Review: Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia, introduction by Henry Gifford (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011)

Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler (New York: New York Review Books, 2013)

‘Armenia’, in Imperium, Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. Klara Glowczewska (New York: Vintage International, 1995), pp. 42-51 

The history of Armenians is measured in millennia … Armenians have a measure of time different from ours.  They experienced their first partition 2,500 years ago.  Their renaissance occurred in the fourth century of our era.  They accepted Christianity seven centuries earlier than we.  Ten centuries before us they started to write in their own language.  (Kapuscinski, 46-47)

‘Two Russians and a Pole visit Armenia’ might be the beginning of a joke, but it isn’t.  I bought and read these three books randomly and apart, but wanted to review the first two together, with reference to the Armenian chapter of the third one. Since none of these accounts are contemporary, some of the impressions they have left me may have dated, but I emerged with some strong word associations with Armenian language and culture: resilience, endurance, erudition, openness, enchantment.

Three apples fell from heaven: the first for the one who told the tale, the second for the one who listened, and the third for the one who understood. That is the way most Armenian fairy tales end.   (Mandelstam, 94)

In chronological order, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) visited Armenia for eight months in 1930, where he seems to have rediscovered his poetic voice.  Thirty years later, in late 1960, the Russian journalist and novelist Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) went for two months, to re-work a translation of an Armenian novel. Then in 1967 the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007) travelled around the south of the Soviet Union, including Armenia, as recounted in his wonderful Imperium.

The two Russians had the hardest time of it in the human cog-crushing of ideological machinery.  Mandelstam was arrested in 1934 for an epigram about Stalin, and died in the gulag in 1938, having been arrested a second time in the purge-fest.  Grossman did a turn of hard labour, working in a hellish coal mine for some years which he mentions in his Armenian memoir.

And in 1961, the manuscript of his great novel Life and Fate was confiscated – or arrested – by Soviet censors.  He was said to have visibly aged after this, or as he put it himself: “They strangled me in a dark corner” (Grossman, p. x).  Surely one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, and here is our quote-packed celebration.  Grossman’s trip to Armenia came in the context of its confiscation, under a cloud of uncertainty regarding the life and fate of his most ambitious work.

Mandelstam was a poet and his slim Journey to Armenia, a little over 50 pages, is written with such tapestried description and imaginative metaphors, it’s like reading an impressionistic prose-poem, interlaced with snapshot moments and thoughts on writing.  It was as if being in Armenia gave him an island of time to let his capacious mind expand and breathe. The excellent introduction (nearly as long as the book it introduces) notes that in Journey to Armenia ‘a mind is at work the range and luminosity of which recall the mind of Goethe’ (p. 18).  In some ways, this book isn’t about Armenia, it’s about Armenia’s effects on a mind that needed some space, and that luminosity of mind seems to reflect a luminosity of place.

Only last year on the island of Sevan in Armenia, as I went strolling in the waist-high grass, I was captivated by the shameless burning of the poppies. Bright to the point of surgical pain … (Mandelstam, 64)

That luminosity of place was also noticed by Grossman:

The whole of Armenia is awash with light.  Villages lost in the mountains, the ancient caves of Zangezur, inhabited to this day – all are lit by electricity.  These caves were inhabited for thousands of years before our era, before the rise of ancient Sumer, probably even during the Stone Age and the Bronze Age.  (Grossman, 49)

Grossman’s Sketchbook is closer to ‘travel writing’, recounting his experiences, including the most prosaic and testing, and bringing his sharp focus to the individuals he encounters.  The warmth and acuity of his observations remind me of Patrick Leigh Fermor or Laurie Lee at their sharpest.  He himself alludes to the ultra-alert, absorbant mind of someone arriving in a city for the first time:

Your first minutes on the streets of an unfamiliar city are always special: what happens in later months or years can never supplant them.  These minutes are filled with the visual equivalent of nuclear energy, a kind of nuclear power of attention.  With penetrating insight and an all-pervading excitement, you absorb a huge universe – houses, trees, faces of passersby, signs, squares, smells, dust, cats and dogs, the color of the sky. During these minutes, like an omnipresent God, you bring a new world into being: you create, you build inside yourself a whole city with all its streets and squares, with its courtyards and patios, with its sparrows, with its thousands of years of history, with its food shops and its shops for manufactured goods, with its opera house and its canteens.   This city that suddenly arises from nonbeing is a special city; it differs from the city that exists in reality – it is the city of a particular person.  (Grossman, 21)

I liked his clear distinction between the ‘real city’ and the city you create through your experience of a place. On this basis, the world must have a near infinite number of cities, if each person’s experience of each city creates an individual mind-place.  Your Yerevan is not mine, nor mine yours!  Grossman also spots the hidden places, where the soul of a place can be found:

No, what constitutes the soul of Yerevan are its inner courtyards.  Flat roofs, long staircases, short flights of steps, little corridors and balconies, terraces of all sizes, plane trees, a fig tree, a climbing vine, a little table, small benches, passages, verandahs – everything fits harmoniously together, one thing leading to another, one thing emerging from another.  (Grossman, 23)

Woven through Grossman’s writing is a theme he seems to return to again and again, whether in his fiction or his journalistic reporting: a desperate plea for greater humanity and kindness.  In Life and Fate, which drew on his exposure to the worst horrors of totalitarianism (of all stripes), he steps out of the narrative a number of times to beat the drum for simple kindness, for treating humans as individuals, for not subsuming them to collective systems, least of all those claiming to be for the Greater Good.  He’d seen and experienced too many Greater Good ideals hijacked by horror.  So, forget saving mankind from itself or building a better world; just get off your high horse and love thy neighbour.

True goodness is alien to form and all that is merely formal.  It does not seek reinforcement through dogma, nor is it concerned about images and rituals; true goodness exists where there is the heart of a good man.  (Grossman, 84-85)


But the supreme human gift is beauty of soul; it is nobility, magnanimity, and the personal courage in the name of what is good.  It is a gift possessed by certain shy, anonymous warriors, by certain ordinary soldiers but for whose exploits we would cease to be human.   (Grossman, 97)

Both books are by Russian literary giants, one a poet, one a journalist-novelist.   In reviewing them together, I couldn’t endorse one over the other, as they rounded each other out beautifully.  They are different in style and their interest is beyond their impressions and descriptions of Armenia as they found it (in 1930 and 1960 respectively).  However, if you are looking for a book more strictly ‘about’ Armenia, then Grossman’s is probably more suitable.

Kapuscinski’s chapter on Armenia in his Imperium is short and pithy, as though he was tasked with summarizing an ancient civilization in the space of a few days and pages.  It is therefore more concentratedly informative than the two books, which again, does not to make it more worthy of reading, simply complementary.

What they have in common is to convey in an authentic, personal voice, impressions of a strong identity, a rich and enduring culture, and a beautiful country.  Revisiting my notes to write this review piqued my curiosity about Armenian language and literature, and prompted a desire to visit the country.


NOTES:  A note on the publishers, as they are two favourites in terms of range and appeal of titles, and quality of production.

Notting Hill Editions is a smallish publisher in the UK, with a mission to reinvigorate and celebrate the art of the essay. Their books are small and beautifully formed, with strikingly coloured cloth covers, each featuring a splendid quotation. The quality of paper and print is a joy.  This edition of Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia includes his Conversation about Dante as an added bonus.

Grossman’s book is by New York Review Books Classics, which put many blotting-paper fuzzy-printed paperbacks to shame. The paper and print have tactile and visual beauty and the cover designs of the series have coherence and brightness. And if you browse their titles, you want to read half of them…it’s a wonderful selection, allegedly chosen ‘rigorously by whim’, a technique that clearly works.


And then the translator conversed with a mule and a sheep who were walking along the pavement towards their mountain pasture.  He had noticed that people and dogs, for some reason, walked in the road, while the pavements were used mainly by sheep, calves, cows, and horses.  At first the mule listened fairly attentively to the translator’s Russian words, but then it laid back its ears, turn away from him, and tried to kick him with a back hoof.  Its kind, sweet little face with its wonderful broad nostrils was suddenly transformed.  Now the mule look vicious, curling its upper lip and baring its huge teeth.  And the ewe, which the translator had wanted to stroke, pressed up against the mule, asking for help and protection.  This was ineffably touching; the ewe sensed instinctively that the human hand stretched out towards her was a bearer of death – and so there she was, trying to get away from death, asking a four-legged mule to protect her from the hand that had created steel and thermonuclear weapons.  (Grossman, 36)

Grossman captures moments in time beautifully.  I love, ‘And then the translator conversed with a mule and a sheep who were walking along the pavement…’   But the quotation ends on a chilling note.

Sukhum … is where one should begin studying the alphabets of the Caucasus; here every word starts with a. (Mandelstam, 71)

If you are wondering how to pronounce the Armenian alphabet, here is a video of children singing the alphabet song:

Photo credit: by Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra - own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Armenian alphabet at the Melkonian Educational Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus, Wikimedia

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