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 They were looking for his unpublished novel Life and Fate.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

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era