An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman: Far from his beloved Moscow, reflecting on the best and worst of humanity

As he connects with Armenian peasants, we are reminded that this ill, suffering man, far from home, is one of the great writers of his time.

In February 1961, KGB officers raided Vasily Grossman’s apartment. They were looking for his unpublished novel Life and Fate. They seized the manuscript, his notes and even the ribbon from his typewriter. But friends had already taken a copy away. It was smuggled to the west and is now widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature.
 
After the raid, Grossman went to Armenia for two months. It is not altogether clear why. He was in the early stages of cancer and his marriage was in trouble. He had a commission to translate an Armenian novel into Russian and presumably he wanted to get away from Moscow. His account of his time there was published posthumously in 1965 in censored form. A complete version is now available for the first time in translation.
 
An Armenian Sketchbook shows Grossman at the end of his life, far from his beloved Moscow, reflecting on the best and worst of humanity. One of the first things that strikes himin Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, is the huge statue of Stalin. “No matter where you are in the city,” he writes, “you can clearly see the titanic bronze marshal.” It is a monument to “the merciless builder of a great and terrible state”. Grossman was writing during the Khrushchev thaw and he is able to discuss crimes such as the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, but also the Gulag.
 
He encounters an old Armenian whose father “was buried in Siberia, nobody knows where”. Later, he meets “a sweet, asthmatic old man” who was sent to a Siberian camp for 19 years. He then relates his aunt’s life story. “Her husband, an economist, was arrested for no reason in 1937 and died in Kolyma.” Her son, Volodya, “was arrested and then killed in prison by his interrogator”. This is the dark background to Grossman’s extraordinary travelogue. He writes beautifully about the ancient churches and monasteries, the harsh landscapes, the peasant food. He is fascinated by “the spirit of paganism” that lives on in the tiny hillside villages, “in drunken songs and stories from the past”.
 
Grossman starts by reflecting on how different everything is. He reflects on national types. What are Armenians like? He notes how bleak the landscape appears. Then he goes into a small village hut and sees a stove and suddenly he realises that this stove is like every other stove he has seen all over the Soviet Union. He is 3,000 kilometres from Moscow and yet he is “back in village Russia”: “Here in Armenia, I witnessed the extraordinary steadfastness of the Russian stove, the Russian hut, the Russian porch . . .”
 
Then Grossman listens to the peasants and realises how much he has in common with them as they talk about “love for other people, right and wrong, good and evil, faith and lack of faith”. It is not just that Grossman the translator and bespectacled Jewish outsider is at home with these people. He also connects through the values at the heart of his writing. Here, close to Mount Ararat, are people who believe in the very things that animate his novels – decency, compassion, humanity.
 
An Armenian Sketchbook ends with a village wedding. Amid the remote, “stony desolation”, the author feels at home. When a villager proposes a toast to the Jews killed by the Nazis Grossman is tremendously moved. The outsider feels that he belongs. As he connects with these peasants, his writing comes to life and we are reminded that this ill, suffering man, far from home, is one of the great writers of his time, and that these values are at the heart of his greatness. 
An Armenian mother and child from New Malatia, a suburb of the Armenian capital, circa 1955. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump