Friday, January 26, 2018

Death of Zabelle Boyajian (January 26, 1957)

Alice Stone Blackwell in the United States and Zabelle Boyajian in England played a central role in the promotion in Armenian literature at the turn of the twentieth century.

Boyajian was born in 1873 in Diarbekir. Her father Thomas was a former Evangelical pastor who had become the British vice-consul in the city. After the death of his first wife, he had remarried to Catherine Rogers, an Englishwoman who was a descendant of poet Samuel Rogers (1763-1855). Her parents homeschooled her and taught her history, geography, and several languages (Armenian, English, French, Turkish, German, and Russian). They also instilled in her the love for Armenian and English literature.

During the Hamidian massacres of 1895, Thomas Boyajian was killed by the Turkish mob in Kharpert, where he was spending the summer with his family. His wife, together with their children Zabelle and Henry, relocated to London. Zabelle would spend the rest of her life in the British capital. She enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in University Central London (UCL). In 1901 she published her first work of fiction, the novel Yestere: The Romance of a Life, under the pen name Varteni, to avoid endangering the life of her relatives still living in Constantinople. It was based on the events following the massacres of Sasoun in 1894. The novel was very successful and it was immediately published in German. An Armenian translation remained unpublished, however.

Zabelle would actively devote herself to writing and painting. She wrote important essays on figures of world literature like William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Euripides, but also published essays and many translations of Armenian literature.

She was close to Anna Raffi, widow of the famous Armenian novelist, and her sons Aram (1876-1919) and Arshak. In 1916 she compiled and translated the anthology Armenian Legends and Poems, which had an introduction by Viscount James Bryce and an essay on Armenian literature by Aram Raffi. The anthology was illustrated by her works inspired by Armenian legends.

In the same year, she participated in one of the many commemorative festivals taking place on April 23, 1916, on the occasion of the 300 th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. She recited her personal ode to the Bard, entitled “Armenia’s Love to Shakespeare.” Her poetic tribute was selected, along with 165 others, to be published in A Book of Homage to Shakespeare.

As a painter, Boyajian had individual exhibitions in London in 1910 and 1912, in Germany in 1920, in Egypt in 1928, in France, in Italy, and in Belgium between 1940 and 1950. In 1921 a revised edition of the Armenian translation of Hamlet, by Hovhannes Masehian, was printed in Vienna, illustrated by her.

She published her most important work, Gilgamesh: A Dream of the Eternal Quest, a dramatic rendering in poetic form of the tale of the mythical Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, in 1924. She traveled widely and in 1938 published her travel notes and illustrations of Greece, In Greece with Pen and Palette . This was followed by a play, Etchmiadzin, in 1943, which was performed in New York in 1946. Two years later, she published her translation of Avetik Isahakian’s epic poem Abu Lala Mahari.

Zabel Boyajian passed away on January 26, 1957. Her Armenian Legends and Poems, which had been out of print since its first publication, was reprinted in 1958 in London and New York. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Birth of Lord Byron (January 22, 1788)

For two centuries, Lord Byron’s Armenian connection has become the stuff of legend, and the fact that one of the greatest British poets took an interest in the Armenian culture to the point of learning the language has been widely discussed.
 
Byron's visit to San Lazzaro by Ivan Aivazovsky

George Gordon Byron was born on January 22, 1788 in London. He spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire. His father, a womanizer mired in debts, died when he was three years old, and he remained under the care of his mother. After his elementary education in Aberdeen Grammar School and a private school in Dulwich, from 1801-1805 he studied in Harrow School, a boarding school in London. In 1805 he went up to Trinity College, in Cambridge, where he spent three years, engaging in sexual escapades, boxing, horse riding, and gambling.

Byron had written poetry since his teenage years, and after he recalled and burned a book called Fugitive Pieces, he published his actual first book, Hours of Idleness, in 1807. It was savagely reviewed in Edinburgh, and Byron responded in 1809 with his first major satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.

As it was customary for young noblemen, Byron undertook a grand tour of Europe from 1809-1811. He avoided most of continental Europe due to the Napoleonic wars, and instead he traveled through the Mediterranean. He went over Portugal, Spain, Albania, and Greece, and he reached the Ottoman Empire, visiting Smyrna and Constantinople. He returned to England from Malta in July 1811.

The next year, Byron became a celebrity with the publication of the first two cantos of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which established him as a leading romantic poet. His last period in England included the production of many works. However, his rising star was darkened by scandal. Various love affairs, including rumors of an incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, and the pressure of debt led him to seek marriage with Annabella Millbanke in 1815. They had a daughter in the same year, but the marriage did not end Byron’s escapades, but ended in disaster. His wife left him in January 1816 and divorced him. Rumors and debts did not end, and Byron left England three months later for good.

After a few months in Switzerland, Byron wintered in Venice, where he resumed his love adventures with two married women. It was natural, then, that he visited for the first time the monastery of San Lazzaro in November 1816. However, he was not just a random visitor of the Mekharist Congregation. He made his goal to get acquainted with Armenian culture and, more importantly, to study the Armenian language with Rev. Harutiun Avkerian (Pascal Aucher). In a letter of December 1816 to his publisher Thomas Moore, he wrote: “By way of divertisement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this — as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement — I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on; — but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success.”

He collaborated with his teacher in two books: Grammar English and Armenian (1817), an English textbook for Armenians, and A Grammar Armenian and English (1819), a grammar of Classical Armenian for the use of English speakers. Byron also translated from Armenian the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians , two chapters of Movses Khorenatsi’s History of Armenia, and section of Nerses Lambronatsi’s Orations. The poet’s lyricism would become an inspiration for many Armenian poets of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In Venice, Byron also wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold, and around the same time, he published other poems. He wrote the first five cantos of Don Juan between 1818 and 1820, and continued his work in Ravenna from 1819-1821. He fell in love with eighteen-year-old Countess Teresa Guiccioli, a married aristocrat who abandoned her husband and followed him to Ravenna, Pisa, and Genoa. Living in this city, in July 1823 accepted an offer from representatives of the Greek independence movement and left Genoa for Greece. He first settled in the Ionian Islands and then traveled to the mainland in January 1824.
Byron settled in Missolonghi, in southern Greece, and was entangled in the internal fights of different Greek factions. However, his presence in Greece would draw the increasing active participation of European nations. He sold his estate in Scotland to help raise money for the revolution. When planning an attack on Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth, Byron fell ill in February 1824. He made a partial recovery, but caught a strong cold in April, and then developed a violent fever, which caused his death in Missolonghi on April 19, 1824. His remains were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but this was rejected for reason of “questionable morality.” He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

A statue remembers Byron in Athens, and April 19, the anniversary of his death, is honored in Greece as “Byron Day.” A street also bears his name in Yerevan.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Birth of Mateos Zarifian (January 16, 1894)

Armenian literature in the nineteenth and twentieth century had a host of names who were victims of a disease that was considered incurable until a vaccine was introduced in the 1920s: tuberculosis.

Poetry and tuberculosis had a link of sorts. Four talented Armenian poets, among others, died from the disease without reaching the age of forty: Bedros Tourian (1851-1872), Vahan Terian (1885-1920), Misak Medzarentz (1886-1908), and Mateos Zarifian (1894-1924).

Zarifian, the less known of the four, was born on January 16, 1894, in the neighborhood of Gedik Pasha (Constantinople). He spent his childhood and youth in Scutari. He studied at the school of Ijadieh, the Robert College, and the Berberian School, which he finished in 1913. He was an active sportsman and earned prizes in the Armenian Olympic games organized in Constantinople (1912-1913)

He went to Adana to work as a teacher of English and physical education at the local Armenian school. The first symptoms of tuberculosis, a strong chest pain, appeared at that time. In 1914 he interrupted his work and went to Lebanon, hoping that the mountainous air would help cure him. At the beginning of World War I, he was drafted into the Ottoman army. While studying at the school of non-commissioned officers, his unruly behavior landed him before a military tribunal, which sentenced him to exile. However, some influential interventions helped commute this sentence to long-term prison. Some months later, he was freed and started serving at the military hospital as a male nurse.

After the armistice of Mudros (1918), Zarifian went to the interior as translator for the British army to participate in the task of gathering Armenian survivors. Between 1919 and 1921 he worked at his alma mater, the Berberian School, as teacher of English and physical education. His illness prompted him to pour his life experience into literature. In 1919 he started publishing poems in the daily Jagadamard. His poetry reflected a hopeful approach to life and death, and his love poems disclosed the melancholic overtones of his soul, “Ah! The superb poem of my soul,/ Of my ruined, destroyed soul…”

He published two volumes of poetry, Songs of Grief and Peace (1921) and Songs of Life and Death (1922), which were critically acclaimed. His long battle with tuberculosis came to a critical point after 1922. Zarifian, the last representative of Western Armenian poetry, passed away on April 9, 1924, at the age of thirty.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Death of Henri Verneuil (January 11, 2002)

Prolific filmmaker Henri Verneuil was one of the well-known names in French cinema for forty years, and closed his cinematographic career with two autobiographic films that narrated the Armenian experience.

He was born Ashod Malakian on October 15, 1920, in Rodosto, Turkey. The Malakians emigrated from their hometown in 1924 as a result of Turkish anti-Armenian persecution in the years after the genocide and settled in Marseilles (France).

Young Ashod graduated from the French lyceum in Aix-en-Haute and entered the École Nationale d’Arts et Metiers in Aix-en-Provence (1942). Upon graduation in 1944, he put aside his technical diploma and started working as a journalist. In 1945 he wrote an article about the Armenian genocide and the editor suggested he adopt a French name to make it look more objective. Thus, Henri Verneuil was born.

In the postwar, Verneuil entered the world of cinema. He directed his first short film in 1946 and moved to Paris in 1949, where he became an assistant director. In 1951 he directed his first feature, the black comedy The Hunting Ground. His second film, the drama Forbidden Fruit (1952), won him international acclaim. Both films featured the great French comic actor Fernandel in the main role. The same actor played the six main roles (a father and his five sons) in The Sheep Has Five Legs (1954), which earned the first prize at the Locarno International Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for best script to Verneuil in 1955. Verneuil’s biggest hit, before the New Wave of the 1960s, was The Cow and I (1959), once again with Fernandel.

Later he also directed other movie stars including Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, Jean Paul Belmondo, Yves Montand, and Michele Morgan. In the 1970s he directed a few films in English with Anthony Quinn, Yul Brynner, and Henry Fonda. His last commercial film was in 1984.

Afterwards, the veteran filmmaker would focus on his Armenian heritage. In 1985 he published an autobiographical work, Mayrig, which recounted his childhood and the Armenian experience in Marseilles. It would become the basis for his two last films, Mayrig (1991) and 588, rue Paradis (1992), featuring Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale. In 1988 he had directed the video clip of “Pour toi, Arménie” (For You, Armenia), the song composed by Charles Aznavour and Georges Garvarentz to the benefit of the victims of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia. 

In 1996 Verneuil, who had earned the French Legion of Honor in 1955, was awarded an honorary César, France's equivalent of the Oscar, for lifetime achievement in film. He was elected a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in 2000. He died in Bagnolet, a suburb of Paris, on January 11, 2002. Two of his children, Patrick Malakian (a TV director) and Gaya Verneuil (an actress), followed in his steps. Several streets and squares in France and Armenia bear his name.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Death of Stepan Lisitsian (January 4, 1947)


Stepan Lisitsian was a pioneering name in several fields at the turn of the twentieth century. He is particularly remembered for his work as an educator and ethnographer.


He was born on September 22, 1865, in Tiflis, in a doctor’s family. After graduating from the Russian gymnasium (high school) in 1884 with highest grades, he entered the school of History and Philology of Odessa University (Crimea) the following year. After a year, he moved to the University of Warsaw and graduated in 1889. From 1889-1891 he taught Russian literature at the Gevorgian Lyceum of Holy Etchmiadzin, but he was fired by an order from Catholicos Makar I for leading student agitations against the administration.


Lisitsian moved back to Tiflis. He contributed to the journal Taraz, and was its de facto editor in 1892-1893, when editor in chief Tigran Nazarian was abroad. In 1894 he was hired as teacher at the Nersessian School, where he taught Armenian history, general history, and Russian geography at different times until 1915.



Meanwhile, in 1904 his request to the authorities to publish a magazine for children was refused due to his questionable background. In the end, a year later Hasker appeared, formally under the editorship of Lisitsian’s wife Ekaterina. The magazine gathered the best Armenian writers, illustrators, and scientists, including names like Hovhannes Tumanian, Avetik Isahakian, or Atabek Khenkoyan, and actually the first true magazine for children in the Armenian press. Stepan Lisitsian became the editor in 1913 and continued the magazine until 1917 (it had a short revival in 1922).


Lisitsian worked in the pedagogical field for almost 60 years. Besides the publication of Hasker, he wrote textbooks, curricula, and specialized studies. The textbook Lusaber (“Daybreak”), which he authored with Tumanian and Levon Shant, was particularly popular. He also traveled to Russia, Switzerland, France, and Germany to study new teaching methods. In 1911 he turned his wife’s elementary school into a middle school and then a high school, of which he became its principal in 1924, when the school was dissolved. He moved to Yerevan in 1924 and became a university professor, and from 1938 he also taught at the Pedagogical Institute.


Lisitsian, who knew several Western languages, was also an accomplished and prolific translator, literary scholar, and polemicist. Among his many works, he translated Henrik Sienkiewicz famous novel Quo Vadis ? from the Polish original. He is also particularly remembered for his extensive work in the field of ethnography, especially since the 1920s, and geography. He gathered much material during fieldwork and wrote pioneering studies on different ethnographic areas of Armenia. In 1928 he became the head of the section of Ethnography in the State Museum of History. He wrote an important textbook on physical geography of Armenia in 1940 and was the author of an “ethnographic questionnaire,” published in 1946, that became a guide for scholars in the field for many decades. In 1945 he was honored with the title of Emeritus Worker of Science of Soviet Armenia and decorated with the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

Lisitsian passed away on January 4, 1947. A school in Yerevan carries his name, as well as the ethnographic section of the Museum of History of Armenia. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Death of Mekertich Armen (December 22, 1972)

Mekertich Armen was a less known, even though well-regarded member of the generation of Armenian intellectuals that became victim of Stalinism.

He was born Mekertich Harutiunian on December 27, 1906, in Alexandropol (nowadays Gumri), in a family of artisans. He studied in a local school and then in the gymnasium for boys and in one of the schools opened by the Near East Relief in the city. Years later, he would graduate from the State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, where he studied at the section of script writing for two years.

In 1922-1923 he was a boy scout (scoutism was still tolerated in Soviet Armenia in the early 1920s), and in 1923 published his first poem in the local newspaper Panvor . In 1925 Mekertich Armen was one of the founding members of the short-lived “October” union of writers of Leninakan (Gumri’s name in Soviet times), started by Gurgen Mahari (1903-1969) along with Soghomon Tarontsi (1904-1971), Gegham Sarian (1902-1976), Sarmen (1902-1980), and others. In 1925 he moved to Yerevan and entered another short-lived union of writers, called “November” and founded by Yeghishe Charents (1897-1937). He worked for a few years in the editorial offices of the journals Grakan Dirkerum and Yeritasard Bolshevik . He would also be the secretary of the artistic council of Haykino (the Armenian film studios, later known as Armenfilm).

By 1934, when he became a member of the newly founded Writers Union of Armenia, Mekertich Armen had already published several books of prose, among them the novels Yerevan (1931) and Scout 89 (1933).  His remarkable novel The Fountain of Heghnar (1935), set in pre-Soviet times, put him among the best writers of his generation.

However, the political purges that swept the Soviet Union in 1936-1938 did not spare the political and intellectual class of Armenia. Along with many members of his generation (Charents, Axel Bakunts, Gurgen Mahari, Vagharshag Norents, Soghomon Tarontsi, among many others), Mekertich Armen was arrested in 1937 as an “enemy of the people” (the usual slogan of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to tarnish its potential and real opponents) and exiled to a labor camp, where he remained until 1945.

Upon surviving the hardships of exile, he returned to Yerevan and continued his literary activities. He published new novels and collections of short stories, but none repeated the success of The Fountain of Heghnar, which had been printed twice before his arrest and had three more editions from 1955 to 1961. In the short interlude of Nikita Khruschev’s period of the “thaw,” when the crimes of Stalin were denounced and some works reflecting the Siberian labor camps were allowed to be published, Armen published a collection of short stories, They Asked Me to Deliver to You (1964), that brought some recognition once again. In the last years of his life, he was named Emeritus Worker of Culture of Soviet Armenia (1967) and his collected works were published in five volumes (1967-1971). The Fountain of Heghnar was the subject of two films (“The Fountain of Heghnar,” Arman Manarian, 1971, Yerevan, and “The Spring,” Arby Ovanessian, 1972, Iran).

Mekertich Armen passed away on December 22, 1972, in Yerevan.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Birth of Stepan Voskan (December 14, 1825)

French culture played a very remarkable role in the development of Armenian intellectual life in the nineteenth century. One of its best representatives was journalist and writer Stepan Voskan (Voskanian).
 
Voskan was born on December 14, 1825, in Smyrna (Izmir), the second city of the Ottoman Empire, which would also become an important hub of Armenian cultural life. He studied at the local Mesrobian School, where he taught after graduation. In 1846 he went to Paris to continue his studies. He was already well-versed in French and took some courses at the Collège Sainte-Barbe, where he also tutored foreign students. At the same time, he followed studies at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (for technical subjects) and the Collège de France (for liberal arts).

In 1847 he started contributing to the Parisian periodicals National and Réforme, and took part in the French Revolution of 1848. The twenty-three year old student was a speaker at the barricades, as well as an active participant in the occupation of the royal palace: “Yes, we were with those who rebelled against Louis Philippe,” he wrote in 1859, “yes, we did what every man had to do for freedom and we had the honor of entering the Tuileries arms in hand.” In June 1849 he participated in a student protest against the war with Italy and, as a result, he was arrested and spent two months in prison. Months later, he graduated from Sainte-Barbe, and until 1852 he followed courses at the medical school and the School of Social Sciences of the Sorbonne.

The ideals of social justice and human rights, coupled with Auguste Comte’s positivism, had forged Voskan’s world when he returned to the Ottoman Empire in 1852. He settled first in Constantinople and then in Smyrna, where he took a position as principal and teacher. He championed the ideas of national awakening and education, as well as freedom, and was an implacable critic of public affairs: “A moral and material wound must be disclosed in order to be cured.” He published two pseudonymous pamphlets (1853-1854), where he condemned retrograde clergymen and Catholic mistaken views about the Armenian Church. He was persecuted and lost his job; as a result, he returned to Paris, where he briefly published the journal Arevelk (1855-1856). His views revealed controversial once again, and he lost the support of his wealthy sponsors.

After tutoring students for three years, Voskan published another journal, Arevmudk, in 1859, where he continued espousing his progressive views. After Arevmudk had to cease publication due to relentless opposition, he went to Italy. In Turin he was a contributor to the French newspaper L’Italie and attracted the attention of the famous Italian statesman, Count of Cavour (1810-1861), who had him tutoring his son from 1860-1861. Voskan would later resume the publication of Arevmudk (1864-1865) in Paris, again to meet a bitter end. Afterwards, he would abandon the Armenian language as a medium of expression. Paradoxically, he had been a champion of Modern Armenian and his writing and translations from French had greatly contributed to its development.

The journalist returned to his birthplace in 1866. He worked as principal and French teacher at the Mesrobian and Hripsimian schools, and published the French newspaper La Réforme (1867-1901). He published two pamphlets in French in 1878-1879, where he criticized the views of contemporary Armenian philosopher Kalust Gosdantian, another follower of Comte, and French philosopher Émile Littré.

Little is known about the last years of Stepan Voskan, who passed away in a hotel in Smyrna on February 23, 1901, in dire straits. His views would remain controversial even after his death. Nevertheless, many of them have passed the test of time and are still relevant to this day.