Prolific and popular French novelist and biographer Henri Troyat, a member of the French Academy for almost half a century, was also of Armenian origin, even though he had little connection to Armenian life.
He was born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov on November 1, 1911, in Moscow. His last name was the Russianized form of Torosian, and his maternal grandfather was of Armenian-Georgian mixed descent. His father was a wealthy Armenian draper who had made a fortune through investment in railways and banking. His privileged environment included a Swiss governess who taught him French. When the Soviet Revolution broke in 1917, the family retreated to their estate in the Caucasus, but the failure of the counter-revolutionary movement forced them to catch the last émigré boat from Crimea to Constantinople in 1920. From Constantinople, they traveled with passports of the Republic of Armenia to France and joined the exiled Russian community in Paris. They settled in the prosperous suburb of Neuilly, where young Lev attended the Lycée Pasteur. The family found exile life difficult and was forced to move to the city, where Lev Tarasov studied law at the Sorbonne. He would once say: “Success means nothing. I know what I'm talking about: at the very beginning of my life, I saw my parents lose everything in a reversal of fortune, and I kept that lesson in mind.”
He would never return to Russia, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, claiming that he wanted to keep alive the imaginary country he had created out of childhood memories and dreams. He acquired French citizenship in 1933, and departed to Metz to complete his mandatory military service. He was still under arms when he published his first novel, False Light, in 1935, which obtained the Prix du Roman Populiste, under the pseudonym Henri Troyat.
After returning from military service, the writer was appointed as a civil servant in the prefecture of the Seine. He continued his literary career, publishing a series of short psychological novels. In 1938 his fifth novel, The Web, earned him both the Prix Max Barthou of the French Academy and the very prestigious Prix Goncourt. He was mobilized with the outbreak of World War II and returned to Paris in 1940.
At this point Troyat’s career took a major shift. He continued with his short psychological fiction--his novel Snow in Mourning (1952) was filmed with Spencer Tracy in 1956 as The Mountain —but his subsequent work was dominated by two major innovations: the long novel cycle and biography. In 1942 he left his civil service job to devote himself entirely to literature. He married twice; he had a son from his marriage, which ended in divorce, and later married a widow, the love of his life, with a young daughter whom he raised as his own.
He initiated a whole series of biographies of Russian writers (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin, Leon Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, and Anton Chekhov) and tsars (Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Alexander I, and Ivan the Terrible). These works brought an introduction to Russian literary and political culture to the French public. The historical research became the grounds for a series of historical novels, mostly based in Russia. Troyat devoted the trilogy While the Earth Endures (1947-1950) to prerevolutionary Russia, the revolution, the civil war, and the exile, and then explored France from the same perspective in the tetralogy The Seed and the Fruit (1953-1958), which became a popular French television series in 2001. These cycles of novels were followed by other multivolume novels from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. He would have more than a hundred literary works in his count, including novels, short stories, biographies, and plays.
Troyat became one the first French best-sellers, combining critical recognition with commercial success. In 1952 he won the Grand Prix Littéraire du Prince Pierre de Monaco. Seven years later, on May 21, 1959, at the age of forty-seven, he was inducted into the French Academy. Intriguingly, he sat on seat number 28, which had previously belonged to Claude Farrere, a novelist well-known for his pro-Turkish stances. He became the most long-standing member of the group of forty “immortals” who safeguard the French language. He would later earn a series of state decorations, including the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, the highest ranking in France.
Henri Troyat published his last novel, The Hunt, in 2006, at the age of ninety-five. He passed away on March 2, 2007.