? But then he walked up to his own building, and his heart leaped with joy. The little ventilation pane was open – his wife was already back.
He kissed Vera Ignatyevna several times. He looked into her eyes and stroked her hair.
‘What a strange one you are!’ she said. ‘It’s the same every time. Anyone would think I’ve come back from Australia, not from the Central Rubber Office.’
‘If I don’t see you all day,’ he replied, ‘you might just as well be in Australia.’
‘You and your eternal Australia!’ said Vera Ignatyevna. ‘They ask me to help print the wall newspaper – and I refuse. I skip meetings of the Air-Chem Defence Society – and rush headlong back home. Kazakova has two little children – but Kazakova has no trouble at all staying behind. Not only that, but she’s even a member of the automobile circle!’
‘What a silly darling goose you are!’ said Lev Sergeyevich. ‘Who ever heard of a wife giving her husband a hard time for being too much of a stay-at-home?’
Vera Ignatyevna wanted to answer back, but instead she said in an excited voice, ‘I’ve got a surprise for you! The Party committee’s been asking people to take in orphanage children for a few days over the Holiday. I volunteered – I said we’d like a little girl. You won’t be cross with me, will you?’
Lev Sergeyevich gave his wife a hug.
‘How could I be cross with my clever girl?’ he said. ‘It scares me even to think about what I’d be doing and how I’d be living now if chance had not brought us together at that birthday party at the Kotelkovs.’
On the evening of 29th April Vera Ignatyevna was brought back home in a Ford. As she went up the stairs, pink with pleasure, she said to the little girl who had come with her, ‘What a treat to go for a ride in a car. I could have carried on riding around for the rest of my life!’
It was the second time she had been in a car. Two years before, when her mother-in-law had come to visit, they had taken a taxi from the station. True, that first ride had not been all it might have been – the driver had never stopped cursing, saying that his tyres would probably collapse and that, with as much luggage as, they should have taken a three-ton truck.
Vera Ignatyevna and her little guest had barely entered the room when the doorbell rang. 
‘Ah, it must be Uncle Lyova,’ said Vera Ignatyevna. She took the little girl by the hand and led her towards the door.
‘Let me introduce you,’ she said. ‘This is Ksenya Mayorova, and this is comrade Orlov, uncle Lyova, my husband.’
‘Greetings, my child!’ said Orlov, and patted the little girl on the head.
He felt suddenly disappointed. He had imagined the little girl would be tiny and pretty, with sad eyes like the eyes of a grown-up woman. Ksenya Mayorova, however, was plain and stocky, with fat red cheeks, lips that stuck out a little and eyes that were grey and narrow.
‘We came by car,’ she boasted in a deep voice.
While Vera Ignatyevna was preparing supper, Ksenya wandered about the room examining everything. 
‘Auntie, have you got a radio?’ she asked.
‘No, darling. But come here – there’s something we have to do.’
Vera Ignatyevna took her into the bathroom. There they talked about the zoo and the planetarium.
During supper Ksenya looked at Lev Sergeyevich, laughed and said pointedly, ‘Uncle didn’t wash his hands!’
She had a deep voice, but her laugh was thin and giggly.
Vera Ignatyevna asked Ksenya how much seven and eight came to, and what was the German word for a door. She asked her if she knew how to skate. They argued about what was the capital of Belgium; Vera Ignatyevna thought it was Antwerp. ‘No, it’s Geneva,’ Ksenya insisted, pouting and stubbornly shaking her head.
Lev Sergeyevich took his wife aside and whispered, ‘Put her to bed. Then I’ll sit with her and tell her a story – she doesn’t feel at home with us yet.’
‘Why don’t you go out into the corridor and have a smoke?’ answered his wife. ‘In the meantime we can air the room.’
Lev Sergeyevich walked up and down the corridor and struggled to recall a fairy tale. Little Red Riding Hood? No, she probably knew it already. Maybe he should just tell her about the quiet little town of Kasimov, about the forests there, about going for walks on the bank of the Oka – about his grandmother, about his brother, about his sisters?
When his wife called him back, Ksenya was already in bed. Lev Sergeyevich sat down beside her and patted her on the head. 
‘Well,’ he asked, ‘how do you like it here?’
Ksenya yawned convulsively and rubbed her eyes with one fist. 
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘But I suppose it must be very hard for you without a radio.’
Lev Sergeyevich began recounting stories from his own childhood. Ksenya yawned three times in quick succession and said, ‘You shouldn’t sit on someone’s bed if you’re wearing clothes. Microbes can crawl off you.’
Her eyes closed. Half asleep, she began mumbling incoherently, telling some crazy story.
‘Yes,’ she whined. ‘They didn’t let me go on the excursion. Lidka saw when we were still in the garden… why didn’t she say anything… and I carried it twice in my pocket… I’ve been pricked all over… but it wasn’t me who told them about the glass, she’s a sneak…’
She fell asleep. Lev Sergeyevich and his wife went on looking at her face in silence. She was sleeping without making a sound, her lips sticking out more than ever, her reddish pigtails moving ever so slightly against the pillow.
Where was she from? The Ukraine, the north Caucasus, the Volga? Who had her father been? Perhaps he had died doing some glorious work in a mine or in the smoke of some huge furnace? Perhaps he had drowned while floating timber down a river? Who was he? A mechanic? A porter? A housepainter? A shopkeeper? There was something magnificent and touching about this peacefully sleeping little girl.
In the morning Vera Ignatyevna went off to do some shopping. She needed to stock up for the three days of the holiday. She also wanted to go to the Mostorg department store and buy some silk for a summer dress. Lev Sergeyevich and Ksenya stayed behind. 
‘Listen, mein liebes Kind,’ he said. ‘We’re not going out anywhere today, we’re going to stay at home.’
He sat Ksenya down on his knee, put an arm round her shoulder and began telling her stories.
‘Sit still now, be a good girl,’ he would say every time she tried to get down. In the end Ksenya sat still, snuffling from time to time as she watched this talking uncle.
By the time Vera Ignatyevna got back, it was already four o’clock. There had been a lot of people in the shops.
‘Why are you looking so sulky, Ksenya?’ she asked in a startled voice.
‘Why shouldn’t I look sulky?’ Ksenya answered. ‘Maybe I’m hungry.’
Vera Ignatyevna hurried into the kitchen to prepare supper; Lev Sergeyevich continued to entertain their little guest.
After supper, Ksenya asked for a pencil and some paper, so she could write a letter. ‘But I don’t need a stamp, I’ll give it to Lidka myself,’ she added.
While Ksenya was writing, Vera Ignatyevna suggested to her husband that they all go out to the cinema, but Lev Sergeyevich did not like this idea. ‘What on earth are you thinking of, Vera? The crowds tonight will be terrible. In the first place we won’t be able to get tickets. In the second place, it’s the kind of evening one wants to spend at home.’
‘It’s our good fortune to spend all our evenings at home,’ retorted Vera Ignatyevna.
‘Please don’t start an argument,’ snapped Lev Sergeyevich.
‘The girl’s bored. She’s used to being with other people all the time. She’s used to being with her friends.’
‘Oh, Vera, Vera,’ he replied.
Later in the evening they all had tea with cornel jam, and they ate a cake and some sweet pies. Ksenya enjoyed the cake very much indeed; Vera Ignatyevna felt worried, put her hand on the little girl’s tummy and shook her head. Soon afterwards the girl’s tummy did indeed start to ache. She turned very sullen and stood for a long time by the window, pressing her nose to the cold glass. When the glass became warm, she moved along a little and began to warm another patch of glass with her nose. 
Lev Sergeyevich went up to her and asked, ‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Everything,’ the girl answered crossly, and once again began squashing her nose into the glass.
In the orphanage they were probably about to have supper. There hadn’t been time for her to receive her present, and she was sure to be left something boring, like a book about animals. She already had a book like that. Still, she’d be able to do a swap. This auntie Vera was really nice. A pity she wasn’t one of the staff. The girls who’d stayed behind in the orphanage were going to spend all day riding about in a truck. As for herself, she was going to become a pilot and drop a gas bomb on this strange Uncle Lyova. There were some quite big girls out in the yard – they were probably from group seven.
She dozed off on her feet and banged her forehead against the glass.
‘Go to bed, Ksenka!’ said Vera Ignatyevna.
‘I butted the glass just like a ram,’ said Ksenya.
Lev Sergeyevich woke up in the night. He put out a hand to touch his wife’s shoulder, but she wasn’t there.
‘What’s up? Where’s my little Verochka?’ he thought in alarm.
He could hear a quiet voice coming from the sofa, and sobs.
‘Calm down now, you silly thing,’ Vera Ignatyevna was saying. ‘How can I take you back at night? There aren’t any trams, and we’d have to cross the whole city.’
‘I kno-o-o-w,’ answered a deep voice, in between sobs. ‘But he’s so very dismable.’
‘Never mind, never mind. He’s kind, he’s good. You can see I’m not crying!’
Lev Sergeyevich covered his head with the blanket, so as not to hear any more. Pretending he was asleep, he began quietly snoring.


Translator's Note

* ‘The Society for the Promotion of Defence, Aviation and Chemistry’ (Osoviakhim or Obshchestvo sodeistviya oborone i aviatsionno-khimicheskomu stroitel’stvu) was a ‘voluntary’ civil defence organization supposed to promote patriotism, marksmanship and aviation skills among the general populace. Founded in 1927, it was described by Stalin as vital to ‘keeping the entire population in a state of mobilized readiness against the danger of military attack, so that no “accident” and no tricks of our external enemies can catch us unawares.’ The Society sponsored clubs and organized contests throughout the U.S.S.R.; it soon had around 12 million members. (RC)

© Copyright  Robert Chandler, translation from Russian, introduction.
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