The life span of Gostan Zarian, one of the foremost names of twentieth century Armenian literature, covered eight crucial decades. He was active in Constantinople with the Western Armenian generation before the genocide, then lived forty years in the Diaspora, and finally went to die in Soviet Armenia. He was a sort of “wandering Armenian,” not only physically, but also spiritually. His literature was at the crossroads of many influences.
Zarian was born in Shamakhi (Azerbaijan) on February 8, 1885. His father, a general in the Russian army, died when he was four, and he was sent to Baku, where he attended a Russian school. In 1895 he moved to France, where he continued his studies in Asnieres and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, two suburbs of Paris. After finishing high school, he went to the Université Libre of Brussels and obtained a doctorate in literature and philosophy in 1909.
Zarian initially wrote poetry and essays in Russian and French, until the famous Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren advised him to write in his mother tongue. The Armenian poet, who already spoke Armenian, went to Constantinople in 1910, where he started to participate in the renewal of literary life. In mid-1911 he left the Ottoman capital and went to Venice, where he studied Armenian with the Mekhitarist Fathers until the end of 1912. He married Rachel (Takuhi) Shahnazarian in December 1912, from whom he would have three children, and the newlyweds moved back to Constantinople. Zarian would actively participate in Western Armenian literary life until the beginning of the war. He was one of the leading voices of the group “Mehian,” together with Hagop Kufejian (Oshagan), Kegham Parseghian, Taniel Varoujan, and Aharon (Dadourian), and editor-in-chief of the homonymous journal Mehian, which was published from January-July 1914.
Zarian escaped with his family to Bulgaria in late October 1914, the day before Turkey declared war and joined the Central Powers, and thus he avoided the genocide. After living for a year in Bulgaria, he moved to Italy, where he lived for the next six years in Rome and Florence. In 1916 he published his poem “Three Songs,” translated from Armenian into Italian, which was widely critiqued. His literary activities were matched with an active engagement for the Armenian Cause. In 1919 he went to the Caucasus as a special reporter for several Italian newspapers.
Zarian moved back to Constantinople in late 1921, when the remnants of the Western Armenian intelligentsia were starting again a cultural and literary movement. He published the monthly Partzravank, together with Oshagan, Vahan Tekeyan, Shahan Berberian, and Kegham Kavafian, which lasted from January-July 1922. He also published his first book in Armenian, a collection of poems entitled The Crown of the Days. At the end of the year, when the Kemalist forces were about to occupy Constantinople, the writer accepted an invitation of the Soviet Armenian government and moved to Yerevan. For the next two years, he taught European literature at Yerevan University. However, he returned to Europe in June 1924 and would spend the next four decades on the move. He lived in Paris, Venice, Milan, Corfu, Florence, New York (1942-1947), Amsterdam, Ischia, Beirut, Aix-en-Provence, Vienna, Rapallo, Oakland, California (1960-1962), and in 1963 he repatriated to Soviet Armenia.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Zarian published his major works of prose in the monthly Hairenik of Boston, such as The Traveler and His Road, Bancoop and the Bones of the Mammoth, and Countries and Gods, among others. He also published as a book his poems The Bride of Dadrakom in 1930 and Three Songs (1931), and his masterpiece, the novel The Ship on the Mountain (1943). He contributed prose, poetry, essays, and commentary to a variety of Armenian and non-Armenian publications, writing in Armenian, French, Italian, and, later, English. He published two short-lived journals, the literary monthly La Tour de Babel in French (1925), and the pioneering journal of Armenian Studies in New York, Armenian Quarterly (1946). He was friends with various noted European writers, such as English novelist Lawrence Durrell and others. He taught at the American University of Beirut and at the University of California at Berkeley.
His return to Armenia was somewhat controversial, because he had criticized the Soviet regime in several works. His novel The Ship on the Mountain was about the period of the first independence. It was reissued in a heavily censored way (1963) and this created a heated polemics. In any case, Zarian was almost ignored in the last years of his life. He died on December 15, 1969 and was almost totally forgotten by literary circles in Armenia until the end of the regime. Several of his works were printed in book form in the 1970s and 1980s in the Diaspora. His rediscovery in Armenia started with the twenty-first book century, and several works scattered in the press and also unpublished have also been published.