An Armenian Sketchbook (Vasily Grossman)

A writer’s reflections on the meaning of life

An Armenian Sketchbook, 2013, by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. Published by MacLehose Press.

In early November 1961, a few months after his epic Life and Fate was confiscated by the KGB, Vasily Grossman took a train from Kursky station in Moscow to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. His journey to this tiny Soviet Republic was work, not pleasure, having accepted a request to rewrite a Russian translation of a novel by the Armenian author Hrachya Kochar, The Children of the Large House. Two months later and back in Moscow, Grossman’s reflections on his trip were written up in An Armenian Sketchbook, a work that, though modest in size, possesses all the features of his best writing: a tender perceptiveness of other people’s lives, an ability to draw out their disappointments and desires, a sympathy with the suffering of animals, a panorama that is both sweeping yet minute, a deep appreciation for natural beauty, and a restless inquisitiveness in pursuit of essential truths. It is work shot through with irony, but free of cynicism, and his musings on human nature are never solipsistic or detached from reality. It is by far the rawest account of Grossman the Man committed to paper, written towards the end of a turbulent life.

It is also funny in the best sense, as if listening to the candid revelations of an amusing friend, where Grossman the urbane writer recedes and is replaced by a fully rounded individual. Two episodes in the book concern the desperate urge of needing to find a lavatory, the first a frantic search for a urinal having arrived in Yerevan (upon relieving himself, Grossman felt ‘a quiet happiness that is equally accessible to a sheep, a bull, a human being or a macaque. Need I have gone all the way to Mount Ararat to experience it?’) followed by a heart-stopping quest for a WC whilst travelling as part of a raucous wedding convoy. Grossman doesn’t descend into crudity, however, and what makes the book so rich is its juxtaposition of quotidian needs with flashes of profound but simple insight into the nature of life. In An Armenian Sketchbook, we’re offered the full image of the man (and man generally) and we discover, beneath the indignities of earthly imperatives and a troubled mind, an individual with a large heart.

Part of the reason for Grossman’s frankness, according to Robert Chandler – who, in collaboration with his wife Elizabeth, provided this lucid translation – was the spectre of his looming mortality. After returning from Armenia, Grossman received a fatal diagnosis of stomach cancer which would claim his life two years later. The direct, unflinching observations captured in An Armenian Sketchbook indicate that perhaps ‘on some level, Grossman sensed he did not have long to live’.[1] Grossman’s honesty can also be attributed to the recent ‘arrest’ of Life and Fate. Knowing that his greatest work was confined to a locked filing cabinet, shunned and unread, destroyed the last vestiges of any rectitude he may have felt about holding his tongue. This sensation was compounded by the Soviet authorities’ decision not to have Grossman thrown in jail and made a martyr to free speech (having learnt from the embarrassment of having the Nobel Prize conferred on Boris Pasternak). In denying him the honourific designation of ‘dissident’, the authorities left Grossman in a tortuous purgatory: free to work, write and travel, but silenced from saying that which he felt he urgently needed to express.

In Sketchbook, Grossman gives full voice to his expression, raising questions on identity with which he had wrestled his whole life. But the work is not a political screed. It is instead the thoughts of a isolated man, far from home, taking stock of his memories. Without flippancy, Grossman dismantles the façade of the cultivated traveller, the literary man on tour. He is at times bored, tired and lonely, often only reluctantly taking up the call to adventure. He ushers in the first day of 1962 alone in his hotel room (‘I would have been glad to receive a phone call even from a dog’). On a visit to the gorgeous Lake Sevan, all he can think about is the lake’s renowned trout dished up in the local restaurant. The lake ‘didn’t enter my soul. What is pure and divine in me did not get the upper hand. As if I were a base animal, with no wings of imagination, all I could think about was Sevan trout’. At times, bitterness creeps in. Hurt at the lack of interest shown in him among Yerevan’s literati, Grossman is sulky and sarcastic: ‘It was some consolation to discover what kind of visitors Armenian writers did see as important: certain Moscow officials and a lady from the Literary Fund whose role was to authorise holidays’.

The unexpected consequence of this indifferent welcome was that Grossman was free to spend his time collecting his thoughts, meeting ordinary Armenians and listening to their stories. What makes An Armenian Sketchbook more than a mere travelogue is the clarity with which Grossman sees the lives of the strangers around him, and his ability to distill the contradictory characteristics that define an individual. Nervous at an impending meeting with the Armenian Church’s Catholicos, Grossman quickly susses that the Holy Man is as worldly as anybody else, his simple robe ‘evidently a testimony not to his asceticism, but to his sophistication’. Grossman meets Arutyun, a night watchman with eyes ‘full of vast, still yearning’ and learns of his chaotic sons, either imprisoned, dead, mentally unwell or fled abroad. These brief but vivid sketches are the foundation stones upon which Grossman can begin to develop the broader ideas simmering in his mind.

Entwined with episodes from his daily encounters in Yerevan are translucent digressions on existence, including a brief mediation on suicide that must rank among the most clear-sighted in world literature. But to claim these asides as representative of the work overall would be to mischaracterise the book. Grossman is too interested in that which he is seeing, albeit in the slightly detached and aloof manner of the intellectual, to dwell on morbidity, and amid the melancholy, he finds beauty in the stone-strewn landscape and animal life (including a ewe with eyes of ‘meek and proud contempt’). The overall impression is that Grossman is breathing in the country, absorbing as if by osmosis the endless rubble which ‘expresses the soul of Armenia’. But Grossman is always pulled inexorably back to the larger themes. Rather than him pursuing them, however, it’s as if they won’t leave him alone, tugging at the back of his shirt and plaguing his every step. Hovering above them all is a theme with which Grossman is understandably preoccupied: time.

Nowhere else in Armenia, perhaps, have I seen such a stony desolation, impossible to escape from, as in the high valleys of Mount Aragats. I have no idea how to convey this improbable feeling. In three dimensions – height, width and depth – stone, nothing but stone. No, there were more than three dimensions of stone; these stones were also an expression of the world’s fourth coordinate – time. The migrations of peoples, paganism, the ideas of Marx and Lenin, the wrath of the Soviet state had all found expression in this stone, in the basalt walls of churches, in gravestones, in elegantly built new clubs, in schools and palaces of culture, in quarries and mines, in the stone walls labour camps.

This unity of disparate concepts and ideas is what elevates the book from reportage or memoir. Grossman closes An Armenian Sketchbook with the speeches given by Armenian peasants at a wedding reception. In an electric few pages, the mass of impressions and themes Grossman has witnessed and mulled over on his Armenian journey combine to produce a current of magnificent clarity – the bonds of suffering that link Jews and Armenians, the visceral antisemitism he had encountered in Soviet Russia, the nobility of hard work, the moral grandeur in acts of ordinary, everyday kindness and – despite the recurrent nature of evil – the stubborn persistence of life to continue amid the ravishes of war, annihilation and the march of time. These concluding passages feel like Grossman’s valediction, a last look back at all he has endured and a weighing up of that which is malevolent and that which is good before his permanent departure. Grossman’s deft touch means it never feels like a lecture or a straining for effect.

But why did Grossman, famous for his reportage from Stalingrad and a well-known novelist, accept the offer to edit the translation to Kochar’s novel and travel to Armenia? Yuri Bit-Yunan, in a postscript, examines the reasons previously attributed (money, marital problems) and decides it may have been a combination of these as well as an opportunity to escape from the suffocation of Moscow. Bit-Yunan also lends weight to the suggestion that the trip was an idea dreamed up from within the Soviet Central Committee as a way of compensating Grossman financially (he was well-paid for the rewrite) for the seizure of Life and Fate, and as a means of keeping him occupied and contented. If this is true, it was a rather flimsy way of deflecting the author’s attention from his banned book. On his return home, Grossman wrote to Khrushchev requesting the release of Life and Fate. With impeccable bureaucratic charm, his request was denied. And An Armenian Sketchbook, like Life and Fate, would go on to be tampered with, including a whole chapter on Stalin cut upon publication in 1965, a year after Grossman’s death.

An Armenian Sketchbook is a book about the search for meaning in a universe indifferent to suffering. It is also an account of a man’s thoughts at the twilight of his life, thoughts at once noble and mundane, both lamenting the difficulty of existence whilst giving thanks to the sheer miracle that it should happen at all. Grossman’s talent as a writer, and his measure as a man, is in extracting and then exulting in the qualities that can sustain humankind on the way. Discussing with the Catholicos the Armenian churches he had seen, Grossman recalls how he told him that ‘I wanted books to be like these churches, simply made but expressive, and that I would like God to be living in each book, as in a church’. Grossman was without religious faith, but the godliness of which he speaks is to be found within the pages of his own oeuvre. It is a quiet voice but persistent, always affirming that ‘true goodness exists where there is the heart of a good man’.


[1] Robert Chandler in the Introduction to An Armenian Sketchbook (p.9), published in 2013 by MacLehose Press.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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