An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman
A trip to Armenia proved to be the creative answer for a writer censored by the KGB, broke, and dying of cancer
An Armenian Sketchbook
In October 1960 the visionary Russian witness and writer Vasily Grossman submitted the manuscript of what would become his monumental work, Life and Fate, to a Soviet literary journal. He was optimistic that it would be published, as his country was at the high point of Nikita Khrushchev’s more enlightened leadership. Grossman’s central thesis, however, was the similarities between Stalinism and Nazism. The authorities acted swiftly. Within months not only had the Soviet secret police, the KGB, confiscated the manuscript but officers had also arrived at Grossman’s Moscow apartment and taken away the typescript and all the notes relating to it, “even carbon paper and typing ribbons”. Unlike the public ordeal it had inflicted on Boris Pasternak, officialdom this time limited itself to taking only the offending book.
Grossman was left unharmed, yet he was devastated by the plight of his book. Later that year he was approached about an Armenian novel of life in the copper mines, which had been poorly translated. He agreed to undertake a more literary translation. He needed the money, but he was also attracted by the idea of a two-month stay in Armenia – and it seemed an ideal plan. Earlier Russian writers, including Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and Mandelstam, had all travelled south to the Caucasus and loved the experience, as, later, would Andrei Bitov. In addition, Grossman, already ill with the cancer that would kill him in 1964, aged 59, was eager for some breathing space from his failing marriage.
His trip provided him with wonderful material for An Armenian Sketchbook, an intimate and relaxed account of his travels to a remote country of stone. “We are not far from Turkey,” he writes, “we are not far from Persia.”
Grossman is alert to the history, extending back as far as Noah’s Ark: “I see Mount Ararat – it stands high in the blue sky. With its gentle, tender contours it seems to grow not out of the earth but out of the sky.” But he dwells more on time and human life than the politics. “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces. Throughout centuries and millennia victors have spent the night in the homes of those they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet.”
Grossman proves an entertainingly philosophical, kindly companion; he is a romantic, but he is also humorous. He surveys the capital. “And so I go on building my own Yerevan. I absorb and inhale faces, accents, the frenzied roar of cars being driven at speed by frenzied drivers. I see a lot of people with big noses . . .” (There are many asides about noses, “huge, sharp, hooked noses”.)