An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

By the early 1960s, Vasily Grossman was in an odd position with the authorities of the Soviet Union. He had been a recognized writer starting in the 1930s, and as a war correspondent he was both beloved by regular troops and honored by the state. His novels were serialized in major newspapers, and his time in the hard-fought streets of Stalingrad made him a legitimate hero. Though he survived the anti-semitic campaign of Stalin’s final months, his relations with the state — and thus practically every part of his life — were strained by the censors’ cancellation of a book documenting the crimes of the Holocaust. Relations broke almost entirely when Grossman submitted the manuscript of Life and Fate. The KGB raided Grossman’s apartment and seized everything relating to the book that they could find, up to and including the typewriter ribbons used in composing the book. He was a major writer whose greatest work was both recognized as such by the country’s publishers and deemed utterly unpublishable. (Decisions about the book went as high as the Politburo’s chief ideologist, who is reported to have told Grossman that the book was so dangerously anti-Soviet that it could not be published for at least 200 years.) What was to be done?

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

The solution that they arrived at was to give Grossman an opportunity to go to Armenia, one of the Soviet Union’s more out-of-the-way provinces in the South Caucasus, and work on a translation of a local author’s historical epic. Grossman did not speak any Armenian, but there was a literal translation that he was to polish and refine into more literary Russian. An Armenian Sketchbook is Grossman’s first-hand account of his experiences there. It is also his last book; he wrote it in 1962, and died of cancer in 1964. An Armenian Sketchbook was published in the Soviet Union in 1967, with some cuts ordered by the censor, under the title of “Good to You!” a direct translation of the customary Armenian greeting.

The Sketchbook is both a portrait of Armenia, as experienced by an honored guest, and a bit of an autobiography. Grossman is direct about himself in a way that he is not in his other works, and that alone is interesting. He’s just as observant as he is about other people, and he is open, if indirect, about his declining health. He describes the embarrassment of being new in a city, not speaking the language, and needing to find a public rest room. Failing in that task, he decides to take a tram to the end of the line and hope for a discreet bit of forest. This is the Soviet Union, of course, so he is also concerned about the tram driver who will surely note an out-of-towner riding to an unexpected place for purposes unknown. Will the driver report him?

In due course, Grossman settles in to a village to work on his translation, and he gradually overcomes the language barrier to get to know the people there. Their stories illustrate the Armenians’ recent history, while retaining their individuality. There is the local madman, “seventy-five-year-old Andreas. People say he lost his mind during the genocide — members of his own family were murdered before his eyes. People say that, when he was yonug, Andreas served in the Tsarist army, under the command of Andranik Pasha — the Armenian partisan leader and officer in the Russian army, worshipped by the Armenian peasantry, who died not long ago in the U.S.A.” (Ch. 2) He also engages with prevailing Soviet prejudices about Armenians, to dispel cliches about the typical Armenian “as huckster, voluptuary and bribe-taker.” (Ch. 4) By contrast:

In Yerevan, and in towns and villages in the mountains and on the plains, I met people of all kinds. I met scientists, doctors, engineers, builders, artists, journalists, party activists and old revolutionaries. I saw the foundation, the taproot of a nation that is thousands of years old. I saw ploughmen, vintners and shepherds; I saw masons; I saw murderers, fashionable young “mods”, sportsmen, earnest leftists and cunning opportunists; I saw helpless fools, army colonels and Lake Sevan fishermen.
And all of these people were individuals — overbearing, direct, sly, shy, angry, gentle, practical … I saw old villagers clicking their amber worry beads between brown fingers — nearly a century of hard labour amid basalt stone had not hardened or coarsened these men; there was a gentle smile on their faces, and their eyes shone with intelligence.

Grossman had more than half expected to be introduced to literary Yerevan. After all, he was a well-known writer, in the city at the behest of the official bureaus of translators and publishers. He finds, instead, that literary Yerevan is not interested in him or Moscow, that it is quite involved with itself. He asks a few people he does meet whether they recalled Osip Mandelstam’s visit some time back, which had produced memorable verses that showed the strong impression Armenia had made on him. Nobody really recalled; the effect had not been mutual. In the end, Grossman makes due with the respect of the floor monitor from the time he spends in Yerevan: “a man who worked from morning till night, who never staggered drunkenly down the corridor, who didn’t sing in a hoarse voice at two o’clock in the morning, accompanying himself on a squeezebox, and who didn’t bring young women back to his room.” (Ch. 6)

The book is filled with small encounters that add up to an impression of the country as old, hard-won, and not especially Sovietized. Grossman is enchanted by a family of Molokans — religious dissidents from Russian Orthodoxy — that strikes him as a perfect bit of Russia preserved for more than 100 years in Armenia. He takes part in a semi-official outing to Lake Sevan to taste the fabled trout at the source. He notes how Soviet water policy has stressed the lake, but most of the anecdote is about the drive to and from, and the interactions among the members of the party. There is joy and some loopiness at a village wedding; there is the tragic story of a family whose sons were prone to drinking and fighting.

I enjoyed An Armenian Sketchbook because I like Grossman’s writing in general. This was an excursion to a different place than the war and history that he usually writes about, and I was happy to come along. I don’t think it would be a good place to start reading his work; I would begin with either A Writer at War or The Road.

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