I once wandered Paris in the spring. It was chill and I was alone, the drizzle fell upon me as I walked along the Seine from Rue de Mars and on toward where the Notre Dame stood. I walked in the paths of Hemingway, of Ezra Pound, of Henry James and Pablo Neruda and Gertrude Stein. I slipped into the clubs once graced by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. I bought a book at Shakespeare and Company; an auto-biography of sorts of a rag and bone bookshop that had so much of a voice, of a personality, of a story that why should it not also write a memoir? I wanted to capture the spirit of the années folles, in the hopes I suppose of lending my own work some sense of the historic or heroic, of making common cause with great names come together to change the face of literature.
We’ve all heard of Paris in the spring and its collection of ragtag writers and painters; assembled by fate to feed off each other’s energy – for nobody can write alone; one of the reasons so much modern literature is vapid: sitting in our underwear alone in our living rooms hurling 140 character insults into the ether has robbed our society of depth and empathy and our literature of meaning.
Yes, we’ve heard of all this. But have you considered Yerevan in the winter? The snow falling gently upon Terian Street while behind the great pillars in the offices of Aipetrat Publishers Alexander Shirvanzade, Axel Bakunts and Derenik Demirchian sit arguing about politics or a recent novel. Yegishe Charents storms out into the flurries, angry at the way the discussion was going, to join Zabel Yesaian and Vahan Totovents in the lobby of the recently opened Intourist Hotel to drink cheap cognac before heading across the square to the Moscow Theater. No, you probably haven’t. The sad irony of history and time and the march of civilization is that Hemingway and his crew went on to riches and international fame; Neruda built an extraordinary house in Valparaiso in which to host the tyrant Fidel – and Charents? He is known in his homeland, and to perhaps a few of the more discerning literary critics but otherwise his name and those of his comrades have faded away. Every random bookstore in Colorado Springs or Boise holds a copy of “A Moveable Feast”; but “Burgeoning Barbwire” by Gurgen Mahari is impossible to find in English, if it was ever translated at all.
I just finished “The Warmest Country”, (don’t look for it on Amazon, I have what might be the last copy, purchased from a little used bookstore on a quiet street in the Caucuses), a compilation of short stories and essays by these writers printed by Raduga Publishers in Moscow during the Soviet era. It was so much like reading “A Moveable Feast” that I was taken aback – not only by the same spirit which captured the writers of Yerevan in the day, but in the importance of time. While Paris in the ’20s hosted names that echo through history; so too Yerevan in the late ’20s (and into the early thirties when the Great Depression was ravaging Europe and America and the soviet project looked invincible). What struck me, perhaps above all, is the superiority of writing of the Yerevan crowd. Anybody who reads me knows I am not a fan of Hemingway or Neruda or Stein anyway, but juxtaposed against Grant Matevosian it becomes clear just how fickle and arbitrary fame can be.
Which leads me to a lesson. You see, Charents and his crew were communists and Aipetrat a Soviet publishing house. So too were Hemingway and Picasso (it is said that Ezra Pound had fascist sympathies). But the latter were writing in a free society and when war came, they moved – preserved their writing, their experiences which gave their future works greater depth. Yegishe Charents (and most of his circle), though being committed soviets, were murdered by the same system they sought to foster (most died in Stalin’s Great Purge or were subsequently silenced) and their works were banned for a generation (we are only rediscovering them perhaps now). Tremendous, powerful works born often out of the embers of genocide were extinguished into history by partisan politics and its need for total control. The lesson here – while we need utopians in literature and the arts for they dare to dream of a better world; they should – especially for their own good, but also for those of us who love good literature – be kept far away from politics.