“An Armeninan Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, published by Maclehose Press, London

The novel Life and Fate was “arrested” – as Grossman used to put it – in February, 1961. Three KGB officers had entered Grossman’s flat, and had taken away not merely the manuscripts, but even the typewriter ribbons. The idea was that Grossman’s masterpiece must never be read by anyone: even its existence was not to be known. Like so many countless human beings, the book was disappeared.

034Later that year, Grossman found himself in Armenia, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious. He had received a commission from the Soviet authorities to translate from Armenian a novel by Hrachya Kochar, and had been requested to travel to Armenia to familiarise himself with the country, and to meet with the author. It is a bit mysterious why Grossman should have received such a commission: a perfectly competent translation of a shorter version of the novel already existed; and, on top of that, Grossman did not even know Armenian: his task was to put into shape an existing literal translation of the full novel – hardly a job requiring the talents of a writer of his reputation. Perhaps, as has been suggested, it was the authorities’ way of recompensing him for the loss of Life and Fate. Grossman himself seemed happy to go: he was no doubt glad to get away for a while.

The projected Russian translation of Kochar’s novel did not materialise. What did materialise was a memoir of his visit to Armenia, entitled Dobro Vam, which means, literally translated, “Good to You”. In this, the first English version of the work, translators Robert and Elizabeth Chandler have gone with the title An Armenian Sketchbook.

Robert Chandler says in the introduction:

Just as Everything Flows, which he began in the mid-1950s but continued to expand and revise during his last years, is Grossman’s political statement, so An Armenian Sketchbook is his personal statement, a discussion of the values he holds dearest – in art and in life. It is possible that, at some level, Grossman sensed he did not have long to live.

It is an informal and loosely structured work, giving the impression that the author is conversing with the reader about whatever comes to mind – the landscape of Armenia, the history and culture, the churches, the art. Possibly, as Robert Chandler suggests, Grossman did sense that he didn’t have long to live: amongst other things, he describes the physical discomforts which, in retrospect, we may see as the first signs of the onset of the bowel cancer that was to claim him two years later. In the final section of the memoir, he describes the pain that had suddenly seized him on the way to a wedding:

I have experienced horror and terror more than once in my life, not to mention fear and confusion. I took part in the war. I crossed the Volga under German fire, several times. I have experienced both massive bombing raids and barrages of mortar and artillery fire.

And yet, even though both during the war and at other times I have experienced my fill of fear, I have never – strange as this may seem – felt such utter horror as on that wedding coach.

One may expect a work written in such times to be angry and bitter. Heaven knows, Grossman had every right to be both. This is a man who has lived through the worst years of Stalinist terror, who had been present at and had witnessed some of the most horrendous carnage at Stalingrad, who had reported from Treblinka immediately after liberation, and had seen at first hand the grisly details of that unspeakable hell-hole; this was a man whose own beloved mother had been murdered in one of the many Nazi atrocities, and buried in some anonymous mass grave; a man who had lived through anti-Semitic pogroms in his own land; a man whose great masterpiece, to which he had devoted ten years of his life, had been torn away from him, and which he believed would never be read by anyone. And now, he was facing a disease which would soon kill him. Who had greater right to be angry and bitter? Yet, the wonder of this book is that Grossman is neither. He retains an unfeigned and unaffected love of people, and a determination to see them in the best possible light; he retains an optimism and a belief in human worth that may well have appeared hopelessly naïve and sentimental had it come from anyone other than him.

Not that he was blind to the darkness in our lives. Given all he had lived through, how could he be? But that’s not Grossman’s subject. For instance, of the many people he describes, there’s a cleaner, Astra, whom Grossman describe as “a beauty”. Her husband is in prison, serving a sentence for murder. Astra hadn’t wanted to marry him, but:

…but Aramais [Astra’s husband] was infatuated; he wept, threw himself drunkenly at her feet, and vowed to kill both her and himself. Astra, her mother and everyone in the village knew this was no empty threat. And so now she goes about in ragged clothes and worn-out boots, saving every copeck so that she can take a little more food to her husband.

Her in-laws, whom she lives with, are described objectively: they are a nasty and violent lot. The misery that is Astra’s life Grossman does not delve into: he does not need to – the few details he gives us are more than enough for us to piece together the story. But the point of the portrait is not to present her as a mere object of pity, but as someone of immense nobility of character. Anyone could take pity on someone like Astra; but Grossman loves the person that she is. He is well aware of the evil to which she is subjected, and he depicts it unblinkingly; but his focus is the beauty of her moral stature.

It is this insistence on the essential goodness and nobility of humans that shines through the pages. Everything Flows, which he must have been working on at the same time as this book, is a work of barely contained fury: how else can one react, after all, to mass transportations, to man-made famines, to mass terror, to slaughter on an unintelligible scale? But this is Grossman’s personal rather than his political testament. If Everything Flows expresses his fury at the violation of humanity, An Armenian Sketchbook honours that which has been violated. The two works are complementary.

For the Armenian people too had been violated. Of the many pictures Grossman paints are those of people who had lived through and had been traumatised by the genocide that had been visited upon them.

The final section of the book describes an Armenian wedding, in the shadow of the Biblical Mount Ararat. The local customs Grossman finds alien, and some even repulsive; and, as Grossman could keenly sense, the bride’s future did not seem to promise much happiness. But then, Grossman notices the bride and her young brother:

Through their tear-stained eyes they smiled at each other, a smile of love. My heart filled with joy, warmth and sorrow.

Later come the speeches. In Armenian, of course, so Grossman, the translator, can’t understand. But one of these speeches was about him, Grossman, the special guest at this wedding. Hrachya Kochar, the author whose book Grossman was to translate, translates for the translator:

The carpenter was talking about the Jews, saying that when he had been taken prisoner during the War he had seen all the Jews taken away somewhere separate. All his Jewish comrades had been killed. He spoke of the compassion and the love he had felt for the Jewish women and children who had perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He said how he had read articles of mine about the war, with portrayals of Armenians, and had thought how this man writing about Armenians was from a nation that had also suffered a great deal. He hoped that it would not be long before a son of the much-suffering Armenian nation wrote about the Jews. To this he now raised his glass.

Like so much else in this book, this might have seemed naïve and sentimental had we not known who the author of this book is, and all to which he had borne witness in the course of his life. That someone who could know so well the very worst that humans can do and be, but who could yet find it in himself to celebrate all that is fine and noble, is humbling. “Probably I have said much that is clumsy and wrong,” he says at the very end of this book, “but all I have said, clumsy or not, I have said with love.”

***

Vasily Grossman is an important writer – not merely because he has borne witness to certain things which should not be forgotten, but also because he was a great writer. And he was also, I think, a great man. We owe Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and to the various colleagues of theirs who have worked with them on other translations, an immense debt of gratitude for making accessible to the Anglophone reader these remarkable works.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I think that Life and Fate is a magnificent book and gives a strong picture of Grossman the man as well as Grossman the writer. Only a real mensch (spell?) could observe as he observed. He is also very present in Everything Flows and in his war writings.

    Reply

    • Hello Nancy,
      Indeed: one of the reasons we read (not the only reason, admittedly) is the companionship of the author, and, while Grossman never imposes himself upon the reader, his personality does come through strongly in his writings, and he is indeed fine company. It is hard not to respect the man as well as the writer: the danger in writing about him, though, is that one may inadvertently give the impression that he was merely “worthy”.

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

  2. …and an immense debt of gratitude to you too, Himadri, for continuing to write so sensitively and beautifully about Grossman, and for continuing to make the case so convincingly that he is an important, even essential writer. I have not yet read this – I will, no doubt – but you manage to capture so well the Grossman I know from Life and Fate and the essays I’ve read from The Road: a witness, unsentimental and yet beyond merely unsentimental – someone able to push aside the bushels under which so many human beings were hiding – or had been hidden – and reveal them in their utmost humanity.

    Reply

    • Thank you very much, Scott, for your kind words.

      “Sentimentality” is a curious term, isn’t it? I never did quite get to the bottom of what the term really means. There are certain things where I find the emotions forced, and hence, false, but there seem to be no objective criteria to determine when this is the case. On the other hand, there is much that I find emotionally affecting, but which is often derided and dismissed by the undefined term “sentimental”.

      Of course, I agree with you about Grossman: he had a way of getting straight to the heart of things with a disarming directness.

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Why, I’m just flabbergasted! Seldom do you graces us with words about 20th century fiction 🙂

    Very interesting the circumstances which precipitated the writing of this book. Reportage from within the Soviet Union, full of compassion for its victims, this almost sounds like Curzio Malaparte ambling about Nazi-occupied territories in Kaputt.

    What do you think is better? Grossman’s non-fiction? Or his fiction? Should I start with Love and Fate first?

    Reply

    • Hello Miguel, “the Road” is a fine collection of short stories, essays, and journalism (including his report on Treblinka) – but I’d frankly just dive headfirst into Life and Fate!

      I didn’t, I’m ashamed to say, know about Curzio Malaparte’s “Kaputt”. I’ve looked it up now: thanks for the tip.

      As for modern fiction … Well, one can’t read everything especially when one is as slow a reader as myself!) so one might as well stick to the eras one likes best! Butyes, I know, I really should get out of my Luddite ways.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  4. I really enjoyed reading your review of this book. My first visit here and the title of your post is what stopped me as my father was Armenian. I’ll try to find this book. I had just read a review on another book, but written by a Turkish writer, Taner Ackam, which is unusual since he is a Turk, it is called The Young Turks’ Crime against humanity, and that book looks interesting too as it is based on new findings. Right now I am reading 1920 books of memoirs from an American-Russian author concerning before and after the revolution – she was an American who became a Russian princess by marriage. I’ll come back to your blog.

    Reply

    • I approached this book because of my interest in Grossman: I’m afraid I am very ignorant about Armenian culture. The work is engrossing, and, given especially your Armenian connection, I can certainly recommend it warmly.

      Reply

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