William Saroyan

The Time of Your Life: California Public Radio Revisits Saroyan

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I have a confession to make. Growing up and throughout my youth, I was not a fan of William Saroyan. Like much of the New York Establishment, I found his writing quaint  —  provincial in the bad sense. I would re-read his short stories and wonder if Armenians just liked him out of misplaced chauvinism.

Saroyan also seemingly disappeared from high school and college curricula after his death in 1981, so I no longer gave his work much thought. In article after article, purported personality flaws had helped to sink his reputation: the bard of Fresno had a flamboyant personality which enchanted some but irked others — but much like Lillian Hellman stateside or Françoise Sagan in France, I always found comments about his personal life misguided at best. When women or minorities gambled or drank, it became newsworthy — when Hemingway or Fitzgerald did the same, it was somehow macho, almost commendable. As another son of Fresno Mark Arax put it, by the early aughts Saroyan qualified as “the most famous forgotten writer of the twentieth century.” So it was with both trepidation and keen interest that I first decided to listen to a seven-part series of recordings on Central Valley Public Radio produced by Arax, each story accompanied by a discussion of its relevance. There was also, I read elsewhere, a new Saroyan House Museum in Fresno: watch out world, Saroyan seemed to be making a comeback.

That I could have so misjudged a writer fairly boggles my mind. Each exquisite text in the series, each one read by a different Fresno writer, delights both ear and mind. It turns out that Fresno, or the “Big Raisin” as it was euphemistically called in the 1970’s and 80’s, is home to a colony of talented writers and poets.

I name them here to salute their own individual talents — I made it a point to familiarize myself with their work as well and each one is worth a read: Kenneth Chacón, Brynn Saito, Aris Janigian, Marisol Baca, Tanya Nichols and of course Arax himself.

In Saroyan text after Saroyan text, I (re)discovered a writer garrulous and funny, ingenious and surprising — someone in whom sentimentality is but a front for an almost Zen-like simplicity of style and thought. If you will pardon the overused oenological metaphor, like fine wine Saroyan gets better with time.

A minimum of research also reveals that for the pre-World War I and II period that he grew up in, Saroyan’s writing was in fact bold and original.

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Fresno Poet laureate Marisol Baca sensitively interprets “The Hummingbird that Lived through Winter,” where Saroyan describes in simple prose his delight in nature, in the lightning quick almost gravity-defying flight of this tiniest and most beautiful of creatures.

Baca appreciates the fact that the story’s human protagonist, old blind Dikran, “delights in the miniscule as it explodes into the very large.” To her this most fable-like of stories flows like a narrative poem.

From the story, I retained: “Each form of life has an instinctive form of defense against other forms of life,” and the image of a hummingbird floating magically “suspended like a little miracle in a shaft of light over a big flower or a cluster of little ones or turning like gay insanity and shooting straight as an arrow toward practically nothing for no reason or for the reason that it’s alive.” To me the image of this old, blind man who is able through his love and knowledge of nature to bring the hummingbird back to life, forms one of lovelier images in 20th century literature. Listen also to Sato reading “Journey to Hanford” and Janigian interpreting “Five Ripe Pears” and “The Armenian and The Armenian,” all three stories charming in their own particular way.

For anyone with an interest in indigenous history or that of persecuted peoples in general, Chacón delivers a passionate rendition of “70,000 Assyrians.” Here the narrator encounters an old but proud California Assyrian trying to regain territory for his people in Iraq, some 6,000 miles away. But of the seven stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, named after a popular 19th century song, stands out: iconic, exquisite. The now classic story of a young penniless writer who wants to survive by dint of talent and hard work but ends up dying alone in a seedy motel room, will bring tears to the reader’s eyes:

“The half pound of sugar that he had bought before was all gone. He drank a cup of the hot black fluid sitting on his bed…There was nothing to say. He began to polish the penny that he had found this morning…how many pennies would he need to go on living? Wasn’t there something else left that he might sell? No…he felt ill and ashamed for having parted with his books…He fell face first onto the bed thinking…I ought first at least to give the coin to a child…Then swiftly, neatly with the grace of the man on the trapeze he was gone from his body. For one eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile and the man…The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The Earth circled away and knowing that he did so he turned his face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.”

In a sense these stories are all fables: not cautionary or judgmental like Aesop or La Fontaine, but simple and declaratory. This is life, Saroyan tells his readers, simple and beautiful, sometimes tragic: enjoy it while you can. This from the man who from his hospital deathbed famously declared: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

Born poor to immigrant survivors of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid’s reign of terror and placed in an orphanage by a single mother at the age of three, Saroyan rose to fame and temporary fortune on the sheer strength of his outsize talent and personality. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize but turned it down. For an Armenian with few contacts and no existing institutional support, this was no mean feat. In The Time of Your Life, Saroyan sums up his philosophy of life. It’s good advice for even the most conservative among us. In an age of increased technological change, global warming and seemingly unending wars, the author advises us to lead lives of wonder and to embrace the sensual:

“In the time of your life, live — so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere…and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least value, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover all things that shine and are beyond corruption…ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart.
Be the inferior of no man, or of any men be superior. Remember that everyman is a variation of yourself…Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. In the time of your life, live — so that…you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

In syntax and vocabulary at once circuitous and powerful Saroyan exhorts the reader to not judge, but rather to accept and understand the world as it revealed to them. Think what you might of Saroyan or his work, but better words have rarely been spoken.

 

Listen to the best of Saroyan: https://www.kvpr.org/term/william-saroyan


Buy William Saroyan’s books: https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/william-saroyan/196574/

Visit the William Saroyan House Museum: https://saroyanhouse.com/

 

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