Forever Saroyan Presents - The Living and The Dead
This episode, we're looking at “The Living and The Dead.” The introduction to “The Living and The Dead” takes the form of a conversation between the reader and the writer, and in fact, it opens with the reader speaking
Reader - What about this story, any good?
Writer - not bad, not good. The stuff on drinking is all right. Some mournful comedy
Saroyan often presents himself as able to distance himself from his actual prose. In essence, he can give a proper view to a work that sometimes in a way other authors can’t do to their own work at all. Usually, he sees critics and many readers as unable to understand and properly appreciate or depreciate his own work. The back and forth here looks at how prose is influenced both by the writers desire to write and also the role that the reader plays within the feedback loop, though not particularly deeply. That sort of reader theory wouldn't be popular until the 1970s. But there is one small exchange that I think is really important
Reader - What are the facts about this story? Anything interesting?
Writer - Nothing interesting. The story was written at 348 Karl Street in San Francisco sometime during 1934. I think the weather was fair at the time.
This actually ties in very deeply with one of William Saroyan's longest-running traditions, and that is the naming and placing of his creations. In the previous story, we looked at, “The Question,” he very pointedly noted the date it was created. The same thing could be said of “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands,” as he noted it was two days prior to him having to go to the hospital for the appendectomy. Saroyan's connections to time and place are very significant and often are an aside within a larger piece. This particularly shows through his paintings. Nearly all of his paintings have, at the bottom, the signature ‘William Saroyan’, any title for the piece, followed by the date and where it was created. While some may leave off one aspect or the other, usually either the title or sometimes the place, very rarely is the date not mentioned. In essence, I believe Saroyan is trying to stamp every work that he creates as being of a specific time and a specific place, and in this story that actually reflects on not only the story, but on how we should read the story.
“The Living and The Dead” isn’t exactly an action-packed tale. What it is is a consideration of a character. It is a look at a San Franciscan very much like Saroyan himself. It's a look at youth, and often how youth will sometimes take an either misguided, or perhaps not fully considered, view of the world. He's skeptical of socialism, for example, which at that point was taking hold among younger Americans, particularly of the working class. But he's also presenting a view of the drinker. Saroyan’s relationship with alcohol is relatively well documented. He was a frequent drinker, and it did, at times impede his relationships, both professional and personal. At other times, it also helped foster those relationships.
Here we see a character Pete, who is a gung-ho socialist trying to recruit Saroyan. Saroyan himself talks about having been approached a number of times by socialist causes. And it of course, as noted in the introduction, he believed that the organization International Workers organization was one of the saddest aspects of modern life and that he preferred simple play. In essence, he is saying that himself, or the character that more than likely represents him, as a drinker is choosing the lesser of two evils.
There are some wonderful conversations between the grandmother and the grandson, our main character. And the two of them are very different in their approaches to the world in particular. Saroyan's grandmother is not necessarily able to directly communicate in a form that is easily moldable into a clear and concise point of view for the main character. Here's an interesting little point that I think shows the level of disconnect between the worldviews
Melik, said my grandmother. My husband, Melik. If he was sober, he spoke quietly, his voice rich and deep and gentle. And if he was drunk, he roared like a lion and you'd think God in Heaven was crying lamentations and oaths upon the tribes of the earth. No other man have I heard could speak in this way drunk or sober, not one here in or in the old country.
And when he laughed? I said.
When Melik laughed, said my grandmother, it was like an ocean of clear water leaping at the moon with the light.
I tell you, my grandmother would walk away with every silver loving cup and gold ribbon in the world.
Now she was angry, ferocious with tragic poetry of her race.
And not one of you opegh-tsapegh brats are like him, she shouted. Only my son Vahan is a little like him, and after Vahan, all the rest of you are stranger to me. This is my greatest grief.
The concept that she swings back and forth very quickly between emotions is understandable. And as the story goes on, we reveal more and more that the grandmother is deeply tied to Armenia emotionally.
This is a theme, of course that becomes very visible from the very beginning of “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands.” It is this idea of connection and severed connection, and indeed, the grandmother is not only missing her homeland, but her husband, and that is a double damage to her soul. But when they're talking about great speakers, and people who imbue the world with their voice, our main character doesn't speak personally. From the text -
That's innocence, I said in English.
I cannot understand such an absurd language, she said.
It is a splendid language. I said.
That is because you were born here and can speak no other language, no Turkish, no Kurdish, not one word of Arabic.
No, I said it is because this is the language Shakespeare spoke and wrote, Shakespeare, said my grandmother, who is he?
He's the greatest poet the world has ever known, I said.
Nonsense, said my grandmother. There was a traveling minstrel who came to our city when I was a girl of twelve. This man was ugly as Satan, but he could recite poetry in six different languages all day and all night. Not one word of it written. Not one word have it memorized. Every line of it made up while he stood there, before the people, reciting. They called him crazy Marcos, and people gave him small coins for reciting and more coins they gave him the drunker he got and the drunker he got the more beautiful the poems he recited.
Well, I said, each country and race and time has its own kind of poet and its own kind of understanding of poetry. The English poets wrote, and your poets recited.
But if they were poet, said my Grandmother, why did they write? A poet lives to sing? Were they afraid a good thing would be lost and forgotten? Why did they write each of their thoughts? Are they afraid something will be lost?
I guess so.
I've said this exchange is highly revealing of Saroyan's own thoughts on his prose. He is coming from the world of Shakespeare, not only because of English language, but because he is attempting to work within an idea of the exceptional writer writing. But one thing about his prose is that it is very direct and also very drama-based. While there is some description certainly, even some exposition, that goes somewhat flowery, I would say, much of it is direct to the point and dialogue-driven. This story in particular is highly dialogue driven.
He considers Shakespeare a poet. I don't think he is speaking specifically of the sonnets. I believe he is speaking of the entire oeuvre of Shakespeare as being poetical, which most people would give him that aspect. And I believe the comparison of Saroyan to Shakespeare is apt, perhaps not on level of success or level of artistry, but on level of connection with those he is writing about. This idea that poetry is meant to be received. noted that his grandmother insists on is also worthwhile noting, because Saroyan writes so much like he speaks, his dialogue is extremely relatable for the fact that he does not tend to fold it into a form that feels as if it is a writer writing dialogue, you instead are being treated like a listener, discovering dialogue being spoken, sometimes to you, but sometimes merely near you the to play off one another very, very well. Eventually, we come to a difficult conversation between our narrator and Paula.
Paula is a girl that our narrator is interested in. In fact, he wants to marry her. But as it comes through, she's engaged to be married to a young lawyer. The relationship between the two is interesting. And it reflects much of how Saroyan treats relationships between men and women in many of his stories. One notable story “Pure Agonyu,” seems to have a very similar path of this, though, later in the relationship. And that story, he speaks of finding a woman who he could love, but is unable to connect because she's already married. In essence, that is the story that follows this one. Here, he is relating his day, his experiences, both directly and indirectly, to Paula. And she is both, I would say, rejecting as well as taking in what he is putting out. It's a fascinating take, it's difficult to write on this sort of tight rope - too much one way and it’s simply harassment, too much another way and it's simply fleeting. I believe we're supposed to take from this the amount of alcohol that is involved with this discussion, we're supposed to believe this is havering of a writer to his potential mate, or at least desired mate. That might be an oversimplification. But it does speak to many of the aspects that we pick up from that little things mentioned.
Saroyan gives us a wrap-up paragraph that more or less goes over everything, but ends with a series of questions. And then a very dense statement about how the living are dead, and how we have no free will. This is a very confusing part of the story. Because when you look at the rest of the story, it is simply a man living a life, at flow with the world.
It is a day in the life, more or less, but at the same time, it is removed from that, because it is a writer writing a story that seems to be knowingly writing the story within the story. There's a whole lot of tell, don't show in this story, something that is a hallmark of sirloins over but at the same time, he is expressing the meaning without saying what the meaning is.
This is a story that the critics like the St. Louis Post Dispatch, pointed to as being not exactly a traditional short story. It is stories like this where you can see the impact of Saroyan on a generation of writers. You can see echoes of this in writers such as Truman Capote. Certainly further down the line, TC Boyle. Many writers have begun to integrate this idea of dialogue driven minimalism. I would say that I wouldn't say pared-down prose, because he's not interested in limiting his expression, but he allows you to infer more through droplets. For example, he does pare down his work so that you're getting exactly what you need to get to the next point. This is one of Saroyan’s superpowers. This ability to cut to the quick.
This story has been reprinted in Saroyan’s collections over the years, but it's not one of his more popular stories. It's been adapted at least once. But it doesn't seem to have the oomph that many of his other stories in this collection do, partly because it is a wandering story. While “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” is very plot driven, t goes from A to B to C very, very clearly, this seems to wander. This is sort of the halfway point between “The Man with the Heart in the Highlands” and “The Question.” It is a somewhat ponderous, though maybe the better term for It is it is a, it is a thoughtful story that exists within a moving timeline, and that push-pull becomes very interesting. Saroyan is saying his concepts as a thread within a running border. It is not the actions of the story that contained the meaning of the story - it is how our main character expresses those ideas to the other people within the story. It's through what he expresses that the meaning of the story is found. And I believe the meaning of that story is we are all in orbit of one another, that some of us have different views of what is significant in the world. Differing set of desires of wants and needs, ultimately informs who we are as people, and at some point, you may need to deaden yourself to these competing needs and wants. In essence, this could be read as a story that explains drinking, which is a theme that goes throughout his books.
Thanks for listening to Forever Saroyan Presents - Three Times Three. I'm Chris Garcia. Forever Saroyan was founded by Charles Janigian. Archivists are Chris Garcia, and Dori Meyer. Join us next time when we're looking at Summertime