An Armenian Sketchbook (New York Review Books Classics)
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An NYRB Classics Original
Few writers had to confront as many of the last century’s mass tragedies as Vasily Grossman, who wrote with terrifying clarity about the Shoah, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Terror Famine in the Ukraine. An Armenian Sketchbook, however, shows us a very different Grossman, notable for his tenderness, warmth, and sense of fun.
After the Soviet government confiscated—or, as Grossman always put it, “arrested”—Life and Fate, he took on the task of revising a literal Russian translation of a long Armenian novel. The novel was of little interest to him, but he needed money and was evidently glad of an excuse to travel to Armenia. An Armenian Sketchbook is his account of the two months he spent there.
This is by far the most personal and intimate of Grossman’s works, endowed with an air of absolute spontaneity, as though he is simply chatting to the reader about his impressions of Armenia—its mountains, its ancient churches, its people—while also examining his own thoughts and moods. A wonderfully human account of travel to a faraway place, An Armenian Sketchbook also has the vivid appeal of a self-portrait.
there is a family in every room. Then there’s a grating of wheels, and the tram makes a sharp turn. The road has come to an end; now there is only wasteland and scree. Nearly all the passengers get out; only two others are left, both unshaven, their faces covered in black stubble. One has a long nose, the other a snub Mongolian nose. And me. The conductress gives me a searching look. She walks down the car to the driver and says a few quick words to him in Armenian. Evidently, she is sharing her
different; the dark, cramped, smoke-blackened ancient hovels, part dug into the ground, part faced with large stones, are disappearing. Every year there are fewer of these thousand-year-old dwellings—and in many Armenian villages there are none left at all. After staying unchanged for millennia, these dwellings have gone. First we inspect the new, bright collective-farm houses, and then the old smoky, stony burrows with bread ovens dug out of the earth; there is no doubt that the new, bright
and boring day is imbued with charm; this charm is everywhere, it excites and delights. And your sense of your own self becomes equally special; you are aware of yourself in a way that is deep and strange. These fortunate hundred grams come your way most often in the morning, before lunch. And sometimes you drink and drink—and become more and more gloomy, as if you are being filled with splinters of broken glass. You feel weighed down. A kind of lazy stupidity takes over your brain and heart; it
anyone written books about the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of kinds of Russian stoves? Here are the Volga stoves—from Kamyshin, from Saratov, all similar, as if in accord with some rigid mathematical law. Who remembers the master craftsman who created them all? Nowhere did he write, “Remember my name in your prayers.” Yet what quantities of bread, what a great deal of cabbage soup, how much living warmth his stoves have given birth to! And then the realm of Volga stoves comes to an end, and the
that are now only fragments of impotent bone, the stars that shone above Mount Ararat before the Bible even existed, the stars that will still be shining when Ararat and Aragats, too, are no more than dead bones. I remember this night clearly. We walked slowly through the village in the dark. In the middle of the street I glimpsed something white—a table covered by a white cloth. As we came up to this table, it was suddenly illuminated, from the roof of a house opposite, by car headlamps—the