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The Tradition of the Novel in Western Armenian Literature, 1880–1990

On 3rd December 2015, the Programme of Armenian Studies had the honour of hosting one of the most highly esteemed Armenian writers, Krikor Beledian, to give his first talk in London. Krikor Beledian is a contemporary writer who has incorporated innovative approaches to Armenian literature and thought, which he has brought to new heights. He has produced works of prose, poetry and literary. Krikor Beledian was born in Beirut and has been living in France since the 1960s. He went on to become Docent at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations in Paris and Professor of Patrology at the Faculty of Theology in Lyon. The lecture was conducted in Western Armenian and it was organized on this occasion to be held at SOAS University. Chair of the event was Director of the Programme of Armenian Studies, Krikor Moskofian.

The main topic of the lecture concerned the tradition of the novel (veb, in Armenian) during the composition of Western Armenian Literature within the period of 1880-1990. The Western Armenian novel was born during the 19th century in the Ottoman Empire and continued to live on in the Diaspora. Krikor Beledian poses the question of whether we may even speak of a ‘tradition’ of the novel in Western Armenian literature; and if there exists such a tradition, where do we indicate its starting point and what period may we look at? One may say, nevertheless, that the trajectory and contents of the novel in Western Armenian literature are not homogenous and went through a number of phases.

The Armenian novel as we know it today took on its modern form in the 19th century under the influence of the Western, especially French, tradition of the novel. However, the word ‘veb’, in Armenian, had existed well before the modern form of the Armenian novel came into fruition. The word ‘veb’ was used by such Armenian authors such as Movses Khorenatsi and Pavstos Buzand, both Armenian historians from the early Medieval period. Several examples of ‘veb’ before the modern era were transmitted orally through song, rather than written down. These examples cannot be considered to possess the same essence of the Armenian ‘veb’ of today. The word ‘veb’, therefore, has shifted in meaning and its contemporary content consists of the ‘Western’ concept of the novel. Beledian notes that the first modern Armenian novel, written in 1851 in a newspaper, has many similarities to the French novel, Paul et Vriginie (1788), written by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.

The problem of how the Armenian novel should be written arose in earnest from 1884, with the rise of realist writers, such as Krikor Zohrab and Digran Gamsaragan. Gamsaragan even has an article entitled “What is a real novel?”. Gamsaragan’s novel, “The Teacher’s Daughter” (1888), written in the newspaper Arevelk (The East) was met with a fair amount of criticism from literary circles due to the controversial start of the novel. Yeghia Demirjibashian reacted in an article saying that newspapers and the people want one thing – the novel. Beledian reminds us of the relationship between newspapers and the novel, since novels used to be primarily printed in newspapers and not as books during the 19th century. He stresses that the primary job of writers of that period was journalism. These novelists were journalists who worked at newspapers. Realism, thus, was brought to existence as a literary style through newspapers. This is because the mission of newspapers is to portray reality to inform their readers, and if their writing and articles are not related to reality then they cannot be regarded as newspapers. Armenian novels, however, had difficulties receiving permission for printing due to censorship from the Ottoman state. Until around 1910, most novels printed in newspapers were translations of French novels. When Armenian novels were requested for printing, it was difficult to obtain the Ottoman stamp required to allow printing. This continued until the onset of the Second Constitutional Era, 1908, brought forth a limited ‘wave of freedom’.

With regards the original issues concerned with the nature of the ‘veb’, Hagop Baronian, an Armenian writer and satirist of the 19th century, introduces the problems of subjectivity and objectivity in the novel. He concentrates on the importance of the author’s ideal of achieving truth within the novel from his/her own perspective. Nevertheless, the stories told by the author in a novel can be regarded as his/her own stories and not an objective account of reality. This is a pertinent problem for novelists of the realist branch who attempt to portray reality as objectively as possible, despite the limitations.

With regards literature in the Diaspora, it began to blossom in the 1920s and 30s, with writers such as Hagop Oshagan and Gosdan Zarian, who, despite being born in the Caucasus, in Shamakhi, wrote his works abroad according to the Western tradition, not the Russian or Caucasian Armenian traditions, in the words of Beledian. The development of Zorian’s literary style shone through while he lived in Istanbul. An important group of Armenian writers in the Diaspora formed in Paris. These writers included Shahan Shahnour, Zareh Vorpouni and Nikoghos Sarafian. This was in the majority a generation of novelists. Although poems do feature among their works, the novel took prime position over other styles of writing. Sarafian wrote an article entitled “Why do we love the novel so much?” In answer to this question, he says that the novel acts as a vehicle through which Armenians in the Diaspora are able to imprint their memories and, ultimately, their history. Due to the lack of historians in Armenian communities until at least the 1950s and 60s, the novelist had the responsibility of writing down history through literature. For Armenians, the novel took the role of expressing and noting their lived history. The novelist takes on the role of the historian. It is through the novel that Armenians were able to save the loss of their culture and history from the Genocide. This was not so much an issue for Armenian novelists in the 19th century. It became a problem due to the consequences of 1915 – a Diasporan problem.

Beledian spoke of the failure of the novel in Armenain communities in the Diaspora, especially the Middle East. He asserts that the novel, in order for it to be a successful account of a perspective on life at the author’s time and so that it may be successfully passed on to further generations, must focus on literary issues of writing, rather than national issues. Since Diasporan communities focus more so on the political problems of the conservation of national identity, they ignore the importance of the influence that artistic production may have in upholding and passing on national identity and the memories and culture of one’s ancestors. It is only by giving prime importance to the literary quality of the novel, rather than its political message, that a literary tradition may be maintained.


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