Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2004 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
Worth a read... Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value. Armenian News Network / Groong November 8, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian I. `IN THE FURNACE OF LIFE' - THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN ARMENIAN NOVELIST The first volume of Shirvanzade's autobiography `In the Furnace of Life' (Shirvanzade, Selected Works, Volume 5, pp6-223, Yerevan, 1988) is studded with wise and witty observation that evokes something of the conditions of the time and brings to life some of the men and women who contributed to Armenian politics and culture in late 19th century eastern Armenia and the Caucasus. >From his earliest youth Shirvanzade was shocked by the poverty and social exploitation that he witnessed on moving to Baku in 1875. There he hoped to earn money to support his family back home in nearby Shamakh, once a provincial capital that never recovered from the 1872 earthquake that devastated it and impoverished many locals, including his father. Shirvanzade's early articles expose wealth's contempt for and ruthless indifference to the plight of the poor. Describing the horrific daily life of labourers in the then burgeoning oil fields of Baku these articles have the detail, concreteness and passion that remind one of Engels's `The Condition of the Working Class in England' that even in these post-socialist days remains on the reading list of British students of English social history. This encounter with extreme poverty and suffering left on Shirvanzade their indelible mark and inspired a literary career that produced a fine dissection of urban life in the Caucasus and a critique of the new philistine bourgeoisie. Though poverty forced him to abandon school early Shirvanzade developed an undying love for books. When still in his early twenties he took the initiative in establishing one of the first, and subsequently the most well stocked and famous, Armenian libraries in Baku. It was here that he began writing for the Armenian and the Russian press. In 1884 he moved to Tbilisi, then the hub of Armenian intellectual life in the Caucasus. In Tbilisi Shirvanzade met and formed friendships with, it seems, the whole phalanx of Armenian literary personalities of the day - men like journalist and editor Krikor Ardzrouni, novelist Raffi, poet and educationalist Ghazaros Aghayan, dramatist Gabriel Sountoughian, nationalist poet Kamar Katiba, famous actor Bedros Atamian, novelist Berj Broshian and many others. Significantly Hovanness Toumanian is absent from this gallery of characters that are depicted through some defining personal trait, an intellectual bent or just an amusing anecdote. Throughout the volume Shirvanzade also scatters his comments and views on the nature and the purpose of art. These call into question the traditional evaluation that he wrote novels to serve social or political ends. Shirvanzade was certainly a socially and politically conscious man, indeed a man of the left, always sympathetic to the plight of the poor and oppressed. But though passionate about politics he was even more passionate about art that he never regarded as an instrument of politics. His novels certainly do expose social ills. But he did not set out to write them with this in mind. Shirvanzade repeatedly states that he turned to art intent only on reproducing and dissecting the life that he witnessed around him. That he depicted urban ugliness, the dark side of bourgeois wealth, the harsh reality of women's oppression, the violence of the lives of the poor is the result not of political ambition, but a function of his realism, his deep humanism and the times about which he wrote. By his own account Shirvanzade was but an accidental and casual political activist, indeed a fellow traveller. But even his passing political involvement sometimes cost him his freedom as he was imprisoned for a time and also forced into exile. Brushes with the newly founded ARF leadership produced a hostility to what he regards as its extreme, even unbalanced nationalism. Insisting on his preference for literary work, Shirvanzade repeatedly turned down ARF founder Kristapor Mikaelian's invitation to contribute to the ARF press. Following his encounters with the ARF Shirvanzade joined up with the socialist Hnchaks, again as a fellow traveller but again never putting his artist's pen to the service of the party. He joined up only because of the spirit of the times and because he says he needed a break from literary activity. On returning to writing he produced a dozen plays that came to be regarded as on a par with the best. So relentless is Shirvanzade's hostility to the ARF that the reader wonders whether he was echoing official soviet state policy. After all he wrote `In the Furnace of Life' in 1928 in Armenia and Georgia then characterised by an official hostility to the ARF. Yet his committed and personal opposition to what he judged as extreme nationalism is confirmed much earlier in his account of his involvement in efforts to secure reconciliation between Armenians and Azeris after the deadly 1905 clashes in Baku and the Caucasus. The first volume ends soon after as Shirvanzade prepares for a lengthy trip to Europe, the tale of which is told in the second volume. II. `ARAMPI' - A NOVEL OF DEFEATED LOVE In `Arampi', (Selected Works in 5 Volumes, Vol. 2, pp178-213, Yerevan, 1986) his second novel, first published in 1887, Shirvanzade again offers us scenes from everyday life that have an enduring quality assured by the author's consistent capacity for deft characterisation, an eye for defining detail as well as an ability to bring out in narrative and dialogue something significant about the emotional or psychological condition of his protagonists. `Arampi' treats of a similar issue to that of Shirvanzade's first novel Namus, both highlighting the subordinate position of women and the manner in which this is legitimised and fortified by prejudice, backward social morality and religious dogma. But Shirvanzade does not tailor his art to suit any social or political axe he may have to grind. In `Arampi' the social hostility to women's rights to divorce and separation arise naturally through the telling of a tale that takes us far from the rural backwater of `Namus's' Shamakh to the relatively urban and cosmopolitan Russian occupied Georgian capital Tbilisi. `Arampi' unfolds around a group of tenants lodging with landlady Natalia Petrova. Stepan Rostomian, a shy and lonely young man is sprung out of the stupor of his meaningless job on meeting 26-year old Varvara who has, together with her merchant father, just rented an apartment with Natalia. Stepan and Varvara, two people touched by sorrow and loneliness cross each other's path on a promise love and happiness. But social prejudice will not permit their love to flourish. From the outset there are premonitions of tragedy. Unaware of Varvara's past Natalia schemes to marry her off to Stepan. But Varvara turns out to be already a married woman who has fled a debauched husband. Despite being the innocent party society condemns her as immoral and prohibits her having new relations with other men. Hrant Tamrazian noted correctly that `Arampi' lacks the dramatic plot of `Namus'. But he was wrong to consider this a flaw. In Arampi the plot is not the point. With consistently acute psychological observation, Shirvanzade has created characters that command the reader's attention to the end of the tale. His talent for describing the protagonists' sensibilities, their emotions and their psychological agony affords an appreciation of the damaging effect of prejudice which, like a persistent drizzle, penetrates every corner of society and even the very core of its victims. An exchange between Natalia's daughter Catty and her husband, full of sneer and contempt, is telling of the violent edge to social gossip that follows the discovery of Varvara's plight. Landlady Natalia's agony highlights the individual's internalisation of clashes between humane sensibility and social prejudice. Natalia knows that Varvara is innocent and feels deeply that she should be allowed a new opportunity for happiness. But at the same time she feels powerless before social convention and hopes that for the sake of `this harsh law that still must be obeyed, Varvara and Stepan will resist consummating their love. The prejudice infects even the two lovers, generating guilt and fear of social ostracism. It clouds their judgements, influences their decisions and eventually destroys their love. As with `Namus' `Arampi' suffers from Shirvanzade's naturalist realism that fails to suggest anything of the origin and function of the social hostility to women's rights to divorce or separation. But in the character of Varvara's father Minas Grillitch he does offer a hint of the reasons. Grillitch forces his daughter into marriage, against her own wish, only in order to enhance his own social standing and financial position. Despite Varvara's subsequent experience, intent on escaping further public opprobrium, he harasses her to return to her husband. He loves his daughter, her feels her unhappiness. But fear of social ostracism and his desire for social approval prove stronger. In connection with the contradictory inner world of both Varvara's father and Natalia, it is perhaps worth remarking on the rather unimaginative dismissal of `Arampi' by famous historian and literary critic Leo. Unable to grasp the living reality of individuals torn by opposing emotions such as those of Varvara's father, he cites this, among other things, as evidence of Shirvanzade's failure to develop coherent characters. Yet in both cases it is the inner clash between the inherent decency of both characters and the pressures upon them of a backward society that makes of them rounded, living and real beings and marks them out as artistic successes. In telling his story Shirvanzade catches moods, feelings and sensations of love in fine, shaded and tender manifestations. He describes movingly the condition of love threatened by dark forces and depicts well the psychology of a frightened love that is deemed illicit by society and religion. Enriching the story, he hedges it with observation and comment on life, on hypocrisy and prejudice, on loneliness, melancholy and ambition. The story flows well to what is however a rather weak, over-dramatised ending about which Leo does not fail to be scornful. But despite its conclusion, `Arampi' offers a fresh and moving glimpse into the emotional and psychological world of people whose lives are diminished by backward social constraints. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.