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
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.