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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. I. 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. II. 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 entertaining. 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. III. 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 masterpieces. 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. IV. 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.' (p215) 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.