Synopses & Reviews
Few writers had to confront so many of the last century’s mass tragedies as Vasily Grossman. He is likely to be remembered, above all, for the terrifying clarity with which he writes about the Shoah, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Terror Famine in the Ukraine. An Armenian Sketchbook
, however, shows us a very different Grossman; it is notable for its tenderness, warmth, and sense of fun.
After the “arrest”—as Grossman always put it—of Life and Fate, he took on the task of editing a literal Russian translation of a long Armenian novel. The novel was of little interest to him, but he needed money and was evidently glad of an excuse to travel to Armenia. An Armenian Sketchbook is his account of the two months he spent there.
This is by far the most personal and intimate of Grossman’s works. Although its many threads are deftly woven together, it has an air of absolute spontaneity, as though he is simply chatting to the reader about his impressions of Armenia—its mountains, its ancient churches, its people—and even his various physical problems. Grossman did not realize it, but the real cause of these problems was that he was already suffering from cancer, soon to be found in one of his kidneys. Just as Everything Flows is his political testament, so An Armenian Sketchbook is his personal testament.
Grossman could have published this work in his lifetime. The censors asked only that he omit fifteen lines about an elderly Armenian peasant who spoke at length, at a village wedding, about the terrible suffering endured by both the Jewish and the Armenian peoples. By that time in his life, Grossman had grown to feel deeply ashamed of all the compromises he had made with the Soviet authorities and he refused to agree to the censors’ demand. As a result, An Armenian Sketchbook was published only posthumously. A bowdlerized Russian text was published in 1967 and a complete text in 1988. This is the first English translation.
An NYRB Classics Original
Few writers had to confront as many of the last century’s mass tragedies as Vasily Grossman, who wrote with terrifying clarity about the Shoah, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Terror Famine in the Ukraine. An Armenian Sketchbook, however, shows us a very different Grossman, notable for his tenderness, warmth, and sense of fun.
After the Soviet government confiscated—or, as Grossman always put it, “arrested”—Life and Fate, he took on the task of revising a literal Russian translation of a long Armenian novel. The novel was of little interest to him, but he needed money and was evidently glad of an excuse to travel to Armenia. An Armenian Sketchbook is his account of the two months he spent there.
This is by far the most personal and intimate of Grossman’s works, endowed with an air of absolute spontaneity, as though he is simply chatting to the reader about his impressions of Armenia—its mountains, its ancient churches, its people—while also examining his own thoughts and moods. A wonderfully human account of travel to a faraway place, An Armenian Sketchbook also has the vivid appeal of a self-portrait.
About the Author
Vasily Semyonovich Grossman was born on December 12, 1905, in Berdichev, a Ukrainian town that was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. In 1934 he published both “In the Town of Berdichev”—a short story that won the admiration of such diverse writers as Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Isaak Babel—and a novel, Glyukauf
, about the life of the Donbass miners. During the Second World War, Grossman worked as a reporter for the army newspaper Red Star
, covering nearly all of the most important battles from the defense of Moscow to the fall of Berlin. His vivid yet sober “The Hell of Treblinka” (late 1944), one of the first articles in any language about a Nazi death camp, was translated and used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials. His novel For a Just Cause
(originally titled Stalingrad
) was published to great acclaim in 1952 and then fiercely attacked. A new wave of purges—directed against the Jews—was about to begin; but for Stalin’s death, in March 1953, Grossman would almost certainly have been arrested himself. During the next few years Grossman, while enjoying public success, worked on his two masterpieces, neither of which was to be published in Russia until the late 1980s: Life and Fate
and Everything Flows
. The KGB confiscated the manuscript of Life and Fate
in February 1961. Grossman was able, however, to continue working on Everything Flows
, a novel even more critical of Soviet society than Life and Fate
, until his last days in the hospital. He died on September 14, 1964, on the eve of the twenty-third anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of Berdichev in which his mother had died.
Robert Chandler is the author of Alexander Pushkin and the editor of two anthologies for Penguin Classics: Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and Russian Magic Tales from
Pushkin to Platonov. His translations of Sappho and Guillaume Apollinaire are published in the Everyman’s Poetry series. His translations from Russian include Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Everything Flows, and The Road (all published by NYRB Classics); Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; and Aleksander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter. Together with Olga Meerson and his wife, Elizabeth, he has translated a number of works by Andrey Platonov. One of these, Soul, won the 2004 AATSEEL (American Association of Teachers of Slavonic and East European Languages) Prize. His translation of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway won the AATSEEL Prize for 2007 and received a special commendation from the judges of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize.
Elizabeth Chandler is a co-translator, with her husband, of Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter; of Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows and The Road; and of several volumes of Andrey Platonov: The Return, The Portable Platonov, Happy Moscow, and Soul.
Yury Bit-Yunan was born in Bryansk, in western Russia. He graduated from the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, and completed his doctorate on the work of Vasily
Grossman. At present he is lecturing on literary criticism at the Russian State University while continuing to research Grossman’s life and work.