In mid-October 1961, at the time of the 22nd congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the master novelist of the Russian 20th century, Vasily Grossman, arrived in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan.
The main boulevard of the city, a wide avenue flanked by plane trees and lit by a central line of brilliant street lamps, was just then being renamed. No longer would it be Stalin Prospect; it would take Lenin's name instead.
They were complex times - for the Soviet empire, for its writers and for Grossman in particular. His defining novel, Life and Fate, had just been seized, or "arrested", by the KGB: three secret policemen had raided his apartment and confiscated all copies of the manuscript. To be on the safe side, they removed all his carbon papers and typewriter ribbons as well.
As far as Grossman knew, the great work of his life had just been destroyed. He was a man without prospects, his words had been silenced, his strength was ebbing away.
To survive, he took on a piece of literary hack-work: the translation of a long novel by a famous, officially favoured writer from the Armenian republic, and to finish off this task he made a trip to visit the author and check the typescript through.
Armenia! Grossman, one of the best travelled Soviet war correspondents of the time, a veteran of the plains of Russia and the battlefields of eastern Europe, was in the high Caucasus at last - and he was following a long line of Russian writers who had made this pilgrimage and been transformed by what they found. Alexander Pushkin, the tradition's first presiding genius, had made a journey to Erzurum and the Armenian backlands in 1820;(**) Mikhail Lermontov, Aleksandr Griboyedov, Leo Tolstoy and a parade of their successors in Russian prose and verse came in his path.
Indeed, the distinctive cultures of the region served literary Moscow and Petersburg much as the Aboriginal desert region serves the cities of Australia today: at once as mirror, exotic wonderworld and sounding board.
The pattern of continuing visitation persisted into Soviet times. In 1930, when poet Osip Mandelstam was at a hinge point in his creative life, he too undertook a trip to Armenia - and both Lermontov and Mandelstam loom in Grossman's thoughts and lend his Armenian writings a haunted note.
After two months spent in Yerevan and the surrounding villages and landscapes, Grossman, his translating labours done, felt compelled to write his impressions from the journey down. Hence this brief, touching narrative, An Armenian Sketchbook,(*) which serves as a quiet pendant to his novels, stories and war reports. It is a journal of reflection and self-examination, of observations and explorations - a travel sketchbook in the true sense of the word.
It appeared in Russian for the first time, heavily expurgated, soon after his death in 1964. A full text could be published only during the perestroika era of dawning free expression, in 1988.
There were good reasons for the delay, ideological, of course, but tonal as well. Few books as sweetly intimate and delicate have found their way into print; the "sketchbook" is a sketch of its author's feelings, so plainly described it makes the official writing of the Soviet era seem like a tidal wave of posturing and pose. In its pages Grossman is at once wide-eyed traveller, inquiring portraitist and philosophic writer staring his own death down.
He begins with a bang: with Stalin, the dictator who stands at the heart of Life and Fate and who, even in eclipse, seemed in those days to dominate all the Soviet realm. A Stalin statue, vast, majestic, still rose over the cityscape of Yerevan.
Stalin wears a long bronze greatcoat, and he has a forage cap on his head. One of his bronze hands is tucked beneath the lapel of his greatcoat. He strides along, and his stride is slow, smooth and weighty. It is the stride of a master, a ruler of the world; he is in no hurry. Two very different forces come together in him, and this is strange and troubling. He is the expression of a power so vast that it can belong only to God; and he is also the expression of a coarse, earthly power, the power of a soldier or government official.
This power still rules over all the world that Grossman sees; it can no longer be named so openly but it still decides who rises, who falls, what words are said and what thoughts are set in print. Its shadow is over everything, even out on the Soviet periphery.
Grossman resists, in his own fashion, in his writing. He is driven to seek out remote byways, to dwell on the tales of individuals he meets by chance, to commemorate them, to record their faces, their gestures, their ways of being. He peers into the Armenian mirror: rich, varied, strange.
I met scientists, doctors, engineers, builders, artists, journalists, party activists, and old revolutionaries. I saw the foundation, the taproot of a nation that is thousands of years old. I saw ploughmen, vintners and shepherds; I saw masons; I saw murderers, fashionable young "mods", sportsmen, earnest leftists and cunning opportunists: I saw helpless fools, army colonels and Lake Sevan fishermen.
All around him was life, teeming life, its jump and pulse resisting every impress of the ruling ideology. Grossman clung to two distinct ideas of Armenia: that it was a little nation surviving in the Soviet embrace, and that it was an assemblage of strong-cast characters. He presented both in the meanders of his text.
By this stage, he had almost completed his literary evolution. He was born in 1905 in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, and wrote short stories about his childhood home that attracted the admiration of the Soviet cultural establishment. They elevated him. In World War II he served as a correspondent on the eastern front, advancing with the troops and tank battalions on the road towards Berlin. They passed close by the site of Treblinka; Grossman was the first writer to reconstruct the events in a German death camp.
He wrote long, successful realist novels. But the things he had heard and had witnessed on the battlefield compelled him to compose a different kind of narrative, one that would catch and convey the feelings of a vast, jostling crowd of characters, all joined in the murk and flow of time. This project became Life and Fate, over which he laboured for a decade, only to see it stolen away.
At the time of his Armenian journey, Grossman had already begun writing his last work, the loose, elusive, imagistic Everything Flows, a book that seems much like the script of an unmade Andrei Tarkovsky film. The trend away from sequential narrative is plain in this sketchbook too. His simplest observations give rise to flights of speculation: the writer is continually slipping the bounds of his own being, and continually seeing the surrounding world through the eyes of others, and realising their view is his as well.
Metaphor comes naturally to Grossman; he builds a whole world of associations from the stones of the plain around Mount Ararat:
There is no beginning or end to this stone. There it lies - flat and thick on the ground. There is no escape from it. It is as if countless stonecutters have been at work. Here we can see the earth's profound gloom - without artifice or affectation, without any chorus of birds, without any eau de cologne of spring or summer flowers, without any dusting of pollen.
The image stream runs on, Grossman draws his intuitions out: "I know the local stone-polisher; he doubles as the local stonecutter. His name is time, and he is invincible."
Such is the world sketched here. Forces push down on men and women; they, in their simplicity, endure. And what are these forces that oppress us? They are the harsh theories binding us, the models, the designs and plans of bureaucrats, even the blueprints of God, whose work is full of contradictions, and who rushed to publish his first draft too soon, and should have waited and revised his creation before committing it to print.
Visions and memories drift through the sketchbook text, lending its records of chance encounters the feel of episodes in a great breathing tapestry. There are recollections of the deep underground mines the writer saw in his young reporting days; there are glimpses of his much-loved relations, lost in the pogroms of the war.
Grossman is summing up his passage through the world even as he steeps himself in the life-ways of another culture. How close death seems! At one moment, he believes he is on the brink. He describes his fear, his sense of the end upon him; it is one of the strangest passages set down by an author in our time:
In the sultry darkness - though already almost forsaken by my body, which was still slipping out from me, still slipping away from me - I went on thinking with a terrible clarity about what was happening. I was dying. And what gave rise to this mortal anguish, to this feeling of death, which is so unlike anything in life, was that my "I" was still present, not obscured in any way; it was continuing quite separately from my body.
Grief fills him; regret, too. Suddenly, as if through thought's power alone, he revives: life has taken its proper place in him again.
All 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 coloured by the 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.
Grossman throws himself back into life, into Armenia, into an Armenian wedding. He fills his pages with its details, lovingly observed. Armenia has become the whole world to him, it is youth and maturity and regeneration: "This chain seemed eternal; neither sorrow, nor death, nor invasions, nor slavery could break it." He describes the bride and groom, dancing, and the groom's serious face with its large nose, directed straight ahead, as if he were driving a car - and feelings overwhelm him: "Though mountains be reduced to skeletons," he thinks to himself, and writes, "may mankind endure forever."
He finished writing his journey memoir and submitted the typescript to the literary journal Novy Mir. The state censor demanded cuts. He refused. Two years later he was dead; the manuscript of the sketchbook, which he had wished to title with a traditional Armenian greeting - "All Good to You" - remained untouched in the drawer of his writing desk.
"The Australian," August 24, 2013
By Vasily Grossman
Maclehose Press, 192p, $39.99 (HB)
(**) Alexander Pushkin's trip was in 1829 ("Armeniaca")