I'm not sure I would have picked up Vasily Grossman's An Armenian Sketchbook (Dobro vam published in Sobranie sochinenii v 4-h tomakh, translated from Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler) had it not been for my NYRB subscription. To be honest Armenia isn't high up on my list of potential travel destinations, but then this isn't really a travel narrative per se. Sketchbook is an apt title and description, however, as Grossman very lovingly writes about his experiences with and impressions of the Armenian people, for whom he has an obvious respect and affection. The pieces that make up this volume are 'sketches' of the two months he spent there in 1962 while rewriting a "clumsy" literal translation of an Armenian war novel.
Grossman was born in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, which was home to one of Europe's largest Jewish communities. During World War II he was a reporter for the Russian army newspaper, Red Star. Interestingly an article he wrote in late 1944 ("The Hell of Treblinka") was one of the earliest published about the Nazi concentration camps and was used in the Nuremberg trials. He went on to write novels to much acclaim, but being a Jew and speaking out against Soviet Society meant his later work went unpublished during his lifetime. Had it not been for Stalin's death in 1953 it's likely he would have been arrested during the purges carried out against the Jews.
In 1961 when Grossman was preparing a manuscript, Life and Fate, for possible publication in a Russian literary journal, the KGB confiscated not only the novel but anything associated with it down to the typewriter ribbons. At the time Kruschev was in power and there was something of a cultural thaw occurring so he sincerely believed he had a chance of publishing his work. It compared Nazism with Stalinism, however, showing the two as "mirror images" of each other. Needless to say, the authorities were not going to allow the work to be printed.
Boris Pasternak had caused quite a stir by winning the Nobel Prize only a few years earlier, and there was no desire to allow Grossman to be yet another literary martyr, so they simply removed the work. It's uncertain why Grossman was offered/took on the translation work when he did--possibly to get away from marital difficulties he was having but also perhaps it was a way for the authorities to "compensate" Grossman and keep him quiet. This is all a bit of a rehash of what I read in the introduction, but not knowing anything about Vasily Grossman prior to reading the book I found it really fascinating.
When he traveled to Armenia he didn't actually speak or read Armenian, but his translation work was meant to be a rewrite of the already translated Russian version. It didn't matter, however, that Grossman couldn't communicate directly with the people he met. He was treated with great hospitality, particularly by the Armenian peasants (though less so by the literary intelligentsia). He wasn't allowed to spend even a kopeck of his own money there.
The sketches are almost meanderings of his travels, but each portrait--whether of a person, a place or a thing flows one into the next in a way that you don't even realize that he's changed topics. There's a little bit of history, there are 'character' (best really to say people) sketches, spiritual reflections, cultural observations. What he writes about runs the gamut of subjects, none more important than the other. And there is lots of the personal in the writing, too. Grossman died only a few years later, and at the time he didn't realize he was at the beginning of his illness. He suffered from health issues during his travels, painful in his embarrassment but he leaves nothing out of his text. There is such a humility and honesty to his writing.
"The gift possessed by a great poet or scientist is not the highest of gifts. Among even the most brilliant virtuosos of the mathematical formula, of the musical phrase and poetic line, of the paintbrush and chisel are all too many people who are weak, petty-minded, greedy, servile, venal, and envious--people like slugs or mollusks, moral nobodies in whim, thanks to the irritating pangs of conscience, a pearl is sometimes born. But the supreme human gift is beauty of the soul; it is nobility, magnanimity, and personal courage in the name of what is good. It is a gift possessed by certain shy, anonymous warriors, by certain ordinary soldiers but for whose exploits we would cease to be human."
Another slender book, but this is one that demands to be read slowly. I found myself even rereading certain passages for their descriptive eloquence (like how he describes the many fields full of stones, which he likened to the bones of dead mountains!). I like the idea that I've not just read a Russian author, but a Soviet author, as it fits a different piece of the puzzle that is Russian literature. I might have never given Vasily Grossman a second glance, but thanks to NYRB I've added another author to my list of writers I want to explore. I'm even contemplating reading his Life and Fate, though it would be a large undertaking as it weighs in at nearly 900 pages. I will have a chance to revisit his work later this year, however, when I read Everything Flows for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong.
Stefanie at So Many Books is also a NYRB subscriber and recently wrote about An Armenian Sketchbook, too. If you are thinking of reading Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook would be an excellent introduction to his work.