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 They were looking for his unpublished novel Life and Fate.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

Getty
Show Hide image

Potato and Juliet: how Mark Rylance makes children like Shakespeare

A presenter who speaks freely but in the sort of sentences which can be used as powerful, off-the-cuff links throughout a programme is rare as a unicorn. 

How young can you learn Shakespeare? A rare repeat of a 1998 programme presented by Mark Rylance (27 April, 6.30am, rebroadcast 1.30pm and 8.30pm) asks the question. Not yet a superstar incapable of resisting a part in the new Christopher Nolan film, Rylance was then the artistic director of the Globe Theatre. Just an Abrahamic guy in a silly hat (most likely), sitting all mystical in a class of six-year-olds and asking things like what the word “Romeo” makes them think of.

“Potato,” someone decides. “Now, girls,” giggles Rylance, “would you fall in love with a boy called Potato?”

A presenter who speaks freely but in the sort of sentences that can then be cast into solid chunks and used as powerful, off-the-cuff links throughout a programme is rare as a unicorn. When Rylance talks about hoping that children recognise Shakespeare as a “playful friend, rather than someone they are going to meet on a forced march to an exam”, the unpreening lightness of his delivery suggests one, unscripted take. “He wrote for the ears,” the director went on. “It just sounds interesting. His words have body and form.”

I suppose the question is not so much how young you can teach Shakespeare, but how young you can teach any (great) poetry, because children instinctively take to it. For instance, a big-screen adaptation of T S Eliot’s Cats has been announced. In the fantasies of my friend James, this adaptation will feature Channing Tatum as Rum Tum Tugger and Lady Gaga singing “Memory”, and will be produced by the team behind The Incredibles. In short, a poem with children in mind while the adults sit there thinking: “What the f*** is this? There’s no plot at all!”

Instead, the upcoming Cats will be directed by the sombre Tom Hooper, doubtless brought in to “study” the text. Give me Rylance’s six-year-olds any day, imagining what things Henry V might have noticed the night before the Battle of Agincourt. “Wolves howling,” breathes one. “Bats flapping,” gulps another. Then finally – and this suggestion couldn’t be bettered – just before Henry steps out to claim “. . . I think the king is but a man, as I/am”, he possibly spots “a mouse rolling on his bed”. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496