It’s always a joy to discover new authors. In my case there’s barely a method to the madness. If I see something that looks vaguely interesting, for whatever reason, I take a mental note to check it out later if I can’t dive into it straight away. This approach, if you can even call it that, also works for music, art, food, travelling, and dating.
When I stumbled upon Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook in my library’s travel section I borrowed the book for no other reason than liking to read about places I know next to nothing about. Despite living in a different country than the one I was born in I’m not very wide-travelled and reading about countries far, far away is a quick and economic way to address this hiatus.
Grossman, I soon discovered, is no ordinary travel writer. An Armenian Sketchbook narrates his journey around Armenia in the early 1960s. Being a Russian writer of Jewish descent and not afraid to speak his mind, he found himself in a rather tense relationship with the KGB at the time. His marriage was also failing and his health deteriorating – he would die a few years later from cancer. All in all, the circumstances made a trip to Armenia to work on a translation of one of his own books, with a bit of sight-seeing thrown in for good measure, seem like an excellent idea.
An Armenian Sketchbook is a slim volume and a great introduction to Grossman’s writing. Grossman is perceptive, with a great eye for detail, and a wry sense of humour. During a long bumpy car ride to a country wedding he struggles with an upset tummy, and is saved by his driver, who invents an issue with the car that urgently needs fixing so that Grossman can temporarily excuse himself.
Who was this man, who could write in so much detail about people he could barely communicate with and not spare himself in the process? Photos show a slightly stooped man with round glasses and a melancholic look in his eyes. A bit of research added much-needed detail: Grossman was predominantly a novelist and political writer who faced censorship and financial hardship because he was so vocal about his beliefs.
So I read A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945, a collection of writings he produced while travelling with the Red Army during the Second World War. Predictably, the tone of this work is far darker than the relative light-heartedness of An Armenian Sketchbook. Grossman describes the death and suffering he encounters along the way, condemning not only the cruelty of the Nazis but also the aggression of the Soviet leaders. Unsurprisingly, Stalin was none too pleased with this kind of honesty, though Grossman escaped prosecution, albeit narrowly.
Still, Grossman’s attention to detail and humanity remains, even when he writes about his gruesome experiences in Stalingrad. His writing is unsentimental. People suffer. People are hungry. People die. Grossman himself is severely affected by what he sees. Yet he carries on writing, believing that it is important to bear witness to the atrocities of war.
The most challenging part of the book is his essay on Treblinka, which was used during the Nuremberg trials as evidence. Painstakingly pieced together from survivor and witness testimonies, it is as detailed as it is horrific. But if you find the essay painful to read, Grossman says, rest assured that it was even harder to write. He suffered a mental breakdown after the war – unsurprisingly, especially when taking into account that his own mother was executed by the Nazis – yet his writing is so controlled, so precise, and even offers a tiny glimmer of hope. In his portraits of soldiers, peasants and passers-by, Grossman demonstrates his belief in the resilience of humans, even if the scars left by atrocities such as Treblinka will never disappear.
Light reading this is obviously not. And I’m looking forward to diving into Grossman’s novels, such as Life and Fate, to see how he fared as a fiction writer. But I do believe his writings are important and should be read more widely, especially as the veterans who attended the D-Day commemorations earlier this year are leaving us one by one. What made me most uncomfortable, reading Grossman’s work, is that the human traits he describes – cruelty, aggression, anger – have by no means disappeared. Did the war ever truly end? I wonder what he would have made of the politics of the present day.
Image my own – Tree in Bloom