Place of Places: 74 Rue Taitbout & The Champs-Elysees, Paris

 

Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we take a final look at the places in Saroyan’s life as we reminisce at 74 Rue Taitbout and then conclude with a walk down the Champs-Elysees, both in Paris, 1969.

These two chapters take place at the time and location of writing. Though the book was published in 1972, Saroyan wrote it in 1969. The chapters are in fact so closely related thematically that we have combined them into one final analysis. Saroyan was living between Paris and Fresno in 1969, and rather than end the book in Fresno, where so much of it takes place, he opted for Paris, the land of great art and history.

In chapter 67, at Rue Taitbout, he writes,

rue“What it is, is the world and me, and that’s what it is with everybody. That’s what it has always been. That’s all it can ever be. The world is a marvel of invention and engineering, and of many other things. The Earth is a miracle beyond the range of man’s knowledge. But guessing about it, about its connection with the limitlessly vast Universe must go on and on. And every living man, every human being, if not in fact every animal, is a simple demonstration of the endlessness of the beautiful marvel of matter in motion, of energy, of light, of heat, of the displacement of space by the great bodies in the known and unknown Universe.

Thus, the Place is everywhere. And the Person is himself – that is, Yourself, and Myself.

It is a Thing to rejoice in. I rejoice in it.”

This entire book has been about connections on varying scales, from cosmic to human. Saroyan is known for his theme of the “brotherhood of man” but in reality, it was the oneness of everything that he believed in. It’s just that humans were what he wrote about.

sagHe could have ended the book here, with the all-encompassing conclusion that every person is a tiny part of a Universe that functions logically. All of the chapters were leading up to this point, the grandest scale. Saroyan admired Carl Sagan, who would often appear on the Johnny Carson show and is known for bringing the cosmos to a level of accessible human understanding. Sagan notably said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” This would have resonated with Saroyan, whose own spirituality might have aligned with Sagan’s pulpit.

Saroyan loved to drive around, and in driving he found that places were more the same than different. As soon as he took his first cross-country train ride from San Francisco to New York, when he was 20, he expanded his understanding of people and places, observing that the folks in Iowa were the same as the folks in California and New York, at their core.

He never felt comfortable in the land of fame. In the mid-20th century, when he was at his most famous, society idolized its writers and screen actors, other forms of entertainment being challenging for the average citizen to access. Movies cost about a nickel and most people got their information from newsreels or newspapers or the radio. There were fewer celebrities, and Saroyan rose to the top of an already small, elite class of the famous. But it didn’t really sit well with him, as is often the case in rags to riches stories. His heart was in Fresno and the hills of California. It was with the Armenians though he wrote about all types of immigrants. Especially in his early works, focusing on the eclectic characters who lived on the West Coast, he took the perspective of people from the Near East, Mexicans, Japanese, Filipinos, Native Americans, black folks, and anyone who was struggling against the systemic oppression that was flourishing in the laws of California and in the federal government. Saroyan knew this oppression firsthand as an Armenian excluded from Anglo-Saxon society in Fresno. This discrimination affected him greatly and early on developed in him a curiosity about what makes people different. In the end, he figured not much did except money.

When he had money, he spent it. And in this way, he moved between classes of society, marrying a rich debutante and yet never retaining enough income to keep her living in luxury the way she wanted.

Saroyan’s literary idols wrote about social and economic classes in the 19th century, and William lived among both sides of the haves and have-nots, preferring to hang around the have-nots who didn’t spend the time or energy putting on airs. He valued authentic people, as we’ve learned throughout this memoir.

But he adds on another chapter, the 68th. It’s almost as if he finished the book at his flat on Rue Taitbout, chapter 67, and then took a walk on the streets of Paris and thought, no that’s not really how this ends. Reading these two chapters together is like being in conversation with Saroyan as he negotiated a proper ending. In the last chapter, walking along the Champs-Elysees, he concludes:

“But the Universe is too large to be named one of the places which is experienced, although this is actually true, and so it is in order to make it a smaller circle of a place. A continent, a nation, a state, a valley, a city, a neighborhood, a street, a house, and so on.

Well, it can’t be done –that’s what it comes to – it can’t be done. The Great Place, the Only Place, is All Reality, and after that there are only favorite places.

For me they are various cities, their streets, and the places in which their people spend their time. Fresno, San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Dublin, Moscow, and so on.

I used to like movie theatres, especially up to about the age of twenty-eight. And I used to like the theatre, where plays were performed on the stage, but that also has become something neither enjoyed nor needed.

Best of all, best of all is a long street in a city, and myself upon it walking at my leisure to see what’s there.”

Soroyan Science LowRes

Some scholars believe that Saroyan was so interested in the universe, life, and death, because they were beyond control and thus fascinating to a person whose life had so often been beyond his control, with the early death of loved ones and the significant years in the orphanage. But in writing stories, he could control all the characters, creating micro universes of fiction and controlling who lived or died within them.

Covers062In his 1930s fiction, huge concepts of existence are broached constantly. In Inhale and Exhale, he wrote, “When a man is born, which part of the universe does he inhabit? Why, he inhabits the whole part of it, including the part Mr. Einstein hasn’t yet discovered, explored, and given spatial limitations, the limitless part no less than the part between the earth and the sun, and the earth and the moon. He inhabits everywhere because by the good grace of the great Creator he inhabits himself, that is to say, living flesh, made living by the inexplicable, that is to say, energy and what falsely passes for intelligence but is actually matter. Fire. Mortal fire. He lives, and he lives within himself, which is the universe” (“The Gay and Melancholy Flux,” from Inhale and Exhale).

And in another story from that collection: “In sleep alone shall you find the hidden universe: the place of your reality” (“A Tipped Hat to the Lamppost,” from Inhale and Exhale).

In his preface to a collection of essays about Saroyan, Leo Hamalian wrote, “What makes his work religious is his talent for transforming and illuminating by his own special inner radiance anything that is drawn into the sacred circle of his imagination. The mundane takes on a magical quality, and the ordinary becomes glamorous. Even when he remembers that searing experience as an orphan in the arctic reaches of his soul, he curbs, resists, and even denies some part of the spontaneous outcry against the injustice of life that took away his father, that threw him still raw and unready into the fight for survival, and creates his own fictional universe that gave meaning to the chaotic arrangement of life. He thus triumphed over his suffering. So often words are abused and degraded in the author’s attempt to express the inexpressible, but in Saroyan there is a sifting and tempering that was part of a perpetual process of interior writing that engaged the great issues of existence, no matter how swiftly he registered his thoughts on paper” (William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered, Hamalian).

This idea of the universe being within the person can also be attributed to one of Saroyan’s particular influences, Walt Whitman. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman describes himself as “containing multitudes,” and this is noted by both Nona Balakian and David Calonne, two major Saroyan scholars.

In the essay “My Real Work is Being,” Calonne writes, “This yearning for oneness, for unification of the self with the pulsing body of the world, is a dominant feature of Saroyan's literary personality. The urge to identify the self with the universe, the perpetual "universalizing" of experience, is a quality he shares with earlier American writers—Whitman in particular. That we are all the same person underneath the superficial masks of daily social interaction is for him a palpable truth. The driving impulse behind his vision of life is the conviction that we are all tied together by the bonds of common humanity—within each human breast beats the same cosmic energy.”

Ph37 MIhran William 1947Saroyan’s beloved Uncle Mihran also said of him, “he embraces the whole universe” and this is why Mihran admired his writing so much.

In his own words, Saroyan wrote in the December 18 diary entry of Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon: “In speculations about how the universe itself came into being, it is not strange that one of the theories is that it all started with an explosion, which in its human sexual form is at the dead center of man's truth and reality. The meaning of the orgasm is clear to every new life, even when none of the details are known, when all of it is misunderstood or bogged down in lore, religion, philosophy, cult, culture, tabu, or something else. All living things of the animal family have one variation or another of the orgasm as the means by which the living thing may go on being itself, in all of its inevitable variations, which nevertheless have a general sameness.”

This memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time, takes the reader on a journey through time and space but through the eyes of one tiny speck on the earth. We have seen just how relatable that experience can be as we nod our heads and smile with understanding during so many chapters. And then there are the chapters that are harder to read, the ones about pain, frustration, and being misunderstood by our loved ones. These, too, are relatable, if difficult to read. Saroyan didn’t pull punches and he didn’t pretend to be a person he wasn’t. Even when his stories were idyllic, he never pretended to have a pretty little life as the writer.

wc 02 Soroyan A Million Years LowRes 2Like the circle and the egg symbols that he often returned to, this memoir also has a cyclical nature. It’s hard to know exactly how he designed it in his mind, but in many cases one chapter naturally leads to the next, as one’s thoughts stream together with connections. Remember that the book begins,

“Places make us – let’s not imagine that once we’re here anything else does. First genes, then places – after that it’s every man for himself, God help us, and good luck to one and all.

The fascinating thing most likely though is how the same place – a miserable school, for instance, with rotten teachers – bores one man into art, and drives another into crime – the only two arenas we really have: art, making: crime, taking. ‘The genes, the genes’ cries the man who believes inheritance, not environment, does it. But does it? Alone? I have never seen poor people in the slums who were not equal to being instantly clean and refined in a mansion, with a million dollars. And take away the millionaire’s money and put him in the slums and how elegant will he be fighting mice and cockroaches? Yes all well and good, perhaps you are saying, but doesn’t that mean that people make me? Of course, but people are places.

This is the thesis of his book and by the end, he is reiterating it and also saying that despite spending all this time thinking about the past, there’s nothing better than just taking a walk and being in the present. Let’s put this on the Saroyan map and turn off the typing machine one last time.

Thanks for joining us on this deep dive into the life and times of William Saroyan. We hope you learned something about the man, his era, and the locales he spent time in. Every artist is both eternal and a product of their times. But it’s rare that we get such complete insight into those times in one book. Places Where I’ve Done Time is not among Saroyan’s most popular books. But if you’ve followed along with each chapter, you’ll see that is one of his most introspective and daring works.

If you enjoyed this analysis, please be sure to follow another forthcoming series produced at our archive: “Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three,” a ten-part look at Saroyan’s 1936 collection of short stories, Three Times Three, and their introductions, hosted by archivist Chris Garcia. And be sure to reach out to us with your Saroyan stories and inquiries. Let’s work together to keep this remarkable man’s legacy alive.

Chr

The Place of Places - Flower Shop, Geary Street, San Francisco, 1930 blog

 

Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we take a stroll to the Flower Shop, Geary Street, San Francisco, 1930.

“One has one’s chair, or one’s favorite chair, and I had mine. It was one of six cane chairs bought in 1911 by my father, three or four months before he died. And when I learned that these chairs were the last purchase by my father I made up my mind to have them, always” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

chairIn this chapter, things are places - the things that define us during certain periods of our lives. Sometimes the things are big, sometimes small, sometimes symbolic, sometimes just something we really liked at a certain time. These are mementos of who we used to be. Here, Saroyan takes us on a journey through four things that are places to him, beginning with the chairs his father bought just before falling ill and dying.

Saroyan rescued these chairs at a time in his life when he was exploring the loss of his father, yearning to understand the man he never knew and could barely remember. Saroyan addressed this in many chapters in this book and others, and we know that going to New York in 1928 was in part a way to follow in the footsteps of Armenak. Even just knowing that it was Armenak’s choice to buy these six cane chairs was important to Saroyan, another tiny detail to help him reassemble the puzzle of his father.  

He took five of the chairs to a carpenter to be restored and the last, in the most disrepair, to rattan workers in San Francisco. He explains that for years that one chair, in the most disrepair, had been situated at the far end of the breakfast table at 348 Carl Street in San Francisco. This was his chair, at his regular place at the table – a relatable detail for any reader who has their routines and habits.

One day in 1932, his cousin Chesley, aged 14, was visiting. Chesley sat in William’s chair and refused to move, causing a dispute that ultimately ended in the elder Saroyan regaining his chair. Saroyan writes, “I thought he was very stupid not to understand that the place was mine and the chair was mine, and that it would not do for him to remain in the place on the chair in my presence. If I were out of the house, he was welcome to both, of course. He was a good boy, but had an odd mind and spirit – by turns kindly and mean” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

Chesley was the son of Uncle Aram. In Chapter 4 we saw that Chesley and his wife visited with William in Paris in 1949. Chesley was in search of some advice about professional writing that William was reluctant to give. Chesley hadn’t succeeded as a writer and moved on to other professions, eventually dying in a car crash in 1965 at age 44. Though relationships in the extended Saroyan family were often complicated, they were a tightly knit bunch, often living near each other either in Fresno or San Francisco; they remained lifelines to each other even when they didn’t get along. Getting annoyed at an impetuous teenager is understandable, but it’s also interesting that Chesley was the son of Aram, who was at times a surrogate father to William and at other times a bitter enemy. In this scenario, William is holding onto the remnants of his father that he doesn’t want to share with Chesley this time. The chair was his father and his father was a place.

Chesley

Saroyan moves on, explaining that he made a lift-top desk in Manual Training class at Longfellow Junior High, stained to a dark mahogany. He kept the desk despite the fact that he considered it poorly made and pointless because it had a slanting top that wasn’t good for writing on. “But I do have the table which I consider mine –from the beginning – and this table is one of the places of importance to me” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). The table is symbolic of independence; we all have those first things that we either made or bought with our own money, the things that our parents or siblings couldn’t claim ownership of.

This may have been especially significant to the Saroyan children, who spent many years in an orphanage sharing everything with many other children. Growing up poor in a large family would have also limited their senses of individuality. For William, who cherished his independence, having this desk be unequivocally his, no matter its quality, was meaningful. The desk was independence and independence was a place.

mihranNext up he tells us that Uncle Mihran, his father’s kid brother, went to San Francisco in 1930 and opened a makeshift flower shop, which William worked at. Saroyan bought a table on McAllister Street for four dollars, a surface for them to work with the wholesale flowers on. The shop lasted until Easter, about six weeks, then closed, and they were left with this table. William had it sent to the front room of 348 Carl, where he did his writing. “The table has served me well these many years – almost forty. I have written many works at the table, including, perhaps most important of all, the stories in my first book” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).

Mihran was the youngest of Hripsime Saroyan’s children and another surrogate father and friend to William and also to Archie Minasian, whose father had also died young. There was a quiet sweetness in the paternal Saroyans, overshadowed by Lucine’s louder and more aggressive Saroyan clan on the maternal side. Recall that there was no biological relation between William’s paternal and maternal Saroyan’s sides, though they shared a last name.

It was Mihran who found William lost in Los Angeles and brought him home; it was he who lent William train fare to travel to New York in 1928; years later Mihran lent William $10,000 for a house, and there were many more loans Mihran made to Bill. Though he was always there to lend money, Mihran had a much larger role as a supporter of William from the start, cheerleading him in his endeavors.

The uncles Mihran and Aram were polar opposites, as is noted in multiple Saroyan biographies. Lee Lawrence, in his book Saroyan: A Biography, wrote, “Mihran was as warm and kind as Aram could be cold and mean-spirited.” William and Archie both wrote of Aram’s cruelty, and yet they were also amused by him. With Mihran they felt more protective.

In Letters from 74 Rue Taitbout, Saroyan writes, “Mihran always had a kind of earnestness and simplicity that put him to asking questions that were very funny to others.” In a letter to Bill in 1961, Archie wrote, “I won’t pollute this page, having mentioned Mihran, to tell you of Aram.”

scans505Both men fascinated William. Many of his family members would be represented in the book My Name is Aram, and Mihran is drawn as the stoic, dedicated uncle who attempted to grow pomegranate trees in Fresno, though they would not grow. In reality, Mihran was briefly a farmer before hard times shut him down. He went on to own a women’s dress shop in Fresno, the Mona Lisa, which he ran with his niece. Though he was a bachelor with no children, he was everyone’s favorite uncle.

Aram and Mihran were contemporaries and spent time together as extended family. Lee Lawrence, when interviewing the Saroyan family for his biography, writes, “Mihran was frank in expressing his complaints about Aram to the boys. ‘He has no nobility,’ he would say” (Saroyan: A Biography). Armenak’s poetic heart was alive in Mihran, and it butt heads with the uncouth Aram.

In the essay, “The Last of the Armenian Plays,” Dikran Kouymjian writes, “An even earlier unpublished play was considered by Saroyan himself as part of his statement on being Armenian. One day he called to say he wanted me to read another work of his. It was Is There Going to Be a Wedding? a one-act play of forty-eight scenes written in 1970-71. It takes place in various locations in Fresno between 1919 and 1923 when Saroyan was entering his early teens. The main characters are himself and his older brother Henry, his mother, and two opposing uncles, Mihran, the idealistic and intellectual tailor, and Aram, the materialistic and pragmatic lawyer. The play creates the Armenian environment the young writer grew up in while at the same time exposing the opposing forces after his soul.” These dual influences appeared frequently in Saroyan’s writing and in how he perceived the world around him.

The table from the flower shop was Uncle Mihran’s gentle encouragement and support, and that support was a place.

bedLastly, Saroyan describes the pipe bed that he had as a young child and liked very much. Or, if not a pipe bed, he clarifies, a bed with a headrest and footrest, old-fashioned metal parts, and a spring for the mattress. “The Head and Foot were of iron, not pipes, and they were designed in a decorative manner. Such beds were common, and I liked mine, but after we moved from 2226 San Benito Avenue it got lost in the shuffle, and hasn’t been seen since” (Places Where I’ve Done Time). Domestic iron bed production stopped in 1914 when the US entered World War I. Afterward, they weren’t considered cost effective and largely disappeared. Saroyan’s bed would have been older, maybe even from the 1800s, old furniture that the family had gathered inexpensively as they struggled to make money to live.

Like the lift-top desk, the bed would have been a place of one’s own. It was in this bed on San Benito Avenue that young William could sleep and dream vividly, that place between life and death. San Benito was the first house the Saroyans settled in after returning from the orphanage, so again it was importantly a bed he could call his own after experiencing several years of communal living at the orphanage. And it was iron - sturdy and permanent, another comfort after Fred Finch. The fact that it was decorative probably also held it apart from the presumably plain orphanage beds. The bed was security and security was a place.

Like his other late chapters in Places Where I’ve Done Time, Saroyan is playing with the definition of “place.” At first it was locations, and then it moved onto states of being, and now it has become things. All of these connect to his emotions. And while Saroyan wasn’t too open about his feelings, he had ways of expressing them in perhaps unconventional ways, as we see throughout this book.

Three Poems by Archie Minasian

bg 01Forever Saroyan, LLC, is not merely dedicated to the recognition of William Saroyan, but to the entire Saroyan-Minasian family. The family is one of the most talented families of writers in American history with more than a dozen members of the clan published in reputable journals and magazines over the last hundred years. These writers include journalists, novelists, playwrights, and poets. Foremost among the poets of the family is Saroyan's first cousin and closest friend, Khatchik "Archie" Minasian. 

Born in 1913 in Fresno, Archie Minasian would become best known for his poetry, publishing pieces in magazines, and eventually in collections including A World of Questions and Things and The Simple Songs of Khatchik Minasian. Both of these volumes are extremely scarce today. His other writing saw publication in magazines including The Armenian Review and Ararat. His poetry ranges from haiku to longer lyrical works, often employing a simplicity of language that echoes his use of natural imagery. 

Archie also worked in watercolor, and occasionally in oils and acrylics. His work is abstract, vibrant, and full of dense color often in undulating forms, expressionistic in a similar way to his poetry.  While Saroyan's artistic work focused almost exclusively on line, Minasian was far more interested in form and color, and worked in representational art at times. Saroyan's works often felt more constructed, while Minasian's were more organic. The cousins were complimentary while working on opposing ends of the same spectrum. 

In the coming year, Forever Saroyan, LLC, will be publishing an anthology of Saroyan-Minasian family literary works. This will include poetry, fiction, non-fiction, memoir, and theatrical writing from across five generations of this remarkable lineage. Some of the pieces will be appearing for the first time, while others will be re-printed from journals and literary magazines across nine decades.

We are pleased to present three Minasian poems, all of which appeared under the mononym 'Khatchik' in the Autumn 1952 issue of The Armenian Review, along with three of his watercolors from the 1970s.

 

 Minasian 1 72 LowRes

AWARE OF AUTUMN

Can you hear the autumn rustle in the bare woods?

can you hear the sparrow’s disconsolate note?

I have listened and have heard the breath of the seasons

breathe their comings and farewells

I hear the inaudible complaints from the woods

when autumns’ there

From trees when leaves hang sick and dead,

from birds surveying naked boughs

and a host of other grievances unexplainable

mumbling in the hazy atmosphere

of the dying year.

I know a strange awakening

of the dying year;

what a fevor of delight –

hastening through the yellow woods

with a madness in my blood unequalled of other seasons.

I know the evening wind in the hedges

preparing the pathway of my exit to the fields

where smoke streaks from the piles lean horizontally still;

I know the moon of the late months

and the dim stars;

I know the naked trees against the days dying,

the breath of the damp herbage

rotting in the roadway ruts where leaves gather;

I know the shout of the house wife

from the house yard in the field,

the call of bird at dusk from the lemon trees;

I know the flutter of wings

when the quail soars aloft of the vines

in the dusk’s broad avenue of silence,

the sparrow’s soft stir in the hedges;

I know the smell of the after harvest

that rests above the stripped fields,

suspended like the smoke from the leaf piles,

I know the grape and the melon,

I know the peach and the huge family

of nectareous edibles

blistered in the sun’s heat and suspended

in the heaviness of the year.

I know of autumn’s presence

for I have been eager with expectance

with the recollections of autumns past.

I feel autumn

like the fingers of women on fabric during purchase

invisible to my touch

yet as tangible as the breath of my being.

I lean for autumn before the summer’s gone

eager for its arrival,

and I lean on it through every hour of its glorious stay.

I know autumn like the mother her child

from perception of manhood to age,

the days of watchful delight

to mischievous grieving.

My soul is the meter of this season

Registering is coming and going.

I feel its dampness

when I trounce the hay piles on my rounds at dawn,

on the sleek plum boughs beside the house;

I feel it in my clothes

when I prepare my dress on awakening,

chilled with its presence and ever grateful for the familiarity.

What a fevor of delight

to know, to feel, to breathe, to touch

this quiet season,

the restful season of sadness,

moody season

that I see suspended over me,

leaning across the roof tops to the bare woods

and beyond and beyond,

so gloriously commingled in the atmosphere

of the dying year.

 

 

Ocean Episode II 20x15 LowRes

LEAVE THE DEAD

Leave the dead where the red roots are,

shame to lift the bone etching itself

to the contours of the claiming rock,

decay’s inexorable sweet-tooth,

            lock the door! lock the door!

Leave the dead where the spirit hovers,

the breath and the red pattern locked eternally

in the semblance of the inanimate crust,

still form perfect.

            lock the door! lock the door!

Leave the dead to the green grass spears

after the maggot nausea and the stink,

sucked out of vision, diminishing pattern

quietly returning, returning.

            lock the door! lock the door!

Leave the dead where the red roots are.

 

Dreams and Desires 20x15 LowRes

LIFE BEGINS AT THIRTY-FIVE

I counted on the elemental roadway, ran aground

and since dragged keel against a world of barbs-

grown weary, water-logged and scarred

with dislocated vertebrae and knotted head

that syllables a reason why I'm good as dead.

So plunge me down in cold surrender to the sea,

out in the levels of the flora and the fin,

the rhythmic crashing silence of the heaving continent;

so plunge and let me glide and let me glide

and rub my body in this subterranean tide

where Babel’s tower-like, all dismal with the word,

apart there I as lime ooze bubble and the whale,

suck in an understanding of this drifting world

through senses peeping out against the skin,

swing on a moment of eternity, black-out and then begin.

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