Gostan Zarian

(1885-1969)

Biography by Ara Baliozian

(summarized by Shant Norashkharian)

* This biography was published in the introduction of THE TRAVELLER & HIS ROAD, a partial English translation of Gosdan Zarian's work by Ara Baliozian, (Copyright Ara Baliozian 1981) *.

* Ara Baliozian has given total authorization to Shant Norashkharian for posting any of his works/translations on the Internet/ World Wide Web.*

Gosdan Zarian was born in Shemakha, the former capital of Azerbaijan, on February 2, 1885. His father, Christopher Yeghiazarov, was a prosperous general in the Russian Army—"a strong man, profoundly Christian and Armenian"—who spent most of his life fighting in the mountains of the Caucasus. He died when Zarian was four years old.

After attending the Russian Gymnasium of Baku, in 1895, when he was ten, he was sent to the College of Saint Germain in Asnieres, near Paris. He continued his studies in Belgium, and, after obtaining a doctorate in literature and philosophy from the University of Brussels, he spent about a year writing and publishing verse in both French and Russian, delivering lectures on Russian literature and drama, and living a more or less bohemian life among writers and artists. Speaking of this period in his life, Zarian was to write: "We used to have cheap food with Lenin in a small restaurant in Geneva, and today, a syphilitic boozer with his feet on a chair and hand on revolver is telling me—" 'You counter-revolutionary fanatic nationalist Armenian intellectuals are in no position to understand Lenin.' " In addition to Lenin, Zarian also met and befriended such poets, artists, and political thinkers as Appolinaire, Picasso, Plekhanov, Ungaretti, Celine, Paul Eluard, Fernand Leger, and the renowned Belgian poet and literary critic Emile Verhaeren. It was Verhaeren who advised him to study his own mother tongue and write in the language of his ancestors if he wanted to reveal his true self. Heeding his advice, Zarian studied krapar (classical) and ashkharhapar (vernacular) Armenian with the Mekhitarists on the island of San Lazarro in Venice (1910-1913), where he also published THREE SONGS (1916) , a book of poems in Italian (originally written in French), one of which, titled "La Primavera" (Spring), was set to music by Ottorino Respighi and first performed in 1923.

Next we find him in Istanbul, which was then the most important cultural center of the Armenian diaspora, where in 1914, together with Daniel Varoujan, Hagop Oshagan, Kegham Parseghian, and a number of others, he founded the literary periodical Mehian . This constellation of young firebrands became known as the Mehian writers, and like their contemporaries in Europe- the French surrealists, Italian futurists, and German expressionists-they defied the establishment fighting against ossified traditions a preparing the way for the new. "In distant cities people argued and fought around our ideas," wrote Zarian. "Ignorant school principals had banned our periodical. Well-known scholars looked upon us with suspicion. They hated us but did not dare to say anything openly. We were close to victory...." At which point, the proto-fascist Young Turk government decided to exterminate the entire Armenian population of Turkey. The holocaust that followed claimed 1,500,000 victims, among them 200 of the ablest Armenian poets and authors, including most of the Mehian writers. Zarian was one of the very few who survived by escaping to Bulgaria, and thence to Italy, establishing himself in Rome.

In 1919, as a special correspondent to an Italian newspaper, he was sent to the Middle East and Armenia. He returned to Istanbul in 1920 and there, together with Vahan Tekeyan, Hagop Oshagan, and a number of other survivors of the holocaust, he founded another literary periodical, PARTSRAVANK (Monastery-on-a-Hill). At this time he also published a second book of poems, THE CROWN OF DAYS (Istanbul, 1922).

Following the establishment of Soviet rule in Armenia, Zarian returned there and for the next three years taught comparative literature at the State University of Yerevan. Thoroughly disappointed with the regime, in 1925 he again went abroad where he conducted a nomadic existence, living in Paris, (where he founded the French-language periodical LE TOUR DE BABEL), Rome, Florence, the Greek island of Corfu, the Italian island of Ischia, and New York. In New York he taught Armenian culture at Columbia University (1944-46), founded the English-language periodical THE ARMENIAN QUARTERLY (1946) which, though it lasted only two issues, published such writers as Sirarpie Der Nersessian, Henri Gregoire, and Marietta Shaginian. From 1952-54 he taught history of art at the American University of Beirut (Lebanon). Following an interlude in Los Angeles, he once more returned to Soviet Armenia in 1961, where he worked at the Charents Museum of Art and Literature in Yerevan. A bowdlerized edition of his novel THE SHIP ON THE MOUNTAIN (originally published in Boston in 1943) appeared in Yerevan in 1963, and shortly thereafter in a Russian translation in Moscow (1969, reprinted in 1974).

He died in Yerevan on December 11, 1969.

Zarian was a prolific and many-sided writer who produced with equal ease short lyric poems, long narrative poems of an epic cast, manifestoes, essays, travel impressions, criticism, and fiction. The genre in which he excelled, however, was the diary form with long autobiographical divagations, reminiscences and impressions of people and places, interspersed with literary, philosophical and historical meditations and polemics. To this category belong THE TRAVELLER AND HIS ROAD (1926-28), WEST (1928-290, CITIES (1930), BANCOOP AND THE BONES OF THE MAMMOTH (1931-34), COUNTRIES AND GODS (1935-38), and THE ISLAND AND A MAN (1955), all of which were published in serial form in the now vanished emigre monthly HAIRENIK of Boston. So far only three of the works ( The Traveller and His Road, West, Cities) have been published in book form in a single volume titled WORKS (Antelias, 1975), with a laconic introductory note by Boghos Snabian.

In Armenia, Zarian's fame rests on the narrative poem THE BRIDE OF TETRACHOMA (Yerevan, 1965; originally published in Boston, 1930), and the already mentioned censored edition of THE SHIP ON THE MOUNTAIN. The entry on Zarian in the SOVIET-ARMENIAN ENCYCLOPEDIA, volume 3 (Yerevan, 1977), doesn't even mention his THE TRAVELLER AND HIS ROAD, which is generally regarded, together with BANCOOP AND THE BONES OF THE MAMMOTH, as one of his greatest achievements.


A Short Bibliography

"The fact remains that sooner or later Armenian writers will either swim in his river or drown in their own cesspool."
Ara Baliozian
(Nor Gyank, Nov 30, 1995)

Writings by Zarian:

Zarian, Constant, "The Priest of the Village of Bakontz," trans. James G. Mandalian. Armenian Review 2, No. 3-7 (Autumn 1949), pp. 28-39.

Zarian, Gostan, Nave leran vra (The Ship on the Mountain) (Boston: Hairenik Publishing House, 1943).
________, Le bateau sur la montagne (The Boat on the Mountain), trans. P. Der Sarkissian (Paris: Seuil, 1969).
________, Bancoop and the Bones of the Mammoth, trans. Ara Baliozian (New York: Ashod Press, 1982).
________, The Traveller and His Road, trans. Ara Baliozian (New York: Ashod Press, 1981).
________, The Island and A Man, trans. Ara Baliozian (Toronto: Kar Publishing House, 1983).
________, "The Bride of Tetrachoma," trans. Ara Baliozian, Ararat (Summer 1982).
________, "The Pig," chap. in A World of Great Stories, ed. H. Haydn and J. Cournos (New York: Avenel Books, 1947).
________, "The National Turkey Hen," trans. Ara Baliozian, chap. in Yessayan, Zabel, The Gardens of Silihdar and Other Writings (New York: Ashod Press, 1982).
________, "Krikor Zohrab: A Remembrance," trans. Ara Baliozian, Ararat (Spring 1982).
________, "My Song," "Ecce Homo," "Alone," and "Morning," in Anthology of Armenian Poetry, ed. Diana Der Hovanessian and Marzbed Margossian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), pp. 189-193.

Writings about him:

Amirian, Lemyel, "To the Editor," Ararat (Autumn 1972), p. 33.
________, "The Wound Again: Dichotomy as the Key to the Armenian Character," Ararat (Summer 1974), pp. 40-43.

Baliozian, Ara, "Introduction," Banoop and the Bones of the Mammoth
________, "Introduction," The Traveller and His Road
________, "Introduction," The Island and a Man
________, "Historian of the Heart," Ararat (Winter 1980), pp. 70-72.
________, Intimate Talk (Kitchener, Ont.: Impressions, Publishers, 1992), pp. 19-21, 112-113.
________, The Greek Poetess and Other Writings (Kitchener, Ont.: Impressions, Publishers, 1988), pp. 234-241.

Durrell, Lawrence, "Constant Zarian--Triple Exile," The Poetry Review (January/February 1952).

Kelikian, Hampartsoum, "The Wound Remains the Wound: Armenian Writers of Our Time," Ararat (Autumn 1973).

Kuprianova, Nina, "Interview with Gostan Zarian," Soviet Literature (March 1966).