Sunday, June 23, 2013

Beautiful, inconsequential | An Armenian Sketchbook

An Armenian Sketchbook is a short book, almost an interlude. I first heard about it from Stefanie of So Many Books, and was so enamored by Vasily Grossman's writing style in the quotes Stefanie included that I decided I had to read this book. And I'm glad I did, even if by the end of it I was feeling a bit bored, a bit scattered, almost as if I myself had gone on a trip that had lasted just a bit too long.

The thing is that An Armenian Sketchbook is beautiful and incredible and powerful at times, but it also feels a bit inconsequential. Banal, even. The first half of the book is mostly comprised of Grossman making these lovely, carefully worded observations of this new land he has come upon, whether of the people or of the places. His fixation on stone, for example, is predictable but nonetheless remarkable - in these passages, Grossman contemplates civilization, history, the passage of time, architecture and so much more. It might be a bit pointless, but good god it's gorgeous.

The problem begins in the second half of this short book. Because here, Grossman shifts the focus a bit more towards himself and his experiences. Here Grossman muses about religion and faith. About culture differences. About Russia. About drinking. It's a turn inwards, and though aspects of it were again very nicely written and quite interesting, I found that it just wasn't holding my attention the same way the first parts had. It became less about the travel and more about the presence. Like I said - the trip lasted too long and I got bored.

There's also the fact that I felt as though it didn't really change anything. Travel books (or in general books about places) are supposed to change our point of view, give us something new and expand our horizons. An Armenian Sketchbook did a bit of that, but it's mostly in the title - "sketchbook". I learned a little about Armenian history and culture, but... it was only a little. Minor. I sort of hoped Grossman would delve a bit deeper, but his observations - even when sharp and utterly enchanting - still felt somewhat on the surface.

But it's a short book. Really short. There's no reason not to read it and there's no reason not to enjoy it. Grossman's writing is splendid even in the less interesting parts, and the translation is as natural as any I can imagine. This was a fine introduction to an author I've been meaning to get to for a long time - I'm now looking forward to tackling Life and Fate even more.

4 comments:

  1. When I saw your post, I thought "Beautiful, Inconsequential" was the title of the book and it caught my eye. I still think it would make an awesome book title =)

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    1. I also thought so and had to check again after reading your comment.

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  2. Hmm... maybe. That the title is very apt and it's quite personal, I think I'd be expecting much more about the country.

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  3. Sorry you didn't like it as much as you had hoped you would. I didn't mind the turn to the personal at all and since I generally don't read travel literature I had no expectations for it. But still, I am glad you read it and enjoyed it for the most part!

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