5 x 3: Fifteen Books by Three Great Armenian Writers
Paul R. Ignatius
Armenian Heritage Press
Size: 6″ x 9″
Available from National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, 617-489-1610
Also available at Abril Books, Glendale
For 5 x 3, Glendale native Paul Ignatius selected five creative works by three of the most prominent Armenian writers in English of the early to mid-20th century. Ignatius was acquainted with all of them, and in his short book he gives readers an insider’s view of each writer’s life, works, and impact.
Leon Surmelian, Michael Arlen, and Willliam Saroyan were all born around the turn of the 20th century. All had personal ties to Ignatius’ family. Anecdotes and impressions from these life-long ties are part of this book’s charm and add depth to Ignatius’ analyses of books that are familiar or obscure.
This is not an anthology or collection of excerpts. Instead, Ignatius summarizes each of the 15 works and includes a few brief passages. His 21st-century perspective, especially given his ties to several generations of each author’s family, is particularly astute.
Leon Surmelian’s journey took him from a privileged boyhood in Trebizond, to an orphanage, to refugee encampments and finally to a post with the Communist government in Soviet Armenia which he left in disillusionment, fleeing to Constantinople then somehow gaining a college scholarship in Kansas then making his way to California. His book I Ask You, Ladies and Gentleman, a haunting look back at what he and his people had lost in the genocide, was an international best seller. Surmelian taught courses on writing at the University of California and was a Professor of English at California State College in Los Angeles while he wrote it.
I hadn’t know much about Michael Arlen, an Anglophile who wrote most of his fiction about upper class English society life, and barely acknowledged his Armenian background. Ignatius takes a haunting passage from Arlen’s The London Venture to capture the essence of this stance: “…in spite of all your English airs, you will always be a pathetic little stranger in a very strange land, fumbling for the key.”
William Saroyan is best known of the three authors (at least in California), and four of the five works Ignatius picks to write about are also quite well-known. The book I was least familiar with is Inhale and Exhale, and Ignatius notes that there are far too many short stories in the book (71!) but lauds the dedication quote: “To the English tongue, the American earth, and the Armenian spirit.”
Every short chapter of this short book is well worth the time. Ignatius looks back in time to assess how these works were received, but also provides a sharp 21st century perspective on their message and impact. And while his title is 5 x 3, he includes short chapters at the end about additional personalities, discussing his father Hovsep Ignatius’ work with Leon Surmelian on Armenian causes, Michael J. Arlen’s works exploring his efforts to understand his father Arlen senior, and Aram Saroyan’s well-known difficulties (also published) with his father William Saroyan.
Ignatius observed these relationships, and the accumulating body of literary work, over many decades. His 5 x 3 is an excellent short introduction to the best Armenian writers in English of the last century, and should inspire readers to obtain and read many of the works mentioned! I’ve put several on my list.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research for bringing this book to my attention! This is the second book added to Sunroom Desk’s virtual bookshelf for Summer 2014.