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An Armenian sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

An Armenian sketchbook

by Vasily Grossman

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1605116,911 (3.97)46
Few writers had to confront so many of the last century's mass tragedies as Vasily Grossman. He is likely to be remembered, above all, for the terrifying clarity with which he writes about the Shoah, the Battle of Stalingrad and the Terror Famine in the Ukraine. 'An Armenian Sketchbook', however, shows us a very different Grossman; it is notable for its warmth, its sense of fun and for the benign humility that is always to be found in his writing. After the 'arrest' - as Grossman always put it - of Life and Fate, Grossman took on the task of editing a literal Russian translation of a lengthy Armenian novel. The novel was of little interest to him, but he was glad of an excuse to travel to Armenia. This is his account of the two months he spent there. .… (more)



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Showing 4 of 4
a strange, slightly absurd, but also beautiful account of the writer's stint in the country as a translator tasked with interviewing another writer, the "father of Armenian literature" and translating his work. It's a little absurd because Grossman doesn't speak Armenian, and suspects he has been sent there because he was about to fall afoul with the current regime. Stalin's legacy is being torn down more quickly than even his statues are being knocked over in the public squares, and everything is in upheaval. But Grossman's description of the country and the people are beautiful. I conceived of a great desire to see Lake Sevan, and basically badgered my mom into reading the book.
  southernbooklady | May 5, 2017 |
There is so much humanity in this simple little book. Maybe it comes from Grossman having seen and been one of the first write about the concentration camps, or his frustrations with Soviet censors, who had just taken away his draft of ‘Life and Fate’, which he thought was lost forever. With great suffering often comes great compassion, and wisdom. Maybe it comes from Grossman sensing his own mortality, as he would die from stomach cancer just a couple of years after his visit to Armenia. Maybe it comes from the kindred spirits he saw in the Armenians (and they in him) as a Jew – Armenia, a country that saw countless invaders over the centuries and a genocide at the hands of the Ottomans as recently as 1915, and yet retaining their cultural identity.

It seems Grossman travelled down there, frustrated by the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union, the censorship of course, and on top of that, the work he was doing with a translator to get a mediocre Armenian writer’s book translated into Russian. As he reflected on (dare I say it) life and fate, he was touched by the simple people he saw, and those who lived the Christian Credo and the golden rule. He didn’t idealize them – he saw plenty of less than perfect behavior and honestly commented on it – but he accepted it all as part of being human, and extended these sketches of Armenians and his travel within Armenia to something more global, and universal – and therein lies his greatness.

Chapter 4 is brilliant – a masterpiece which starts off by pointing out the wrongness of typical Russian’s views of Armenians, as they were the butt of many jokes, but then quickly expands to discuss the need for freedom, because allowing Russians to expose themselves to diversity would lead to the understanding that “all men are brothers”. Grossman’s words against nationalism and against reactionaries are so vibrant today as America and the world turns towards conservative, xenophobic populists. But despite this and his thoughts on many other subjects, such as religion, God, art, suicide, and the cosmos, this is not a heavy book in the slightest – as he celebrates Armenia and humanity, so (for example) he also includes his own very human (and hilarious) troubles when he desperately needs to find a toilet.

My only quibble with this learned edition, which includes helpful notes and some photographs of Grossman in Armenia, is the translation of the title to ‘An Armenian Sketchbook’. While that title is apt, it wasn’t Grossman’s, and it goes against my grain to see the original meaning changed in translation. Moreover, while these are indeed sketches and snippets of Armenian life, Grossman’s original title ‘Dobro vam’, itself a literal translation of the Armenian ‘Barev dzez’, carries with it so much more of the warmth and goodwill towards men that is his central theme.

And as he ends his book “Barev dzez – All good to you, Armenians and non-Armenians!”, I say barev dzez to you as well, Vasily Grossman, barev dzez, wherever you are.

On freedom, and diversity:
“When people are free, communication between different nations is fruitful and beneficial. … And the beggarliness, blindness, and inhumanity of narrow nationalism and hostility between states would be clearly demonstrated.
It is time we recognized that all men are brothers.
Reactionaries seek to excise and destroy the deepest and most essentially human aspects of a nation’s character; they promulgate its most inhuman and superficial aspects.”

And this one, please read this Donald Trump:
“Any struggle for national dignity and national freedom is first of all a struggle for human dignity and human freedom. Those who fight for true national freedom are fighting against mandatory typecasting, against a blind obsession with national character – whether characterized as positive or negative. The true champion of a nation’s freedom are those who reject the limitation of stereotypes and affirm the rich diversity of human nature to be found within this nation.”

And lastly…so powerful…
“What matters is the need to move from the rigidity of national stereotypes towards something more truly human; what matters is to discover the riches of human hearts and souls; what matters is the human content of poetry and science, the universal charm and beauty of architecture; what matters is human courage and nobility; what matters is the magnanimity of a nation’s leaders and historical figures. Only by exalting what is truly human, only by fusing the national with what is universally human, can true dignity – and true freedom – be achieved.”

On brotherhood, and the bond between writers and readers:
“True brotherhood and true lasting ties between people and nations are born not in offices, not in governors’ palaces, but in peasant huts, during journeys into exile, in camps and soldiers’ barracks. These are the links that last. It is the words written beneath dim oil lamps, the words read by people lying on bed boards in prison cells or sitting in peasant huts and smoky little rooms, that create the binding ties of unity, love, and mutual national respect.”

On suicide:
“Sometimes suicide is the logical act of someone with a great mind. While the stupid and the shortsighted crawl about in the mire and hope of optimism, he or she can see that in front of them is only a bog, a wall, or a precipice.
Sometimes suicide is a manifestation of blindness, of psychological limitation: all that can be seen is a wall. Someone falls into despair and is too shortsighted to see that there is a path, and a door, right beside them.”

On inner turmoil:
“The young Lermontov was mistaken when he wrote: ‘Then the anguish of my soul is stilled…’ The anguish of the human soul is terrible and unquenchable. It is impossible to calm it or escape from it. Quiet country sunsets, the lapping of the eternal sea, and the sweet town of Dilijian are all equally powerless before it. As for Lermontov, he was unable to still the anguish of his soul even at the foot of Mount Mashuk. No outward tranquility can save you from grinding anguish; no mountain air can cool you when flaming pitch burns your insides; not bloody and gaping wound can be healed by life in the wonderful town of Dilijian.”

On the feeling of dying; I loved the imagery:
“So I lay in a sweat, a passenger caught without a ticket, thrown out from a moving train with all my heavy suitcases. So I lay, watching as tens of thousands of suddenly useless, stupid thoughts, feelings, and memories slipped out from my tightly packed cases and baskets and flew off into the eternal darkness of winter.”

On writing:
“He asked me about my own impressions of Armenia. I said something about the beauty of the country’s ancient churches. I said I wanted books to be like these churches, simply made yet expressive, and that I would like God to be living in each book, as in a church.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Jan 23, 2017 |
I became an admirer of Vasily Grossman when I read his magnificent and tragic Life and Fate, and continued on with his other works of fiction and reportage, all in NYRB editions. (I also have, but have not yet read, his A Writer at War.) Grossman not only lived through some of the worst horrors of the 20th century, but also, as a reporter attached to the Red Army, saw many of them first-hand, including being one of the first to enter Trebiinka. His writing shines with diamond-sharp clarity, and with a pervasive humanity.

Thus I was happy to read this much more personal account of two months Grossman spent, at the beginning of the 1960s and towards the end of his life, in Armenia. Although Stalin had died, the KGB had recently confiscated his manuscript of Life and Fate and, perhaps as something of a consolation prize, he was given the task of editing a literal translation of an Armenian book. So he went to Armenia, and in this brief volume he tells some of his impressions of Armenia and some of what he did there, and meditates on the meaning of nations, villages, Russian stoves,and -- above all -- what is good. The original title of this book was a Russian translation of an Armenian greeting: Barev dzez, or "Good to you."

I found much of this book very moving. Grossman is not afraid to share his personal thoughts and feelings, while the journalist in him observes the rocky environment of Armenia, the haunted look of the sheep (who become, in a way, stand-ins for the millions killed by Stalin and Hitler), differences in how people express their religious feelings, a wedding in a remote mountain village, and much more. Through what is at first glance a travelogue, Grossman comments on some of the foremost questions of the 20th century and indeed of all time, including the impact of history, the continuity of humanity, and how we treat our fellow human beings. I feel the best way I can illustrate his approach is by quoting several of the many many many passages I marked in this book.

"One thing astonishes me. An old man or woman has only to raise their hand and a bus driver will stop for them; people here are kind an compassionate. Pretty young women walk along the pavement, clicking their thin high heels; dandies in hats lead sheep they have bought for the impending holiday; the sheep click their little hooves on the pavement, and the young women click their fashionable little heels; amid the fine buildings and the neon lights, the sheep smell their death" p. 24

"All of this leads me to think that this world of contradictions, of typing errors, of passages that are too long and wordy, of arid deserts, of fools, of camp commandants, of mountain peaks colored by the evening sun is a beautiful world. If the world were not so beautiful, the anguish of a dying man would not be so terrible, so incomparably more terrible than any other experience. That is why I feel such emotion, why I weep or feel overjoyed when I read or look at the works of other people who have brought together through love the truth of the eternal world and the truth of their mortal "I." " p. 80

"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; there was 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 of labor camps. p. 99
10 vote rebeccanyc | Apr 25, 2013 |
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I had gone to Armenia because I was translating An Armenian Sketchbook, a memoir by Vasily Grossman about the two months he spent there in late 1961. He too had been impressed by the medieval churches. And like me, he had gone to Armenia to work on a translation; he had been commissioned to edit a clumsy literal version of The Children of the Large House, a long novel about the second world war by an established Armenian writer, Hrachya Kochar. That, at least, was the official reason; the real reasons were more complex.

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vasily Grossmanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bit-Yunan, YuriIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chandler, ElizabethTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chandler, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chandler, RobertIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I first glimpsed Armenia from the train, early in the morning: greenish-gray rock— not mountains or crags but scree, flat deposits of stone, fields of stone.
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