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Somerset Maugham and the Armenian Bishop

The most interesting Armenian character in English literature was a real man.

August 30, 2017  |  by Bob Taciturn

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William Somerset Maugham, in his study

Character is an interesting word. "I have more character than brains and more brains than talent," Somerset Maugham once wrote. Character plus brains does not equal genius. In the case of Maugham—one of the very few serious writers in the English language to score enormous success for plays, novels, and short stories—it nevertheless equated to a master storyteller with a shrewd eye for the mysteries of human motivation. Character is what we call anyone who appears in a work of fiction, or who acts like he is living in one. But it is also something else: that homemade gravity with which each of us meets the forces of life and death. Character in that sense was Maugham’s favorite subject. His stories are often like dramatized aphorisms. If he took note of someone, it is good advice for us to do the same.


It was its national character (among other things) that attracted Maugham so fervently to Spain, an attraction he once tried but failed to convert into a novel set there in the 16th-17th century. The book he ended up writing instead is Don Fernando, a highly entertaining nonfiction account of Spanish culture in its golden age. Maugham studied over 200 books on his subject, and was struck by the uselessness and banality of nearly all travelogues from the period. One slim volume, however, caught his eye. Maugham translates for us its opening paragraph:


"I, Martyr, but only by name, born at Arzendjan, and bishop, living in the hermitage of Saint Ghiragos at Norkiegh (the new village) had long wished to visit the tomb of the holy prince of the Apostles. When the time had come for me, unworthy though I was, to deserve this honor, which I never ceased to desire, without however ever having made known to anyone the intention in my heart, I went forth from my monastery on the twenty-ninth of October in the year 938 of the Armenian Era. Travelling by short stages, I arrived at Stamboul. There by the grace of God I found a ship on which I embarked with the deacon Verthanes."


The date of Bishop Martiros's take-off translates to 1489 AD. The title of his book, in its 1827 French translation, is Relation d'un Voyage fait en Europe. How it survived nearly 400 years to that point is a puzzle. Martiros is the only Armenian bishop known to man who is tight-lipped. His writing is as sparse as the book's title. "Mostly he only tells of how he went from place to place and what shrines he visited," Maugham reports. "It is the driest reading possible and yet you read on because you have a sense of the man’s indomitable courage." As usual, Maugham’s sense pays off, for this of all volumes "contained the secret that is the greatness of Spain." The last five pages of Don Fernando are devoted to a summary of the Armenian bishop's journey.


"I think he must've been a remarkable man, Martyr, Bishop of Arzendjan," writes Maugham. Traveling by foot, the bishop makes it to Rome, where he gets a letter of recommendation from the pope to assist him further on down the road. From there he goes to Thale, where he and Deacon Verthanes are arrested as spies. He goes forth to Cologne, then to England, then to France. Paris elicits one of the few editorial comments in his book: "What man could describe the beauty of this city! It is a very great and splendid city." There Verthanes leaves him, and he marches on alone. "No dangers daunt him. He endures cold and hunger. Going on foot, by himself, a man no longer young, he accepts without a murmur whatsoever befalls him….in the open country he is prepared to sleep on the bare ground." Weak and worn, he finally reaches his destination: the burial place of Saint James. "I approached this tomb; I adored it my face to the earth, and I besought the remission of my sins, those of my father and mother, and those of my benefactors. At last I accomplished, with a great effusion of tears, what was the desire of my heart." And now begins the longer and even more brutal journey home.

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Apostle Saint James the Greater, by El Greco, 1606

It is 1494, five years after he set off and one year since Christopher Columbus returned from his most fateful expedition. Bishop Martiros reaches a Spanish port. Able to walk no more, he begs the captain of a ship to let him on. The captain reads the letter from the pope and, amazed at how far this true believer has come on foot, welcomes him aboard with a few choice words.


"I like to think that the Armenian bishop thought it a fine speech too," notes Maugham, "for in the course of his book it is the only one he reports. He mentions only and does not describe his meetings with sundry of the great. For my part I think it is as fine a speech as any that Thucydides gave to the famous men of Greece whose histories he wrote….I like to think that Bishop Martyr, 'by name only,' recognized in him a kindred soul. He too, the unknown captain, was a dedicated priest, but to high adventure, and he too had a fearless heart."


Here I think it makes sense to reproduce the Spanish captain's speech, allowing the reader to figure out why the Armenian bishop chose to record it, and why the English writer loved it so. The Spanish captain said:


"I will take him in my ship; but tell him that I go to range the universal sea, that my ship carries no merchant, and that all the men who are in her are engaged in her service. As for us, we have made the sacrifice of our lives; we place our hope only in God, and we believe that whithersoever fortune carries us, God will save us. We go to rove the world and it is not possible for us to tell where the winds will carry us. But God knows. For the rest, if it is your wish also to come with us, it is very well; come in my ship, and do not concern yourself with bread, nor with food or drink. For whatever else you need, it is your business, these religious will see to it; since we have a soul, we will provide you with biscuit and all else that God has vouchsafed us."


Bob Taciturn is a former vaudevillian and intelligence agent who ghost wrote many of the Castro era’s most acclaimed operettas. 

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