● An Armenian Sketchbook
By Vasily Grossman
NYRB Classics, 160 pages, $14.95
In 1961 Vasily Grossman traveled to Armenia from Moscow to edit a long war novel by Rachiya Kochar. Grossman was not the first renowned Russian writer to make such a trip; Osip Mandelstam had visited before him, recording his observations in “Journey to Armenia” (1931); and almost 100 years earlier, Pushkin had made his own Caucasus expedition, joining the Russian military campaign against Turkey and later chronicling it in “A Journey to Arzrum.” Grossman did more than just edit during his two-month sojourn; like Pushkin and Mandelstam, he wrote about his experiences in the country. The result, “An Armenian Sketchbook” — published in English for the first time, and expertly translated by Robert Chandler — is arguably Grossman’s most personal work.
Vasily Semyonovich Grossman was born in 1905 in Ukraine. His early literary efforts garnered praise from the likes of Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Bulgakov. During World War II he switched to journalism, reporting for Red Star on crucial battles and events, including Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin. His seminal eyewitness piece “The Hell of Treblinka” helped open the world’s eyes to Nazi atrocities. He returned to fiction after the war, but incurred the wrath of the Soviet authorities with his two masterpieces, “Everything Flows” and “Life and Fate.” Both novels were deemed anti-Soviet (as indeed was the author) and were published only in 1988, twenty-four years after Grossman’s death.
“Journey to Armenia” takes us from Grossman’s arrival in the country to his departure. Some of the 12 chapters are little more than anecdote-filled vignettes, whereas others delve deeper and are accompanied by Grossman’s tangential thoughts and reflections. Alighting in Yerevan, he masterfully conveys a traveler’s first impressions of an unfamiliar city: He is disoriented, but also endowed with a heightened awareness, a “visual equivalent of nuclear energy.” He explores the capital, lingering to survey its colossal statue of Stalin before deciding that Yerevan’s soul is to be found in its inner courtyards.
“Here we see the city as a living organism, its outer skin stripped away,” he writes.
It is this eye for quirky detail that makes “Sketchbook” such a delight to read. As Grossman travels he engages the natives in conversation (despite supposedly being able to speak only two words of their language) in an attempt to understand the country’s psyche.
Many Armenians share wine and stories with him. Some are survivors of the gulags and resemble Grossman’s protagonist in “Everything Flows,” a former camp prisoner struggling to readjust to normal life after 30 years of incarceration. Chats with others lead in turn to conversations with himself, an enlightening series of question-and-answer sessions that reveal Grossman just as eager to explore his own mindset as that of his subjects.