ART, FREEDOM AND COGNAC

Found in Translation: 50 years ago Vasily Grossman, author of "Life and Fate", spent two months in Armenia. Simon Willis finds it time well spent

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

ENGLISH TITLE AN ARMENIAN SKETCHBOOK
AUTHOR VASILY GROSSMAN
ORIGINAL TITLE DOBRO VAM (1988)
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE RUSSIAN
TRANSLATORS ROBERT & ELIZABETH CHANDLER

In 1961, the Russian novelist and journalist Vasily Grossman spent two months travelling in Armenia, a little country with a turbulent history sandwiched between Turkey and Georgia. The result was this charming bricolage of travel and meditation, never published during his life and now appearing in English for the first time.

Grossman is best known for the novel "Life and Fate", which has the bicep-tiring heft we associate with the Great Russians. This book is tiny in comparison. But let’s not confuse brevity with lack of scope. Grossman muses on the relationship between art and experience over a meal of trout and cognac at a lakeside restaurant. He has intimations of democracy relieving himself in a wasteland of ditches. We hear about Grossman’s stomach pains and the gloom of Armenia’s stony steppe as well as his views on human freedom. This is a sketchbook which flits from the earthy to the magisterial.

At its heart is a stirring fusion of ordinariness and high ideals. Grossman writes that "there is no soul in a government office," but he sees plenty in the peasants he meets. Speaking with the elderly Aleksey, a "semi-literate man in a dirty jacket", he finds "nobility, magnanimity and personal courage". There’s a touch of Tolstoyan romance here, but the sketches coalesce into a self-portrait of a writer who, even after witnessing the destruction of Stalingrad and the aftermath of the Holocaust, is still looking for the good in people.

An Armenian Sketchbook New York Review Books, Feb 19th

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life