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The Critical Corner - 10/25/2011

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Why we should read...

    `Memories and Conversations' by Nvart Toumanian
    (336pp, 2009, Yerevan, Armenia)

Armenian News Network / Groong
October 25, 2011

by Eddie Arnavoudian

A Daughter's Conversations with the `Poet of All Armenians'

Nvart Toumanian, daughter of poet Hovanness Toumanian, wrote these
`Memories and Conversations' with her father inspired in part by her
reading of Ekerman's famous `Conversations with Goethe'. The result is
a beautiful book. Nvart has communicated something of the grandeur and
magnanimity of the `Poet of all Armenians'. Toumanian earned and
deserved this knighthood. Like no other public figure in modern
Armenian history his life was a hub around which revolved countless
men and women of all classes and ages, an entire community and in
times of crisis even the nation.

Written as a diary enriched with subsequent recollection we have a
masterpiece of its genre, an encyclopaedia of Toumanian's world view,
his philosophy of life and art, views on language, on the importance
of play, on retelling folk tales, on animals and hunting, on children,
on painting, on education and translation, on poets and literary
theory, and much else. On colourful display are the poet's exceptional
charisma and magnetism, his generosity and altruism, his social
solidarity and national dedication and his tremendous capacity for
hospitality, always ready to lay on a feast for countless and
interminable guests and visitors.

Here is a book of wisdom and an irreplaceable primary source.

Of exemplary value for our own day we read of Hovanness Toumanian's
life as an unanswerable retort to the decadent intellectual who,
lacking any sense of collective solidarity and social commitment, puts
his/her private gain always to the fore. Through Nvart's memoirs we
encounter the model artist-intellectual, the poet who is at the same
time a national and social activist, the writer who is always among
the people partaking of their woes and their joys, the intellectual
who unconditionally sacrifices private ambition to the common good.


Beyond its strictly biographical and intellectual record `Memories and
Conversations' acquires at times the contours of an artistic creation.
Registering moments of Toumanian's private life it reads as a drama of
human struggle and creativity, of frustrated ambitions and truncated
potential, of unrealised dreams, but also of hope and of love and
generosity. It even imposes itself as tragedy - a lone spirit harassed
by dark clouds, a grieving father, an individual suffering
inconsolable regret at the waste of human potential and the loneliness
of an end sapped by a cancer that killed the poet when but 54.

Toumanian's universally perceived joyful, humorous and endlessly
gregarious person was, as he repeatedly confessed, almost always in
the grip of a bleak but hidden melancholy. During a 1915 bout of
withdrawal from social and political life his daughter recalls the
evening when she got to know `how tortured and lonely' he had been
`throughout his whole his life' `how tense and weary.' `All of this
however was concealed by his smile and his huge optimism...At home and
in society he lived happily and merrily. Seeing him so all judged him
carefree, secure and happy; a man of banquets and music. Some even
considered him lazy (p117).'  But none saw the other side. In 1923,
the last year of his life, Toumanian tells that:

    `Many think me happy, my life stable and in equilibrium. But they
    are all utterly unaware of my inner storms and stresses. No one
    knows anything... They still have not read my writing properly...
    no one will ever discover the truth, no one will ever be able to
    tell it. (p289)

How much the poet's deeper pessimism was caused by ill health that
dogged him through life is unclear. But perhaps his poetry, his
passion for writing, his love of literature, his devotion to friends
and company and an almost obsessive drive for collecting artistic
artefacts - silverware, precious china, ancient manuscripts, First
Editions - was all means to escape or at least cope with those
permanent dislocations of spirit. Time however only added new pains
and dislocations - the loss of his father, the pogroms of 1905, the
news of his son's death, the catastrophe of the 1915 Genocide and the
hunger, poverty, famine and epidemics that followed. And then there
was personal pain, his feeling a failure for not having focussed on
his true calling and not having written more poetry and drama.

Yet Hovanness Toumanian brimmed with life, lived it to the full and
gave of himself to all who touched his path.


For a man to whom simplicity was a guiding principle - `In art and in
life the most essential and the most valuable thing is simplicity,' -
Toumanian's life was far from simple. From a poor rural home in the
north eastern Armenian province of Lori he moved to the nearby
Georgian capital Tbilisi where without private means he managed to
establish himself almost as a local aristocrat, `keeping himself in
the manner of the rich and secure (p55).' Like many an aristocrat he
too was in permanent and heavy debt necessary for financing life's
luxuries, rich art collections, a fabulous library and endless

Huge as were his debts bankers and moneyed friends gave happily and
with little expectation of repayment. Some did express consternation
that he used borrowed money not only to purchase luxuries but even to
share with others. `These people demanded accounts...but father was
not a man of accounts (p55).'

Despite aristocratic tastes and Tbilisi city life Toumanian never lost
touch with rural Armenia. Possessing a keen interest in peasant life,
tradition and folklore he travelled through the land amassing raw
material for his writing. But alas he was not to enjoy the luxury of
free creative time. Ceaseless interruption was a very condition of his
existence. `His day began early, at dawn, especially in summertime',
but frequently `from dawn too would begin his string of visitors.' So
`he was unable to work when at his freshest.' Toumanian's home was
always open to all comers. He was always there for advice, on
everything, from money and legal matters to medical issues and
domestic disputes, from debates about literature to questions of fine
art. On his numerous journeys into rural regions he carried legal and
medical textbooks to enable him to advise wisely. (p89).

Among Toumanian's endless visitors was guerrilla leader Antranik who
appreciating the `monumental authority enjoyed by Hovanness Toumanian
among all strata of the Armenian' (Hrachig Simonian's phrase from his
biography `Antranik and His Times' Volume 1) remembers in his own
recollections that:

    `The doors to his (Toumanian's) home were open to everyone. Like a
    monastery, pilgrims and visitors came and went every day to enjoy
    the rich table and the benefits. He would never sit at table
    without a guest and never close a day without having done a good
    deed or a service.' (`Antranik and His Times' p231)

According to Nvart Toumanian her father and Antranik got on alike a
house on fire, burning the midnight candle telling stories, discussing
politics and cursing the incompetence and inadequacy of the then
Armenian political leaderships, the ARF included. Antranik proved to
be `one of those rare people who on the very first encounter created a
bridge of human sympathy and understanding'. A fine story teller he
knew scores of folk tales some of which Toumanian polished and
published (p143-144). (Hrachig Simonian provides a great deal of
significant detail on their relations.)

Hovanness Toumanian's never ending flow of visitors was testimony to
his stature. They included the entire phalanx of the modern Armenian
intelligentsia - Shant, Shirvanzade, Aghbalian, Komitas, Siamanto,
Demirjian, Vahan Derian Issahakian, Vrtanness Papazian, Hovanness
Hovannisian, Alexander Dsadourian and many other Armenian as well as
Georgian and Russian artists and intellectuals. One of the most
frequent was Ghazaros Aghayan, a fellow poet, linguist, folklorist,
novelist and intellectual. Though, nearly twenty years older, Aghayan
became Toumanian's closest and most intimate friend.  His death, in
1911 was a harsh blow. `One can say' writes Nvart' `that after Aghayan
father never had another truly intimate friend.' (p144)

The relationship between Aghayan and Toumanian has been well
noted. Beyond personal attraction they were bound by a shared
democratic vision and a common devotion to the progress and
emancipation of the common people whose lives inspired the work of
both. Literary critic Arsen Derderian compared their friendship to
that of Goethe and Schiller or Marx and Engels, with novelist
Alexander Shirvanzade qualifying that `it was Aghayan who showed
Toumanian the way and guided him to complete maturity, he himself
remaining in the shadows.' (For a commentary on this friendship and
collaboration you can, if your read Armenian, pick up the 1990, No2
edition Badmapanasirakan Handes, p41-61)

Ever ready to interrupt his creative flow in order to attend to
callers throughout his life the poet ignored his own dictum that
`there is nothing to compare to the pleasure of creativity, nothing'
and `nothing should ever be allowed to disturb its flow.' (p223) To no
avail Vahan Derian would urge Toumanian to hold back from public
affairs and dedicate himself to writing. He would not. `You're talking
nonsense Vahan. This is how our lives must be.' (p109). Such was the
ideal intellectual. He did sometime rebel and even acquired a
telephone hoping to control visitors. But they continued to arrive and
his phone rang incessantly.


Toumanian's standing as a national and social figure emerges most
strikingly during times of national crisis: during the 1905 Azeri
pogroms against Armenians in Baku and the Caucuses and during the
1914-1921 years of Genocide and World War. In 1905, of firm humanist
principle and against the grain, Toumanian worked for harmony between
Armenians and Azeris. Travelling through warring villages he urged an
end to fratricidal hostilities. `We ourselves' he wrote `shall not
invade or fight against our Turkish neighbours. If we were to attack
when stronger it would be unjust, if weaker a stupidity.' (p87) But he
was firm in his determination for self defence. `...If they attack us
we will hope that the state halts them. If this proves impossible we
will confront them ourselves and mercilessly so. But still we shall
not invade their villages.'(p86)

In his recollections Andranik underlines Toumanian's outlook free of
any national chauvinism. In the nationally and demographically mixed
reality of Armenia and the Caucuses both shared a common hostility to
any manifestation of national hatred. For Antranik, Toumanian was the
`ideal Armenian', a `patriot and an activist' who was `loved and
respected not only by the Armenian people, but by the Russian,
Georgian, Persian and Tatar peoples too.' Later during the
Armenian-Georgian wars Toumanian was to repeat one of Andranik's
remarks that was embedded in his consciousness.

    `When at night you lay your head to the pillow, think a little
    about your neighbours, whether they be Armenian or Turkish,
    Russian or Georgian and whoever they may be, think well of
    them. (Hrachig Simonian p537)

Toumanian was also a tremendous organiser and doer. In 1905 he
borrowed money for the needy and secured supplies of flour for hungry
villages. In 1920 he obtained a donation of 30,000 roubles from the
Baku rich and divided it equally between child victims of the Gori
earthquake, famine victims in Russia and refugees from western
Armenia. (p227) During the Genocide and the war years he visited
affected regions including Van giving succour and solidarity. In the
post-Genocide years he helped organise hospitals and orphanages,
shelter and food for refugees from western Armenia gathered in the
compounds of Etchmiadzin, the Armenian Church Headquarters.
Castigating both civil and Church authorities for incompetence he
would ransack official stores and distribute them among the
refugees. Enraged by the refusal of the leader of the Armenian Church
to allow desperately cold refugees to shelter in a newly constructed
Church building, Toumanian defiantly led them in himself. Confronted
by an irate Catholicos asserting right and authority as `Catholicos of
all Armenians', Toumanian retorted `Well, I am the poet of All
Armenians.' (p126).

It was such activism that led to two bouts of imprisonment after the
1905 Revolution, first in Tbilisi's infamous Medekh prison and then in
Petersburg. Whilst in prison, Toumanian for once found undisturbed
time to write. On a visit to the prison, `when father was hugging and
cuddling Tamar (his youngest daughter), he put a tiny piece of
cigarette paper into her waist.' When the family got home they
discovered on the paper two masterworks by the poet `A Drop of Honey'
and `Descent'. (p90) In jest Derenik Demirjian was to suggest that
instead of all those unjustly thrown into prison by the Tsar, Toumanian
should have been incarcerated to allow him conditions to produce more

Though prison did not break his spirit it broke his health.

`The first major signs of father's failing health and ageing appeared
in the spring of 1912 following his release at return to Tbilisi. He
was 43...but the previous joyful play of his face, his healthy colour
had gone. His gait and back were bent.'

He was never to fully recover and then cancer invaded.


For all his public, social and political life Toumanian still did find
time to write and has left us pearls of poetry, epics, stories,
quartets and more. In Armenia and in the popular imagination his
legacy has endured. It is a legacy inspired by 19th and 20th century
Armenian rural life and enriched by a remarkable knowledge of world
literature taking in the east and the west, the Persian, the Armenian,
the Russian and the European. Favourites included Firdusi and Nizami,
Pushkin, Dostoyevski, Turgenev and especially Goethe - `The author of
`Faust' has encompassed life. If you understand `Faust' you have
understood life.' (p149). But Shakespeare always reigned supreme.

`Goethe is a genius but Shakespeare is even greater. He has an awesome
dynamism, depth, power and refinement. He is elemental. He himself is
nature. All of nature's manifestations...are in him with the sun
dominant. Shakespeare is the universe....He is co mplete and perfect.'

Contrary to many a cheerless Armenian intellectual Toumanian also
understood and appreciated the Armenian contribution to world
literature. The `works of the classical Armenian historians and these
in their most luxurious editions were the jewel of his library (p64).'
These he would regularly read to family and visitors, in particular he
loved to read and reread Movses of Khoren and Lasdivertzi. He was
passionate about the poetry of Shnorhali and Narek `a volume of which
he always used to take on holiday.' On reading Narek his `face would
light up', he would be overwhelmed.

But the richest source of inspiration for Toumanian's writing was the
lives of common people, their customs, traditions, folklore and
legends. `H/she who is closest to the land and the people, s/he who
delves deepest into popular creativity is that much more universal. It
is only along that road that the writer can acquire a place in world
literature.' Toumanian valued `David of Sassoon' in particular
regarding this national epic as `the representative and the expression
of the spirit' of the Armenian common people. (p224). Some, especially
in the Diaspora have dismissed Toumanian as a mere collector of folk
tales, legends and fables. He was in his own day castigated with one
editor dismissing the idea `that poetry could be written about a cat
and a dog.' Toumanian's own view was folklore and legend were `deep,
endless, infinite valleys, rich and fabulous worlds' born of `one of
the highest forms of creativity' to which `all genius aspires.'
Toumanian aspired and often reached. Even his shortest retelling of a
popular folk tale is rich with life and that at its most sophisticated
social, philosophical and moral level too.

Toumanian himself was however deeply unhappy with what he wrote
feeling it meagre when compared to that which he was capable of. `My
writing is less than what I have conceived. My dreams and my thoughts
are grander. What have I written!' he exclaims, `A few words and no
more, and those on the hoof.' (p78). His regret was sometimes bitter.

`I have' he once exclaimed `squandered all of the vast capital'
`inherited from my birthplace. (p292)

The last two years of Nvart's entries cover the first years of Soviet
Armenia. Though there is no mention of the 1917 February or October
Revolutions or triumph of Soviet power in Armenia, Toumanian's sympathy
is evident. He had particular enthusiasm for Armenian Communist leader
Alexander Miassnikian, delighted at the latter's efforts on behalf of
Armenian writers and Armenian culture. `At long last literature is
protected. There is a government; hereafter you can sit comfortably
and write. It is this that is necessary for us.' Writing to Avetik
Isshakian Toumanian urged him to return home where `art and literature
has never had such attention devoted to it (p243-244).'

The Soviet Armenian era did in fact realise one of Toumanian's central
ambitions - it created secure foundations for the Armenian
intelligentsia and cut for them a solid niche in society. The reforms
of the early Soviet period however benefited Toumanian himself little.
Medical treatment failed to fend of a pernicious cancer that daily
wore him down. `He had a great desire, a hungry appetite to write. But
pain would not permit him to rise' to his desk. `He had no strength...'
Large measures of Toumanian's last years were consumed by rage and
frustration against creative impotence.

    `Oh if only I were able to get off my sick bed. Look at what I
    could have published! The possibilities to write and to print are
    now huge...all plentiful. But me, me... if only I could get
    better. (p294)

Tortured by inability to complete `Hazaran Blboul' finished portions
of which point to a masterpiece, Toumanian dreamed:

    `Once I get well no one will drag me away from my desk. As soon as
    my eyes open with the spring just see what I shall pour out, a
    flood of legends and fable. (p294)

He was never to get better. Weakened and delirious on 21 March 1923
after asking the date he said `It's the last night. I shall not see
March out.' Two days later Hovanness Toumanian died. His last words
`Be brave' addressed to us or himself, we shall never know..

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.

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