NYRB Classics has published a few books by Vasily Grossman, including Life and Fate, a book that was not published in Russia until the late 1980s, over twenty years after Grossman’s death. Life and Fate has been called his masterpiece and one of the greatest Russian novels of the twentieth century. I still haven’t read it. In fact, until I read An Armenian Sketchbook I had not read a word by Grossman. This book, at just over 100 pages, was a great place to start.
An Armenian Sketchbook was also published posthumously. The book’s introduction notes that it could have been published in Grossman’s lifetime but he refused to take out fifteen lines the censors demanded he cut. After a lifetime allowing his work to be mangled by the Soviet authorities, he wouldn’t be pushed around any more. His principled stand shows through in the pages of this little “sketchbook” he wrote during two months he spent in Armenia. He begins with his train ride into the country:
My first impressions of Armenia were from the train, early in the morning: greenish-grey rock — not in the form of a mountain or crags but in the form of scree, a flat deposit, a field of stone. A mountain had died, its skeleton had been scattered over the ground. Time had aged the mountain; time had killed the mountain — and here lay the mountains bones.
This passage beautifully introduces the vast history of this region, a sense of the antiquity as well as of decline. Supposedly Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, which can be found on the country’s coat of arms. Over the centuries, this country that sits between Eastern Europe and Western Asia has seen many tragedies, including the Armenian Genocide during World War I, an event that comes up often in this book. When speaking of the nation’s diversity, Grossman refers to the country’s history:
This diversity is the reflection of centuries, of millennia, of victors passing 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 wild passions of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet.
To me, that’s a remarkably sensitive passage, and I was honestly surprised at how often I was struck by Grossman’s sensitivity to humanity in general and to the humanity he witnessed in Armenia specifically. In some ways, this book reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (review here and podcast here). Each shows a thoughtful outsider examining the humanity and history of an unfamiliar region, writing with tenderness and spontaneity.
An Armenian Sketchbook, however, is more philosophical. As Grossman discusses the region, he ties his observations to his thoughts on such subjects as nationalism. That particular discussion begins when Grossman reflects on the Armenian national character:
But just as thousands of streams running through forests, mountain rocks and desert sands, just as thousands of silent, thoughtful, roaring, foaming, transparent and turbid streams can spring from the same underground source and contain the same salts — so all these human characters and fates are united by thousands of years of Armenian history, by the tragedy that befell the Armenians in Turkey, by the longing every Armenian feels for the lands of Kars and Van.
Again, I found this passage to be particularly insightful, especially as it led to some of the uglier and more unfortunate aspects of transforming national character into an attitude of nationalism, what he calls favoring the husk for the kernel.
I also found An Armenian Sketchbook to be more spontaneous than A Time of Gifts. Here Grossman seems constantly able to link whatever is going on around him with some deeper thought. Consequently, we even get discussions on his physical state (he didn’t know it at the time, but he was already suffering from the cancer that was going to kill him).
I particularly enjoyed a passage early in the book when he arrives in Yerevan, the city in which he’d spend one of the two months he spent in Armenia. Grossman talks about all of the things he sees, and we know that these things have been around forever and have been witnessed by millions of people. Yet, Grossman makes the case that he himself is the creator of this city: “This city that suddenly arises from non-being is a special city; it differs from the city that exists in reality — it is the city of a particular person.” Another beautiful image and a pleasing perspective on humanity, on our individual ability to perceive this world: “And when a man dies, there dies with him a unique, unrepeatable world that he has created — an entire universe with its own oceans and mountains, with its own sky.” Yes, this universe may be strikingly similar to thousands of others, but it “lives in the soul of the man who has created it.”
Lord and creator, I wander through the streets of Yerevan; I build Yerevan in my soul.
And in this way, throughout the book Grossman moves from the universal to the individual and back again. It’s pleasant, thought-provoking, and even a bit reverent, and I’m anxious to get to know Grossman’s masterpieces.