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

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:06


Book Title:
An Armenian Sketchbook


Vasily Grossman

MacLehose Press

Guideline Price:

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”.)

He is aware that he speaks only two words of Armenian and that no one was there to meet him when he arrived. But Grossman never complains; he sees everything, the poverty, the chaos, the daily life, even the towering statue of Stalin, “a great and terrible ruler”, as part of a vivid, moving picture show. At a post office Grossman attempts to send a few airmail letters, but fails, as there are no envelopes: “It took some time to establish this, since the black-eyed young women . . . did not speak any Russian. This led to everyone shouting, laughing and waving their arms about.” This is travel writing at its most entertaining and informed; he has not taken his ego with him, only his all-seeing curiosity.

Grossman is also sympathetic without being sentimental. His humanity never burdens the text, which is handled with an inspired lightness of touch. He watches his companions and fleshes out their individual histories with the ease of a good listener. An observation about a mule and a ewe gradually acquires an unnerving profundity. Grossman briefly adopts the third person, and becomes the Russian translator. Writing of himself at this remove, he notes: “He had noticed that people and dogs, for some reason, walked in the road, while the pavements were used mainly by sheep, calves, cows and horses.”

Initially friendly, the mule becomes aggressive towards the Russian translator, who quickly realises that the mule is defending the ewe, which is pressed up against the mule “asking for help and protection”. Grossman detects that the sheep is aware “that the human hand stretched out towards her was a bearer of death”. He considers the ewe’s eyes, “rather like glass grapes”. He then develops this apparently random observation in one of the most remarkable passages in a singular work:

“There was something human about her – something Jewish, Armenian, mysterious, indifferent, unintelligent. Shepherds have been looking at sheep for thousands of years. And so shepherds and sheep have become similar. A sheep’s eyes look at a human being in a particular way: they are glassy and alienated. The eyes of a horse, a cat or a dog look at people quite differently.

“The inhabitants of a Jewish ghetto would probably have looked at their Gestapo jailers with the same alienated disgust if the ghetto had existed for millennia, if day after day for five thousand years the Gestapo had been taking old women and children away to be destroyed in gas chambers.”

Grossman makes his point yet avoids turning his book into a polemic.

A visit to a village fills him with joy, as he joins in the fun even though he doesn’t understand a word. Aside from all the stone, his first and lasting impression of Armenia is of a mountain that had died – “its skeleton had been scattered over the ground.” And what he took away with him “was a memory of stone”.

Grossman responds to the bustle of life. He also loves the stone churches and chapels, many of which are in ruins. Among the monasteries is the famous Geghard monastery, which appears to have been gouged out of the mountainside. “This miracle born within stone is the fruit of thirty years labour.” For him, the ancient churches and chapels of Armenia “embody perfection.”

In the course of a conversation with the Catholicos of All Armenians, Grossman admits: “I probably laughed rather too loudly, and smiled too exuberantly. There was no reason for me to seem so overjoyed.” His remarks to the Catholicos are translated by the writer whose novel he is fashioning into a more literary work. The religious leader, no doubt correctly, sees Grossman as an unbeliever, so they discuss literature. Having intently studied Dostoyevsky, the patriarch confides to Grossman “that without knowing Dostoyevsky it is impossible to gain a serious and profound knowledge of the human soul”. The writer that he most loved, though, was Tolstoy.

Elsewhere, Grossman recalls that Goethe once said that during 80 years of life he had known 11 happy days. He ponders this and reckons that among the many hundreds of sunrises and sunsets and many beautiful scenes “only two or three enter a person’s soul with a miraculous power and become for them what those happy days were for Goethe”.

Through majestic works such as Life and Fate, Everything Flows and The Road: Stories, Journalism and Essays, Vasily Grossman, born in Ukraine in 1905, established himself as a seer. His warm, seductive and personal account of his Armenian trip was first published in 1965, eight months after his death, in a censored version. This new revised and well-annotated edition is not only a delight; it is also a subtle, powerful testament about what it means to be fully human and aware of all that means. It is great travel writing but, far more than that, simply an extraordinary reading experience that brings a place and its people gloriously alive.

Best of all, Vasily Grossman has not only written this book but is living it in the company of the reader.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.