Armen Zakharyan

🐇 🐇 🐇 welcome, October (even though we know it ends in a celebration of death)

This posting is a report on an amazing body of work by Armen Zakharyan, about Russian literature in relation to world literatures, providing literary analysis both subtle and surprising, probing the range of lives as revealed in literary works, and directly and passonately engaging with hard questions about how to live a moral life and negotiate through a world of evil. Until a few days ago, I had no idea that such a thing existed, but then Vadim Temkin posted a “Wow” notice on Facebook about a Zakharyan video, with this image and a link to the video:

(#1) The link to the YouTube video is here

The wisps of Russian I recalled from 1960 Princeton classes carried me far enough to recognize the slogan MAN WAR ART, but no further. I appealed to Vadim to explain his “Wow”. And got the wonderful response below, which I reproduce with only slight editing as a guest posting (Vadim is multilingual and multicultural in a way I could not imagine being, so it would have been insane for me to try to paraphrase or interpret his take on Zakharyan).

From here on this is Vadim, with occasional back-commentary from me in square brackets.

This YouTube channel of Armen Zakharyan has existed for quite a few years. It is a quite unique Russian-language literary channel, where erudite Armen (educated in Europe, reading and speaking multiple languages) talks about Russian and World literature and their interactions. Among topics were: a comparison of different translations of Salinger into Russian, the poetry of Constantine Cavafy, Nabokov’s translation of Lolita into Russian, translation of Nikolay Gogol to English, comparative analysis of Don Quixote and the Odyssey, and many many more, each of them done beautifully. All the last year he was doing kind of a book club reading of Joyce’s Ulysses chapter by chapter with his subscribers (that were the only videos of his which I did not watch). [AZ: A year at the Stanford Humanities Center makes me eager to hear Zakharyan’s take on these topics.][

Since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine he did just plain reading of Lu Xun’s “Diary of a madman,” which seemed to be written directly for the moment [AZ > VT: “When you got to Lu Xun, I actually shouted out YES! Fabulously on target.” Here I note that I picked up some surreptitious Lu Xun the term I was teaching at the Beijing Language Institute.], and then quite a mischievous retelling of Gabriel García Márquez’ “Autumn of the Patriarch”, once again not mentioning the current events, but making it very current.

(#2) The screen introducing the video

And then came this video, which to me is a masterpiece both in form and content. The text is based on the letters from the Ukrainian members of his “Ulysses book club” about the war, the art in the time of war, the hatred for the enemy, the broken links between friends and relatives, and so many other topics. All of them are deeply felt and absolutely nontrivial. But then Armen [AZ: Zakharyan speaks to his audience as to a companion, so it’s natural for Vadim to refer to him as Armen] built it in beautiful text, where people’s voices interrupt and play on each other, speaking in multiple languages changing in mid-sentence from Russian, to Ukrainian, to Spanish, to English, etc. And this 50-minute long text is read as a beautiful spoken word poem.

Each aspect of this: content, form, and presentation took my breath away. Just the ideas were exquisite; the form would be a masterpiece even if it were about some kitchen recipes; and the reading deserves a Tony Award. [AZ: Even if you understand not a bit of Russian, you should probably let a bit of it wash over you, just to get a feel for the performance, which manages to be both intimate and electrifying. What I have left over from 1960 is an ability to pick out all kinds of function words (‘and’, ‘because’, ‘when’, ‘one’, ‘this’, etc.), a few high-frequency items of content vocabulary, and proper names; but I tried to turn off listening for content so that I could appreciate the melodies, rhythms, and phrasings. I honed my ability to do this during my time in Beijing, watching a sumptuous Chinese tv dramatization of Journey to the West with the subtitles turned off.]

I rarely am at a loss for words, but that was the case for this “wow!”

[AZ: That was Vadim’s “wow!”. But I’ll put my own in too. Along with thanks to Vadim for bringing Zakharyan to us.]



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