Summer Readings & Screenings

‘Armenian Sketchbook’ & ‘The Color of Pomegranates’
Still from ‘The Color of Pomegranates’ (Criterion Collection)

In this third installment of our summer conversation series, we discuss two works about the ancient culture of Armenia, Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook (1962) and Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969).

For our next and final installment, in two weeks, we’ll read Henry James’s classic novella Washington Square (1880), along with William Wyler’s film adaptation, The Heiress (1949). Catch up our previous discussions here and here.

 

Tony,

I’ve done my fair share of traveling, but I’ve never come across a landscape quite as dramatic as the one Vasily Grossman describes in his 1962 travelogue An Armenian Sketchbook. What makes the country’s geography so alluring is the fact that everything, even the fields and flowers, seems to be made entirely of stone: “The first thing I saw in Armenia was stone; and what I took away when I left was a memory of stone…. There is no beginning or end to this stone.”

Of course, there’s a deeper meaning to Armenia’s rocky aesthetic. The polished basalt that lies about the countryside bears silent witness to centuries of suffering—the Armenian genocide occurred just forty years prior to Grossman’s trip. But it also reflects resolve and resilience, a determination to survive and flourish no matter the circumstances.

It was Grossman’s reputation as a war writer that occasioned his trip to Armenia. One of the Soviet Union’s greatest writers, he’s known for a pair of World War II novels, Stalingrad and Life and Fate, both modeled on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Though Grossman knew no Armenian, the Soviet Writers’ Union had asked him to help translate an Armenian war novel into Russian. He found the task considerably less energizing than learning about the lives of the different people he met there—mostly humble villagers, but also scientists, artists, doctors, journalists, scholars, and religious leaders. It’s these chance encounters, often comical, but sometimes profound, that occasion Grossman’s more serious meditations on the dangers of nationalism, the moral duties of literature, and the nature of religious faith.

What captivated me most about An Armenian Sketchbook is Grossman’s playful, flexible tone. His fiction sometimes suffers from an overly formal, ponderous logic, where you get the sense that he’s just saying things because he thinks he’s obligated to say them. (As a writer working within the Soviet system, he usually did have to, though he frequently fought with his editors for greater license.) Here in Armenia, though, Grossman’s mind and soul roam free. Early on, he spends time describing the Armenian people:

I saw faces with a classic, antique beauty, perfect ovals, with small straight noses and pale-blue almond-shaped eyes; I saw people with elongated, sharp faces and huge, sharp, hooked noses; I saw people whose hair was so black as to be almost blue, with eyes like coals; I saw the thin lips of Jesuits and the thick protuberant lips of Africans. 

Armenia, Grossman muses, has been at the crossroads of civilizations for more than three millennia: that’s what explains the physical diversity he finds there. This realization prompts a long riff on the stupidity and dangers of nationalism, where unthinking “reactionaries” reduce a country’s inhabitants to a single, superficial type, thereby destroying their deeper, more essential qualities—and their freedom. Grossman clearly has the oppressive Soviet Union in mind, but his forceful, unequivocal condemnation of nationalist ideologies is just as urgent today: “It is time we recognized,” Grossman warns, “that all men are brothers.”

Grossman’s not interested in depicting reality as we think it should be, but rather in representing the world as it really is.

A similar urgency informs Grossman’s views on literature: he’s not interested in depicting reality as we think it should be, but rather in representing the world as it really is. Soviet literary theory, practiced and taught by writers like Maxim Gorky (who’d promoted Grossman’s career early on) required writers to portray the perfectly just, classless society toward which Communism tended. Fiction had to be aspirational, not actual.

There’s a parallel here with the utopian longings of religion, and in particular Christianity. The Christian emphasis on eschatology, with its focus on the joyful world to come, always risks eclipsing our attentiveness to the fallen one we inhabit right now. Through a series of short, provisional bursts of insight, Grossman (a self-proclaimed atheist) declares that he’s having none of this:

Perfect worlds do not exist. There are only the funny, strange, weeping, singing, truncated, and imperfect universes created by the gods [i.e. human artists] who infuse their creations with their own blood, their own soul. When he looks at these worlds, the true Lord of Hosts, the creator of the universe, probably cannot help but smile mockingly.

Grossman is half-kidding here, but he goes on to ask more serious questions of theodicy: How can the same good God, who created a world of beauty and freedom, also have created Hitler, Himmler, and Eichmann? Grossman was born Jewish, and his encounter with Armenia’s ancient Christianity frees him to ask deeper questions about his religious roots.

Tony, how would you respond to Grossman’s questions? And we still need to consider Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates—a “funny, strange, weeping, singing” film if ever there was one!

**

Griffin,

I was struck by all of those stony descriptions, too. Like the best writers of place, Grossman possesses a bifocal vision—seeing the Armenian landscape both in its absolute particularity and in its symbolic grandeur.

In the opening pages, for instance, Grossman notices both the “dense scatterings of stone” around houses in an Armenian village and the “flat, stony steppe” that the sheep move across (“probably they eat powdered stone and drink the dust of stone,” Grossman jokes). But looking at specific stones in specific locations, Grossman always pivots towards the allegorical. For him, stones are portals into and markers of time—the deep time of Armenian history, as you say, but also the deeper time of geology. As he writes, “Time had aged the mountains; time had killed the mountains—and here lay the mountain’s bones.” In Grossman’s vision, a stone is a stone, but it’s also time’s ravages.

I hadn’t read Grossman before, so I was surprised to hear you describe his other works as occasionally “overly formal,” even “ponderous.” This is a writer, after all, who includes a set piece in which his rapturous musings upon the Armenian soul (“Here we see all of Eastern life: the tenderness of the heart, the peristalsis of the gut, the firing of synapses”) are interrupted by the call of nature—and by a subsequent and frenzied search for a place to relieve himself: “The whole world—architecture, the outlines of mountains, plants and trees, people’s customs and habits—everything is now subordinated to a single longing.”

In one of the book’s final scenes, Grossman is taking part in a wedding procession when he again feels an inconvenient bodily urge. After the earlier scene, it’s a bit of an easy laugh, even if Grossman does build comic tension—sentence by sentence, gurgle-in-the-gut by gurgle-in-the-gut—in masterful fashion. But then he arrives at the wedding ceremony, and the comedy of the body gives way to the solemnity of ritual:

Each of the guests was given a thin wax candle, and holding hands, we began to dance a slow and solemn round dance. Two hundred people—old men and old women, young boys and girls—all holding lighted candles, moved slowly and solemnly the length of the rough stone walls; the little lights swayed in their hands. I saw interlaced fingers; I saw a chain that would never rust or break—a chain of dark-brown laboring hands; I saw many little lights.

A still from ‘The Color of Pomegranates’ (Criterion Collection)

This wedding tableau reminds me of The Color of Pomegranates. Like Grossman’s wedding dance, the film moves “slowly and solemnly,” suggesting that, despite suffering, there is something—artistic creation, sacred ceremony—that endures.

At one level, The Color of Pomegranates has a simple, linear plot. It follows the life of Sayat-Nova, an eighteenth-century Armenian troubadour-poet, moving from his childhood spent dying wool and loving books; to his years at the royal court, where he plays the lyre, falls in love with the king’s sister, and is ultimately banished; to his later years as a monk, baptizing and burying and consecrating; finally, to his death.

But if ever there were a work that suffers from plot summary, this is it. At the beginning of the film, white-on-black text informs us that this is:

not the story of a poet’s life. Instead, the filmmaker has attempted to recreate the world of a poet—the modulation of his soul, his passions, and his torments—broadly utilizing the symbolism and allegories of medieval Armenian troubadours.

Parajanov is a realist; it’s just that he’s after a deeper realism than we’re accustomed to.

Indeed, the film doesn’t narrate Sayat-Nova’s life so much as suggest it by a series of rigorously composed images. Suffused in bright blues and reds and golds, largely lacking dialogue, the images resemble Armenian illuminated miniatures—highly stylized paintings that have begun to move, often in ritualized, choreographed fashion. (The camera itself remains still throughout.)

Some of Parajanov’s images are purely symbolic: three pomegranates bleeding red onto a white sheet; a woman, dressed in red and black, holding a seashell over her left breast, the shell caressed by white lace. Others exist somewhere between visual poetry and narrative incident: an older Sayat-Nova digs a grave in the floor of a cathedral, surrounded by hundreds of lambs.

Intercut with these images are scraps of language, sometimes voiced and sometimes presented on screen, almost all centering on the experiences of passion and suffering that lead to poetry and religion: “I am the man whose life and soul are torment”; “The bread you offered was beautiful, but the earth is more beautiful still.”

In other words, Parajanov takes on many of the same questions as Grossman: Why do we suffer? What value do beauty and ritual have in our vale of tears? The Color of Pomegranates may be less flexible in its tone than An Armenian Sketchbook. But it’s just as daring in the terrain it covers—and more daring in its rigorous commitment to a distinctive form and style.

Did The Color of Pomegranates move you as much as it moved me, Griffin? How would you compare Parajanov’s brand of realism to Grossman’s?

**

Tony,

I think you’re absolutely right: both Grossman and Parajanov share a deep commitment to realism, to art as a means of getting at the truth. It’s just that their emphasis falls on different spheres of human activity: Grossman on the political, and Parajanov on the numinous.

Grossman approaches religion skeptically, but he’s barely able to suppress his curiosity. Recall the scene when he drives into the mountains, through the Semyonov Pass. Struck by the “vastness of the sky and the infinite forest,” Grossman daydreams about performing “heroic feats of asceticism” and living as a hermit. But then something holds him back, as he makes “a beast of himself,” getting drunk and waking up in a nauseous stupor.

The spiritual purity Grossman seeks is rooted not “in the words of a priest in his church” (he’d been disheartened by his meeting with the worldly Vazgen I, Catholicos of All Armenians) but in something more vital. It’s in the “awkward, ungrammatical peasant speech” of ordinary villagers, far removed from the capital, Yerevan, that Grossman finds a “great power”—that is, an unpretentious faith that’s one and the same “with everything in their long hard lives.”

Grossman never says it explicitly, but he’s looking for a window into faith.

And that’s the same faith depicted on screen in Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. The images and sounds, foreign as they are, have a refreshing immediacy. Recall the shot with a group of monks, greedily devouring pomegranates as they rest after laboring in the fields, or the repeated performances of a group of mimes, who literally speak with their bodies. The messages they communicate are elemental (the passion of eros, the tragedy of death), and whenever they move, we don’t so much think about these emotions as feel them.

What The Color of Pomegranates crystallized for me was the gap between the medieval world and our own. It’s not just that our material realities are different, but that we’ve lost the sense of myth, and religious allegory, as the symbols that structure our lives. How many of us can truly say that, like Sayat-Nova, we understand the world and all it contains as a luminous “window” into heaven?

Though Grossman never says it explicitly, that’s exactly what he’s looking for: a window into faith. I’m struck by just how religious Grossman’s sensibility is, despite his professed atheism. After all, this is an author whose earlier journalism wryly compared Nazi soldiers in the death camps at Treblinka to demons from Dante’s Inferno; whose fiction lovingly detailed the sights and sounds of family life in the Jewish ghettos; and who views Raphael’s Sistine Madonna as an expression of the suffering not just of Christians, or the Jewish people in the Holocaust, but of all of history’s poor and downtrodden masses.

Suffering, and longing for a justice that transcends what’s available here on earth—that’s what lies at the root of Grossman’s religiosity. His life was marked by it: over decades he’d lost friends and family to the death-dealing logic of totalitarianism. And his raw familiarity with grief enables him to enter into communion with the Armenians as, during the wedding scene you mentioned, they rise for a toast: “Other people—old and young—got to their feet to address me. All spoke about the Jews and the Armenians, about how blood and suffering had brought them together.”

Before this acknowledgment of real human suffering, Grossman, the gregarious journalist and great novelist, finds himself at a loss for words. All his life, he says, he’s refused to bow before anyone. Not here: he falls silent and prostrates himself on the ground.

An Armenian Sketchbook
Vasily Grossman
NYRB Classics, $14.95, 160 pp.

The Color of Pomegranates
Sergei Parajanov
Criterion Collection, $23.96, 78 min.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

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