After several fiction reads, I decided it really *was* time to branch out a little into something more factual. And this is an odd trend, all this fiction reading, as I’ve always been a keen reader of non-fiction. It may be that blogging has affected my viewpoint a little as so many factual books are denser and longer, and I may have been feeling the need to keep regular reviews here. No matter – this is a slim NYRB volume (always a joy) and didn’t take me very long at all!

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Vasily Grossman is best known for his novel “Life and Fate” and Wikipedia has this to say about him:

“Vasily Semyonovich Grossman (December 12, 1905 – September 14, 1964) was a Soviet writer and journalist. Grossman trained as an engineer and worked in the Donets Basin, but changed career in the 1930s and published short stories and several novels. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, writing firsthand accounts of the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin. Grossman’s eyewitness accounts of conditions in a Nazi extermination camp, following the liberation of Treblinka, were among the earliest. Grossman also translated Armenian literature into Russian, despite the fact that (as he writes in ‘Dobro Vam!’, – the account of a sojourn in Armenia in the early 1960s, during which he worked at the translation of a book by a local writer called Martirosjan) he lacked the ability to read Armenian, and worked on an interlinear translation made for him by a third person.

After World War II, Grossman’s faith in the Soviet state was shaken by Joseph Stalin’s turn towards antisemitism in the final years before his death in 1953. While Grossman was never arrested by the Soviet authorities, his two major literary works (Life and Fate and Everything Flows) were censored during the ensuing Nikita Khrushchev period as unacceptably anti-Soviet, and Grossman himself became in effect a nonperson. The KGB raided Grossman’s flat after he had completed Life and Fate, seizing manuscripts, notes and even the ribbon from the typewriter on which the text had been written. Grossman was told by the Communist Party’s chief ideologist Mikhail Suslov that the book could not be published for two or three hundred years. At the time of Grossman’s death from stomach cancer in 1964, these books were unreleased. Copies were eventually smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a network of dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Voinovich, and first published in the West, before appearing in the Soviet Union in 1988.

I’ve quoted at length because much of this is relevant to any reading of Grossman’s work – context is all, sometimes. I confess to having L&F on Mount TBR but not yet having read it, so this is a new writer for me! My edition is a lovely NYRB paperback, beautifully translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and with excellent notes plus photographs to illustrate.

“An Armenian Sketchbook” (in Russian ‘Dobro Vam!’) is mentioned above, and came into being because of the rejection of L&F. As translator Robert Chandler and scholar Yury Bit-Yunan relate in their excellent introduction, it seems that Grossman was offered the opportunity to translate the Armenian novel and travel to that region as a kind of compensation for the lack of income he would experience from L&F not being published. So because of this we are fortunate to have this little volume, part travelogue, part cultural study, part memoir and part philosophy of life!

“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… are all equally powerless before it.”

These may sound like rather grandiose claims, but this slim book is packed with so much thought-provoking writing. Grossman travels to Armenia and his first (and recurring) impression of the area is of stone – an arid world, grey and solid, in which it seems impossible that humanity can survive. He spends some time in the capital Yerevan before moving onto a village, where he learns to know the Armenian people and countryside, creating bonds with them he did not expect and finding sympathy too.

The writing is very immediate and spontaneous – “sketchbook” is the right word to use in the title – which makes this book very readable and transports you right into the heart of Armenia. Interestingly, I read an interview with translator Robert Chandler recently here where he stated “on first reading, Grossman can seem somewhat plodding”. Because of this, I wasn’t expecting such lively, sparkling and beautiful language, but it may be that his fiction is a little more prosaically written:

“After yet another twist in the road, our car seemed to be soaring over the lake: We saw the snowy crests of mountains lit by the sun. They were pale blue, as if the snow had absorbed both the blue of the sky and the blue of the lake. And there on a rough stone dish – a dish that was black and brown and the colour of rust – lay Lake Sevan, deep blue, almost boundless.”

Grossman visits religious patriarchs; goes for picnics in the country; meditates on life and death and how human beings can co-exist:

“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.”

But there is always the underlying theme of human mortality. Grossman was in the early stages of cancer when he visited Armenia, and in one vivid passage he fears he is dying.

“… 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.”

“An Armenian Sketchbook” ends with a lively portrait of a peasant wedding, a mixture of joy and sadness, all the time against the backdrop of the eternal Armenian stone landscape. Grossman meditates on churches and belief, and the image of nearby Mount Ararat reappears often – which oddly enough featured in my recent read of “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey”, so author Fred Basnett obviously passed by the same area. The Jewish Grossman finds unexpected sympathy from the Armenians for the plight of his fellows, and it is worth remembering how recent the horrors of the Second World War still were when this book was written.

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I was really impressed by my first reading of Grossman – beautiful prose, evocative description and some deep thinking from a book which really sticks in the mind. Maybe it’s time for “Life and Fate” soon?