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.
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.”