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The Riddle of Arshile Gorky's Letters

In the last 25 years Arshile Gorky has become an iconic name in Armenian-American consciousness. A steady flow of exhibitions, catalogues, biographies, and also Aram Egoyan’s film, “Ararat”, has contributed to bring him to the forefront of public exposure. Ironic as it is, it has been the fate of many struggling artists, deeply neglected in their lifetime.
One of the many riddles clouding Gorky’s life concerns his correspondence, especially his letters in Armenian addressed to his family in Chicago (his sister Vartoosh, husband, and son). His nephew, Karlen Mooradian (1935-1991), helped to highlight an overlooked aspect of Gorky’s personality: his stance vis-a-vis Armenia and his Armenian roots. Over the years, he made several publications, the last of them being 50 letters from a total of a hundred in “The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky” (Chicago, 1980).
These letters in translation have been retranslated into Armenian and issued in Yerevan in a bilingual volume, “Letters”, edited by Seyranouhi Geghamian and prefaced by Shahen Khachatryan, newly-appointed director of the future Arshile Gorky Museum in Echmiadzin. This volume, published in 2005, was recently discussed in a review-essay by painter Alexan Berejiklian, himself one of the best and few specialists of Gorky writing in Armenian. The essay was published in the literary supplement of the Paris-based “Haratch” daily (February 2006).
Berejiklian, who has authored many articles and a book on Gorky over the last 30 years, discusses at length the authenticity of some of Gorky’s letters to his family. This should not be a new subject to the English informed reader, since Nuritza Matossian had already touched upon it in her “Black Angel” (Londres, 1998 and New York, 1999), pointing out a sizable number of letters whose Armenian originals were missing. Berejiklian writes that in 1982 he had addressed a letter to K. Mooradian asking for copies of Gorky’s Armenian letters. Mooradian had replied to him that “since there have been so many mistakes in the items published so far on Gorky, the editorial board of Gilgamesh [his publishing house. V.M.] last year decided, in the case of the Armenian language, to help only the books and artists being published in Armenian S.S.R., and to all first-rate publishing houses who publish out of Armenia in languages other than Armenian (...) Gilgamesh will only furnish Armenian materials on Gorky to publishers in Armenia” (letter of December 29, 1982, retranslated from the Armenian translation).
This was, evidently, a nonsensical justification, given the fact that little had been published on Gorky in Armenia at the time (ten letters translated in the magazine “Garoon” in 1981 from Mooradian’s 1971 publication in “Ararat” had stirred quite an interest) and the “many mistakes” came actually from the English-speaking world.
Nothing happened afterwards. Gorky’s art had clearly not fitted in the canon of Socialist Realism and the “perestroika” was too young to go outside for a look. In March 1991, recounts Khachatryan in the abovementioned preface, he visited the Mooradians in Chicago.
Mooradian took this time a completely divergent position from the one he had showed to Berejiklian ten years ago. As director of the National Gallery of Armenia, Khachatryan asked for the Armenian originals of the letters to be taken to Armenia. Karlen Mooradian, who was already sick, replied that “(...) that would happen sooner or latter, but in the letters kept by them there were expressions unfavorable to some people and he did not want them to be available for the time being. I reminded Karlen that we had had censorship in the Soviet regime and great experience in that field, so there was no reason to be alarmed... I was unable to convince him.”
Berejiklian points out the inconsistencies of both responses, which cast a thick cloud of doubt over the true reasons of Mooradian’s refusal. He reminds us that Ethel Schwabacher had quoted nothing in her 1957 groundbreaking monograph from the most interesting and ultimately controversial letters. Could the reason be that they had not been forged yet? In his 1980 book, Harry Rand had already expressed his reservations over the legitimacy of those letters.
As said before, Nouritza Matossian was perhaps the first to be able to examine Gorky’s correspondence to his Chicago relatives after Karlen Mooradian’s untimely death. She found no trace of a whole cache of letters. She listed those whose originals were missing and made several additional discoveries which seem to prove her point beyond any doubt.
Berejiklian also comments on the fact that Gorky’s Armenian education was probably not enough to give him the linguistic skills needed to address thoroughly the subjects he supposedly discussed. Even if he could have acquired those skills by self-education, why Mooradian never reproduced a single line, as illustration, of those letters of utmost interest and contented himself printing texts about family matters? Gorky’s nephew managed to give the painter an aura of further interest into his Armenian world. But one is tempted to say that he actually perpetrated an act of disservice, to say the least, against his famous uncle --who was even posthumously charged with “racism” by one scholar for this same views--, against his fellow Armenians --who made him an icon for those same views and not his art--, and against scholarship, since today we are forced to see Gorky through a sort of broken glass.
One way to return Gorky to his proper place would be to publish the originals of his entire correspondence with his family in a bilingual Armenian-English translation. This is far from being an impossible task, since Gorky’s handwriting in Armenian, as one can grasp from the published samples, is certainly not undecipherable, and his language, despite being a mix of Western and Eastern Armenian (a feature common to Armenian spoken in Van), does not require extraordinary fluency in literary Armenian to be read. There is no lack of competent scholars in the United States who could be able to read and/or translate Gorky, double-checking Mooradian’s extant translations for further accuracy, and to provide a competent annotation to the letters.
In the cultural supplement of “Nor Or” weekly (Los Angeles, June 2006), the Lebanese-Armenian writer Aram Sepetjian wrote another review of the volume of “Letters” published in Yerevan. He commented that “it is sad to state and underline the uncertain fate of the Armenian originals of these texts, since both the writer and the addressee lived freely in the United States, in a strong country with plenty of opportunities.” However, it is important to clarify that the Mooradian estate, including Gorky’s letters, is not lost. Today, Gorky’s belongings are deposited at the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. We are not aware of any legal clauses regarding the use of the letters. If there is not any legal barrier, the Diocese would perform a much-needed service towards the restauration of Gorky’s accurate image by undertaking a scholarly edition of these letters. That would also help to see much better another lost dimension in Gorky’s world: the Armenian sound of his voice.
Vartan Matiossian
("The Armenian Reporter International," 2006)