`Perfection is always simple’

`Perfection is always simple’

July 5, 2013 6:20 pm

By Robert Chandler

Vasily Grossman’s memoir on his stay in Armenia is the most personal
of his works

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman, MacLehose Press, RRPÂŁ8.28, 192 pages


The monastery of Geghard in Armenia

Armenia is a stony country, and one of the arts in which Armenians
have most excelled is architecture. Few places illustrate this better
than the monastery of Geghard, where two of the three adjacent
churches have ` literally ` been gouged out of the mountainside. In
one there is a spring. The water forms a large pool in a corner, then
streams down a shallow channel across the centre of the church. Stone,
of course, is everywhere ` rough and smooth, plain and exuberantly

Last October, I attended Sunday mass in the third of these churches,
which stands just clear of the mountainside. A tall narrow window on
the southern wall let in a slanting band of almost solid sunlight.
Standing in the raised east end, close to the altar, were six priests,
four wearing blue robes, one in white and gold, and one, a novice, in
black. Sometimes they faced the altar, sometimes the congregation. The
acoustics of this small, squat building, with its rounded apses and
dome, were so perfect that their voices sounded equally strong no
matter which way they were facing. Their singing was deep, rhythmic
and powerful. My guide explained that the priests sing only in Old
Armenian. Recent attempts to introduce modern Armenian have been
rejected; the fit between the old words and the music is perfect, and
too valuable to sacrifice.



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I had gone to Armenia because I was translating An Armenian
Sketchbook, a memoir by Vasily Grossmanabout the two months he spent
there in late 1961. He too had been impressed by the medieval
churches. And like me, he had gone to Armenia to work on a
translation; he had been commissioned to edit a clumsy literal version
of The Children of the Large House, a long novel about the second
world war by an established Armenian writer, Hrachya Kochar. That, at
least, was the official reason; the real reasons were more complex.

In February that year the KGB had confiscated Grossman’s typescripts
of Life and Fate, his own long novel about the war. In it he had
broken several taboos. He had drawn a direct parallel between Soviet
and Nazi concentration camps; he had argued that Stalin and Hitler had
learnt from each other and that their regimes were mirror images.
Grossman had even written of Stalin `snatching the sword of
anti-Semitism from Hitler’s hands’. Much of this remains controversial
even today, even in the west. Few Soviet citizens thought, let alone
wrote, such things in 1961. There is no surprise in the fact that the
novel should have been `arrested’, as Grossman always put it.

Grossman had entrusted two copies to friends, but he could not be sure
these were safe. His marriage was breaking down. He was suffering from
cancer, though this had yet to be diagnosed. His letters give the
impression that he was in financial need. There were reasons for him
to want to get away from his everyday life.

The Soviet authorities, for their part, had reasons to want Grossman
out of the way. By commissioning him to edit this Armenian novel they
were probably trying to buy him off, to compensate him ` at least
financially ` for the non-publication of Life and Fate, and so lessen
the danger of his contacting foreign journalists or sending
manuscripts abroad. Three years earlier, the authorities had
miscalculated disastrously after Boris Pasternak published Doctor
Zhivago in Italy. By forcing Pasternak to decline the Nobel Prize in
Literature, they brought Doctor Zhivago so much publicity that it
topped the New York Times bestseller list for six months. The
authorities evidently learnt from this. The low-key approach they took
with Grossman was, in fact, so successful that a Russian text of Life
and Fate did not appear, even in the west, until as late as 1980. And
although my English translation was published in 1985, it took another
20 years for Grossman to win recognition in the anglophone world.
Without an international political scandal it was, sadly, almost
impossible for a Soviet writer to be taken seriously in the west.
Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn are both famous; two still greater writers,
Andrey Platonov and Varlam Shalamov, remain relatively little known to
this day.

And so Grossman accepted a commission that entailed staying two months
in Armenia, working with Kochar and his translator. Grossman spent
part of the time in Yerevan, and the rest in a mountain village, in
the `House of Creativity of the Armenian Writers’ Union’. As for his
work on The Children of the Large House, both he and Kochar seem to
have had mixed feelings about it. Kochar admired Grossman and
probably, in principle, welcomed his intervention; in reality,
however, he found it difficult. Grossman, for his part, seems to have
looked down on Kochar; in a letter to a friend he wrote that he had
taken him `several steps up the ladder of literary evolution’.

©Fedor Guber

Vasily Grossman above the ruins of the Hellenistic temple of Garni,
near Yerevan, in 1961

An Armenian Sketchbook is the most personal of Grossman’s works.
Although its many threads are deftly woven together, it has an air of
spontaneity, as though Grossman is simply chatting to the reader about
his impressions of the landscape, about the people he meets and even
about his physical problems. The chapter about his arrival in Yerevan
exemplifies his ability to write in a way that seems natural yet is
constantly surprising. First he describes his wounded vanity when he
realises no one has come to the train station to meet him. Then,
adopting a deliberately heightened tone, he writes about how, when one
first arrives in a new city, one is like a god, creating inside
oneself a new world. His descriptions are vivid, but increasingly
there seems to be something excessive, almost desperate about them.
Eventually we realise that he is looking for a quiet corner to pee?.?.
.?Grossman was unwell, and Soviet cities were remarkably lacking in
both cafés and public lavatories. The chapter ends with the writer,
who has by then taken a tram to the outskirts of Yerevan, finally
experiencing relief. `It was a quiet happiness that is equally
accessible to a sheep, a bull, a human being or a macaque. Need I have
gone all the way to Mount Ararat to experience it?’

. . .

Grossman was preoccupied not only with the Shoah but also with the
Soviet authorities’ attempts to suppress its memory. Like the poet
Osip Mandelstam, who had visited Armenia in 1930, only 15 years after
the Genocide, he was aware of the similarities between the Jews and
the Armenians ` two peoples with a flair for commerce, a tragic
history and a reverence for the Book. Mandelstam calls Armenia `a book
of ringing clays?.?.?.?a festering text, a precious clay, that hurts
us like music, like the word’. Both writers would have appreciated my
guide’s account of how, in one monastery, at times of danger, large
vases of oil, wine and other provisions were left where raiding
parties could easily find them. The monks’ hope was that raiders would
help themselves to food and wine and not stumble upon the monastery’s
real treasures, the books they hid away in high and remote corners.
The creation of illuminated manuscripts is another art in which
Armenians have excelled.

Mandelstam evidently felt more at ease with his own Jewish identity
after his months in Armenia. Grossman’s memoir concludes with an
account of a village wedding during which several peasants spoke about
the fellow feeling between Jews and Armenians, about their brotherhood
in suffering. Grossman was moved, but his strong feelings coexist with
an unusual objectivity. In previous chapters he has criticised not
only Russian chauvinism but also the pretensions of some Armenian
intellectuals ` people to whom poetry, architecture, science and
history have meaning `only in so far as they testify to the
superiority of the Armenian nation’.

This was one aspect of Armenian life that, 50 years later, I
recognised only too easily. I even found it difficult to get my guide
to take me to Atala, one of the country’s most famous old churches;
being Georgian Orthodox, rather than Armenian Apostolic, it did not
normally feature on tourist itineraries. Armenian nationalism is, of
course, all too understandable. Armenia’s borders with both Turkey and
Azerbaijan remain closed. Grossman does not address the Armenian
genocide directly, but a background awareness of it informs the entire

Grossman’s masterpieces are his last works: the short novelEverything
Flows and the stories he wrote during the three years between the
confiscation of Life and Fate and his death in 1964. It is not
impossible that the hours he spent looking at Armenian churches in
late 1961 may have helped him to a clearer vision of his own artistic
aims. He writes eloquently about the qualities he saw embodied in
these buildings: `Perfection is always simple, and it is always
natural. Perfection is the deepest understanding and fullest
expression of what is essential. Perfection is the shortest path to a
goal, the simplest proof, and the clearest expression. Perfection is
always democratic; it is always generally accessible?.?.?.?The church
looks so simple and natural that you think a child could have put it
together out of toy basalt blocks. I, an unbeliever, look at this
church and think, `But perhaps God does exist. Surely his house can’t
have been standing uninhabited for fifteen hundred years?”

No less striking is a sentence from Grossman’s account of his meeting
with Vazgen I, the head of the Armenian Church: `I said I wanted books
to be like these churches, simply made yet expressive, and that I
would like God to be living in each book, as in a church.’

Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s translation of `An Armenian
Sketchbook’, by Vasily Grossman, is published by MacLehose Press this


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