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    a mother saying goodbye to her son

    Love Is the Last Word

    Reading William Saroyan is like listening to a friend tell fascinating stories that bring forward, with great care, the dignity of ordinary, often sidelined people.

    By Zito Madu

    November 7, 2023
    • Lois Thiessen

      My favourite William Saroyan book is "The Hman Comedy." It was assigned reading at school - at some point - but it has stayed with me over the years. There was no particular plot other than the life of an ordinary family in the US and the timeframe is the Second World War. I loved the characters. I've read a number of Saroyan's short stories, and they resonate with me. Thanks for sharing these comments on an underrated author!

    William Saroyan was first recommended to me by a former editor, who is now a good friend. Usually I don’t like or take book recommendations, because it’s often a terrible way to find out that someone close to you has bad taste or thinks that you have bad taste. The situation doesn’t have to be that serious, but a relationship can be put in a delicate position if someone, for example, suggests that you would enjoy a book like The Fountainhead or Heart of Darkness. In my opinion, it’s easier and better for one’s personal life to not entertain that possibility.

    Yet I accept this friend’s book recommendations all the time. He’s someone who has edited me extensively, and whom I have talked to for almost a decade about everything writing-related and otherwise. There’s a great level of trust and intimacy between us, and because of our previous professional relationship, I feel that he is someone who in a way knows me as a writer and reader better than I do. He doesn’t just recommend books and authors who I would like, but ones that would engender a renewed excitement about the art of writing and what is possible with words.

    A long time ago, when I first started thinking that I wanted to be a serious writer and maybe one day write a book, he bought me a copy of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910). It was the kind of book that I wanted to write, and in the style that I had been trying to achieve. That book became and remains an inspiration. He sent me a copy of In Parenthesis by David Jones (1937) to drive home the point to me that there are really no rules on how a book or an essay can be written, and that what is important is the marriage between style and depth. And he sent me The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa (1981), because it’s simply a phenomenal book.

    He recommended Saroyan to me while we were talking about Simone Weil, and said, “It won’t change you like Weil, but you’ll like it.” He said to start with The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, Saroyan’s 1934 debut collection of stories, but instead, I began with Fresno Stories (posthumously collected in 1994).

    Reading about Saroyan’s life, I discovered that he was a socialite who laughed, drank, partied, gambled, and was a failure in excess. Which wasn’t a surprise; I could feel this kind of personality through his writing before I found out anything about him. I liked reading Saroyan’s writing because it felt like I was with a friend who seemed to have an infinite library of stories about his adventures and the interesting people he’s met along the way. A friend who tells long, winding, stories that often don’t have a point, stories that sometimes go on in odd directions when the teller follows a stray thought and forgets the plot for a while, and then when he remembers to return to it, it’s time to go, so he ends the story without concluding much of anything. Which is not a detriment in Saroyan’s case but a strength, because what is important and exciting is not the plot but the way he tells the stories. He could talk about stealing a pear and it would be more delightful than a perfectly constructed narrative by someone else. 

    Saroyan is drawn to “the stuff that is eternal in man” and the dignity of each person, which he does so well to bring forward in his stories.

    Underneath this playfulness, Saroyan has a serious purpose. In the 1934 story “Seventy Thousand Assyrians” he asks himself, “Why don’t I make up plots and write beautiful love stories that can be made into motion pictures? Why don’t I let these unimportant matters go hang? Why don’t I try to please the American reading public?”

    The answer lies with his interest in the lives of seemingly unimportant people, whom he writes about with great care and sensitivity. He is drawn to people made “of the stuff that is eternal in man,” who are not found in “bright places, making witty remarks about sex and trivial remarks about art. You find them where I found them. And they will be there forever, the race of man, the part of man, of Assyria as much as of England, that cannot be destroyed, the part that earthquake and war and famine and madness and everything else cannot destroy.” The part that is the dignity of a person, which Saroyan does so well to bring forward in his stories, short and long, about ordinary and generally marginalized people.

    He has a similar artistic mission to the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, who is also concerned with the human dignity of the people on the lower end of the social hierarchy, and once said in an old interview: “I think that I am gradually approaching a pure type of cinema … we concentrate on the individual and we use his eyes, ears, and heart to capture with his soul something human.” The grave difference is that while Tarr’s films can feel unbearable because of a reluctance to look away, Saroyan doesn’t indulge in that misery. He seems incapable of doing so. He has too much love for his characters.

    While it’s obvious that he takes great care of his characters, there doesn’t appear to be a performance of being a serious writer. Or as he puts it in his essay “A Writer’s Declaration”:

    I refused to act solemn because I didn’t feel solemn. I didn’t feel I ought to feel solemn, or even dignified. Because I knew acting dignified was only a shadow removed from being pompous. Some writers are naturally solemn, dignified, or pompous, but that doesn’t mean that they are also naturally great, or even effective.

    This refusal to act solemn and dignified shows itself all through his work, in the people he chooses to write about, in how he gives great depth and importance to trivial matters and memories, the common language that he uses for his stories, and how he often skips over big details that would help a story feel better constructed in favor of getting to the feeling and heart of it. And his characters, especially the ones in his 1940 story collection My Name Is Aram, are generally good-hearted but mischievous, cunning, self-delusional, and yet surprisingly profound in defense of their actions, which are often founded on a desire to live and enjoy life, no matter how small that life may be.

    My favorite story of Saroyan’s is “The Last Word Was Love,” collected in Fresno Stories. It begins with the opening line from the point of view of a child, a boy who is the second oldest of three: “A long time ago when I was eleven my mother and my father had a prolonged quarrel.”

    The story is only about five pages long, and the quarrel is never truly revealed, just that it involved the mother “moving very quickly from a singing and laughing gladness to a silent-and-dark discontent,” which led to the father asking her, “Ann, what is it?” A useless question that would lead to her crying and the father leaving the house.

    painting of a family saying goodbye to their teenage son

    Thomas Hovenden, Breaking Home Ties, 1890, Oil on canvas

    The story is about the mysterious quarrel and its consequences. It’s about a raft that the protagonist and his older brother, Ralph, were building together. It’s about the bond between two brothers. It’s about gaining the courage to determine one’s own life. About one brother saving himself by leaving the family, and the pain of the little brother who is left behind. And it’s about the pain and behaviors that are passed down from one generation to the other.

    One day, after Ralph had saved up over a hundred dollars from his summer job at a vineyard, he woke his younger brother up and told the younger one that he was going to San Francisco. And when the protagonist asks “what for?” Ralph says, “I can’t stay here anymore.” Then it returns to the younger brother’s heartbreaking thoughts:

    Except for the tears in his eyes, I believe I would have said, “Well, good luck, Ralph,” but the tears made that impossible. He was as big as my father. The suit he was wearing was my father’s, which my mother had altered for him. What were the tears for? Would I have them in my own eyes in a moment, too, after all the years of imitating him to never have them, and having succeeded except for the two or three times I had let them go when I had been alone, and nobody knew? And if the tears came into my eyes, too, what would they be for? Everything I knew I’d learned from my brother, not from school, and everything he knew he’d learned from my father. So now what did we know? What did my father know? What did my brother? What did I?

    This story shows how Saroyan leaves space for the things that can’t be said. In fact, he seems to write about those unsayable things by writing around them. He circles, hovers, gets as close as possible, and then ends the story because putting those feelings into words would only diminish them. After that passage in “The Last Word Was Love,” the protagonist goes to the backyard and declares that he will finish building the raft alone. Ralph follows his brother outside, and then puts down the old straw suitcase that he’s holding. They step into the raft, as if the two of them had launched it down the river:

    He put his hand over the side, as if into the cold water of Kings River, and he looked around, as if the raft were passing between vineyards and orchards. After a moment he got up, stepped out of the raft, and picked up the suitcase. There were no tears in his eyes now, but he just couldn’t say goodbye.

    Ralph says that he will never go back to their house again. The younger brother smashes up the raft. Later that night the younger brother tells their mother that Ralph has left for San Francisco because she and their father fight too much, and it’s revealed that the father saw Ralph leaving and, understanding why, didn’t try to stop him.

    Years later, the protagonist has two sons. The oldest, who is now sixteen, has made his parents aware that they’ve been quarreling for some time. “Nothing new, of course – the same general quarrel.” The story then ends with the protagonist taking on the role of his father when he was young. He wants to prepare himself, and his youngest son, for the inevitable departure of the older one, which is soon to come. He wants to make sure that no one stops the child from leaving because “He’s a good boy, and I don’t mind at all that he thinks I’ve made a mess of my life, which is one thing he is not going to do.”

    In a few pages, and with writing that’s stripped of everything unnecessary, Saroyan captures the cycle of a family. How conflict between parents can ripple through their children, even when the parents are unaware. How a child can make the hard decision to break away from an unhappy home, to choose himself and create his own destiny, even at the cost of leaving and hurting a sibling who adores him. And how a son can inherit the faults of the father, repeating the same mistakes that broke up his family. It is a cycle that many fathers and sons know, or will know.

    But Saroyan, who loved his characters as much as he loved the real people who inspired him, doesn’t end the story at the end of the vicious cycle, he offers a way out of it. Where Ralph leaving was traumatic for the younger brother when he was a boy, as a parent he inherits the awareness of his father, a recognition that there is a way out of the cycle. And the way that he can free his son, and in a way free himself, is by allowing the boy to leave. To let the boy be better than him, and give the next generation a chance outside of the quarrel.

    Contributed By ZitoMadu Zito Madu

    Zito Madu is a Nigerian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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