An Armen­ian Sketchbook

Vasi­ly Gross­man; Robert Chan­dler, trans.
  • Review
By – March 21, 2013

These two recent pub­li­ca­tions are part of the New York Review of Books Clas­sics Series. The hun­dreds of vol­umes in this notable lit­er­ary ven­ture include neglect­ed works and authors rang­ing from Sir Thomas Browne to Simone Weil. All avail­able in paper­back, NYRB Clas­sics already includes three titles by Vasi­ly Gross­man and four by Ste­fan Zweig.

The Aus­tri­an-Jew­ish writer Ste­fan Zweig (18811942), and the Russ­ian-Jew­ish author Vasi­ly Gross­man (19051964), both engage the read­er with a styl­is­tic and spir­i­tu­al inten­si­ty. Best known for his biogra­phies and diverse fic­tion­al nar­ra­tives, Ste­fan Zweig once remarked that his afflu­ent par­ents were Jew­ish only through acci­dent of birth.” Yet, at times, Zweig did write at times on Jew­ish issues, and he had a per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al asso­ci­a­tion with Theodor Her­zl in ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Vien­na. Zweig, how­ev­er, reject­ed any form of nation­al­ism in favor of a uni­ver­sal social per­spec­tive. Iron­i­cal­ly, Zweig was com­pelled to enact this cos­mopoli­tan vision when he was forced into exile in 1934; his even­tu­al stops includ­ed Eng­land, the Unit­ed States, and Brazil. The frag­ile sen­si­tiv­i­ty that would ulti­mate­ly lead to his sui­cide is reflect­ed in the sub­jec­tive fer­vor of his nar­ra­tives. Pub­lished at the height of Zweig’s pop­u­lar­i­ty in 1926, the novel­la Con­fu­sion explores the strug­gle between pas­sion and ratio­nal self-con­trol. At a point close to the writ­ing of Con­fu­sion, Zweig had been struck by one of his peri­od­ic depres­sions. In fact, he referred in a let­ter to a cri­sis grow­ing out of advanc­ing years,” and feel­ing as if the screws are com­ing loose in the machine.” The emo­tion­al tur­bu­lence of the novel­la does indeed reflect such a psy­cho­log­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al cri­sis. 

Zweig’s first per­son nar­ra­tor, Roland, has enjoyed a sol­id career as a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor. He begins his sto­ry with men­tion of the lauda­to­ry vol­ume (Festschrift) com­posed to hon­or his six­ti­eth birth­day and thir­ty years of aca­d­e­m­ic teach­ing.” But the trou­bled Roland needs to con­fess and uncov­er the most secret fac­tor in my men­tal devel­op­ment.” This then is an inti­mate jour­ney into an inte­ri­or world, the narrator’s soul. In the present, Roland often feels deeply shak­en when in the mid­dle of a lec­ture” he sens­es that it is not I myself speak­ing, but some­one else, as it were, out of my mouth.” Who is this some­one else?” What actu­al­ly is the secret” which bur­dens this hon­ored pro­fes­sor?” Zweig skill­ful­ly pen­e­trates the mys­tery as Roland looks back more than forty years to his for­ma­tive moments as an excit­ed but vul­ner­a­ble lit­er­ary schol­ar. At that cru­cial time, Roland expe­ri­enced the intox­i­ca­tion and enchant­ment of the intel­lect as nowhere else…” 

The pow­er­ful­ly learned and ven­er­at­ed fig­ure who cap­ti­vates and over­whelms the youth­ful Roland is named only Pro­fes­sor. This for­mi­da­ble men­tor per­son­al­ly guides his devout stu­dent into the track­less expans­es of the world of the mind.” Rec­ol­lect­ing his youth­ful pas­sion, Roland reveals how an aspir­ing soul can be con­trolled by a charis­mat­ic authority. 

Close atten­tion to a person’s pro­found inner world also ani­mates Vasi­ly Grossman’s writ­ing in An Armen­ian Sketch­book. Com­plet­ed in 1962, two years before his death, Grossman’s mem­oir encoun­tered strict Sovi­et cen­sor­ship, and its com­plete text was not pub­lished until 1988. Detailed pas­sages describ­ing both Armen­ian suf­fer­ing and per­ni­cious anti-Semi­tism roiled the cen­sors, but Gross­man refused to cut his man­u­script. Dur­ing his two month vis­it, Gross­man dis­cerns the virtues of Armen­ian tol­er­ance. He makes spe­cial men­tion of one occa­sion when old and young Arme­ni­ans speak fer­vent­ly about the Jews and the Arme­ni­ans, about how blood and suf­fer­ing had brought them togeth­er.” In con­trast to such empa­thy, Gross­man states that it has always pained me that our lec­tur­ers, pro­pa­gan­dists, and ide­o­log­i­cal work­ers do not, in their talks and writ­ings, speak out against anti- Semitism…” 

Gross­man jour­neyed to Arme­nia to pre­pare a lit­er­ary trans­la­tion of an epic nov­el by a promi­nent Armen­ian writer about the con­struc­tion of a cop­per-smelt­ing plant.” He avoids the usu­al trav­el­ogue con­ven­tions in his mem­oir. Instead, his high­er aim is to describe his own shift­ing feel­ings and per­cep­tions relat­ing to the pro­found soul” of the Armen­ian land­scape and soci­ety. On its for­bid­ding sur­face, Arme­nia is a land of silent, implaca­ble stone,” but titan­ic labor” has shaped and human­ized this once invin­ci­ble” stone. Such endur­ing effort defines the spir­i­tu­al val­ue” which Gross­man cel­e­brates in Armenia. 

He per­ceives the warmth of the human soul amidst the country’s rocky plains and moun­tains; so too, a par­tic­u­lar scene or human encounter dur­ing his trav­els often becomes a part of his soul. Such trans­for­ma­tion of one’s whole inter­nal world removes Gross­man from repres­sive exter­nal con­trols, the dic­tates of bureau­crats. After all, he com­ments, there is no soul in a gov­ern­ment office. A gov­ern­ment office is not alive.” 

Such atten­tion to what is deeply felt and alive join Grossman’s mem­oir to the pas­sion por­trayed in Ste­fan Zweig’s novel­la. As Gross­man remarks, there can be a moment when a secret becomes man­i­fest,” when masks fall from faces” and every human word is filled with mean­ing and inter­est.” It is that soul­ful secret which both of these fine writ­ers seek to uncov­er. An Armen­ian Sketch­book includes exten­sive notes.

Addi­tion­al Titles Fea­tured in Review

Peter E. Korn­blum holds a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at Berkeley.He taught Eng­lish in the High School Divi­sion of the New York City Depart­ment ofE­d­u­ca­tion from 1981 through 2007.

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