Forever Saroyan Presents - Public Speech

Welcome to Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three, with your host, Christopher J. Garcia.

ThreeTImes editedHello, and welcome to another episode of Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three. This time we're looking at the story, “Public Speech”. I think Saroyan sums it up pretty perfectly with the opening lines of his introduction.

“This one's goofy, but even so, some readers may get a kick out of it.”

The story is actually a little bit difficult to sum up. It's a speech, at least that's a form of it, but it's not a typical speech as we might think of it. It's both a character study and, in a strange way, a commentary on everything from Communism, to socialism, to art, to politics, to the progression of life itself. And it features both the text of the speech and then in parentheses, comments of what's going on inside the world in which a speech is being given.

The opening of the actual piece goes like this – “Ladies, gentlemen, patriots lovers of opera, enemies of Russia, soldiers, workers, fascist Presbyterians, Rotarians, Greeks, Jews, orders farmers, mechanics, gamblers, sons of America, Daughters of the revolution rebels, sailors, taxpayers, voters, students, Catholics, worshipers of Stalin, black shirts, Mr. President, Mrs. President brown shirts, doctors, nurses, poets, writers, composers and critics of life and literature (swig of whiskey.)

From that very opening, you can tell that Saroyan is writing for this universal person. In essence, he's doing what he does. Often, he is trying to be as egalitarian as possible in his writing. Saroyan often mentioned groups that would be typically diametrically opposed to one another, as a way of expressing his neutrality, or at least his view of inclusion for the time. The addition of Mr. President, Mrs. President, is an interesting note, but strange.

A majority of the speech is about Mark Lazansky And he's 20. Born in Russia, Jewish, and a strapping young lad. What's strange is that as the piece goes on, the thread gets lost, and it's on purpose. That's what's so fascinating about it. It is something of a ramble, but at the same time, it is pointedly making use of a number of techniques that Saroyan often used, like the parentheticals to indicate action such as swig of whiskey which is repeated throughout this and may also explain some of the rambling nature of it the giving a full backstory of a character within almost snapshots and vignettes. For example, when talking about the birth of Mark Lazansky, the speaker says the following – “brothers and sisters, the day of his birth was a cold day in New York, snow everywhere. The little flat on Mulberry Street was dark and frozen like the mind of a homeless man walking the streets through a winter night, black and cold. Poor mama Lazansky groaned in her bed frightened and sorry she had ever come to America. 1000 agonies in Moscow would have been better.”

That's where it gets interesting, because at this point, it is about the character, but then it moves on. It talks about the American Republic and the experiment. It talks about using characters such as John D. Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Andrew Mellon, the richest people in America at that point, and they play characters. In this case, he casts them as thieves, these three tycoons, and it's funny because they were sort of seen as robber barons at the time, but they're also some of the most respected men in America simultaneously. They were often the target of Young Socialists and Communists who were making statements about how American inequality had grown greatly in the 1920s and 30s. Throughout this the story is full of repetition and lists, which is something that occasionally Saroyan is known for. He also continually refers to the audience as brothers or brethren, as if he's addressing a group that he is a part of, his often referenced ‘brotherhood of man.’ When he made that initial mention of all the people he was speaking to, there's no single group they would all really be members of, except for perhaps America as a whole. But at the same time, it is definitely bifurcated. He is in many ways railing against the rich, the pompous. In a way he's also going against organizations in general. There's a wonderful passage that I think is really just brilliantly done.

“I tell you, my friends, there is no hope for the living None. None whatsoever, though Catholic children pray from morning till night, and novelists fill the world with book after book and painters paint and actors act and preachers preach and so help me if you think the world is not ending if you think the very sky is not falling if you think Chaos is not coming comrades. You are Gaga Your eyes are blind your ears are deaf. Your nose is clogged your limbs frozen in your hearts (applause) professors, educators plumbers and pipefitters newsboys beggars and Arthur Brisbane, now is the time to rise and laugh. I said, Rise and laugh, my friends, I said. (no laughter, angry.)”

August6thPresentation014What's brilliant about that specific segment is again, he's listing different groups, different activities, and treating them all with equal men. The prayers of the Catholic, the writer writing, the painter painting, the preacher preaching, all of them in the same context. What's funny is we see an echo of one of his stories that he had done in Inhale and Exhale, which was reprinted in the Gay and Melancholy Flux as “Ben,” a story called “666”, in which he moves it directly to the listener and uses a very familiar form.

“You are 12 years old and alive, follow closely, the long day ended and you're still in Italy living in Rome 20 years old, came Mussolini with the last mouth, came oratory, came the salute, came the word fascism, you agree to live in Italy, because you were born in Italy and like climate, and because you have Italian memories, lo and behold, you're a fascist but not actually. And not with a bang, bang, the change is statistical and not organic. Your name is Thomas Mazza…”

The repeated use of ‘came’ – ‘came Mussolini, came fascism,’ so on and so forth, very much echoed what the majority of banners. In “666” Saroyan uses the to indicate the importance of connection to time, as he adds a thing and then said ‘came’ then ‘came’ and then ‘came,’ what he is really saying is this happened. This was a moment, this was a noted event that must be paid attention to. Consequently, when he says you, when he addresses a specific idea of a being, he is using it, of course, universally, but at the same time, he is saying that any specificity that we apply to any one person in this world is applicable to everybody. Its grain, how this flows out from there, and again, echoing the way that “Ben” and “666” tell the story of the passage of history and its impact on the individuals who are there now. We see that same technique in a slightly different way.

“Read your evening newspaper, yawn and speak of the news toots. I see by the paper where 5000 Ethiopians were killed today by a bunch of Italian baby them. Foreigners are Gaga, the scene changes, the Americans are coming, the Mexicans are coming, the South Americans are coming. And here comes the British with a bang bang.”

Again, it is these references that show import. And here talking about the colonization aspects of the world about how scarcity and need has always driven the idea of conquest. That's here in many, many ways. I think that the most confusing part of this is that Saroyan seems to want an end to human suffering in many different ways, most notably financially, of course, in the introduction, talking about how he wanted to live long enough to be to see everyone be a millionaire to be made comfortable, but he often thumbed his nose at ideas of communism, socialism, and religion very much. So he speaks against the rich. But at the same time, he clearly admires their lifestyle, not only because of how he personally lives, but how he is constantly noting their most important figures. In essence, it seems he is aspiring to be a rich man, but doesn't like the people who already live in that neighborhood.

This push-pull attraction-repulsion concept makes this story in particular, very difficult to put into a single framework. The asides of ‘a sip of whiskey,’ ‘a sip of gin’, could be that the speaker is getting more and more drunk and himself as losing the thread. That would be a very generous reading and also one that I could see Saroyan going with. At the same time, there is certainly a focus on the idea that the world is going in a wrong direction, and perhaps there is subtext that says the world is coming towards a reckoning that could well be, but Saroyan himself said this story was goofy, but some may like it. The goofy aspect is clear, there's a lot of comedy, and the funny thing is that it's actually more comedic now because it's come to a time which is more like the time he is describing than the time he was living in at the time. When he talks about the idea of patriotism as being a difficult aspect of his life, that's truly key, but I think in the same way he approaches patriotism as something that he definitely did have, and if you read him writing about America in general, he does have this joyous acceptance of being an American, at the same time as being highly critical of America itself. And Americans.

I think the contradictions within the existence of many of Saroyan’s works exists because he himself was conflict as to his own role in the world. He wants success, but he doesn't like the successful. Perhaps it's a way of him saying he's glad he doesn't have more success, but at this point in his career, he was pretty dang successful. He had cash, and he had cache. The question is, what did he view as meaning. I think that this story is him saying that his success doesn't mean much, that though he may personify himself as the speaker in that I truly think he is the speaker who is using Mark Lazansky as a stand in for himself. In essence, he's doing what he did with his own writing in the living in the dead, He has stepped outside of himself to look at himself and provide a view of that, as a somewhat objective observer gives Lazansky a backstory to make it less obvious, but in many ways, I think serene was describing what his ideal self was, or would have been at that point. And that makes it a very interesting connection with the rest of his work.

Thanks for listening to Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three. I am your host, Chris Garcia. Hope you'll stay tuned for our next episode, “Life and Letters.” Thanks for listening.

Forever Saroyan Presents - Summertime

Forever Saroyan Presents - Three Times Three, with your host, Christopher J. Garcia. Today, we're looking at a story, the shortest story we've looked at so far, “Summertime.”

ThreeTImes summertimeThe introduction is brief, and opens with “’Summertime’ was written in the wintertime, Thursday, January 9 1936. In San Francisco. Wintertime is an excellent time during which to remember and fully know summertime and San Francisco for me is a good place in which to remember Fresno, my hometown. Perspective in time and space and climate.”

The idea there that one needs to be away from a thing to truly appreciate a thing is a classic, because, of course, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And it's a theme that Saroyan has definitely worked with often in his writing, and particularly in his personal writing, like Places I’ve Done Time in particular, how he views Fresno when he is away from Fresno, as opposed to how he viewed it at the time. Sadly, his view of Fresno in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, we really aren't 100% certain of his view at the time, and only know that through his recollections through his writing of the 1930s. The diaries he kept at the time are not widely available. We do know some through his letters, particularly those exchanged with Archie Minasian, but we have this idea that he was always trying to get out to become a part of the wider world. It would make sense that San Francisco, the New York City of the West, one could say, would be a fine place to reflect back on Fresno in much the same way that when he left for New York, he often reflected back on California and particularly Fresno.

The story itself is relatively simple. It opens with a general remembrance of summer in Fresno, particularly talking about the popcorn wagon that would come through town. It would seem odd to me that popcorn would be a popular food in Fresno during the summertime where it can be incredibly hot, but to each his own. He discussed how the horse drawn popcorn cart, much like today's ice cream trucks, would go through the streets. The popcorn cart apparently was a major attraction and when it's coming to the neighborhood was a big deal. That's an important touchstone for time and place. While popcorn carts are often found today at fairs, state fairs and the like, they're not roaming neighborhoods anymore. In fact, roaming cart salesmen other than things such as ice cream trucks, and particularly in Hispanic neighborhoods, you'll see fruit carts that are often wheeled around with people selling fruit and fruit spice. That methodology hasn't quite retained its flavor anymore, partly because of the wide-scale availability of cars, cars which enable the ice cream truck, for example.

Ph37 MIhran William 1947 webWhere the real meat of the story, particularly where the emotional meat of this story comes from, is in an interaction between our narrator and his uncle, who he calls Setrak. If we read this, as often we do certain stories in this collection and others, this is more than likely a reference to Saroyan himself as the narrator and his uncle Mihran as his uncle. There are certain keys here - one, the narrator notes that his father had passed away when he was young, much like Saroyan's father did, passing away in Campbell, California, in 1911, and two, mentions that the uncle Setrak is younger than his father would have been much like Uncle Mihran, the youngest of the children of Takoohi and Armenak Saroyan. Mihran remembered the old country, much like Setrak. It seems the exchange between the narrator and his uncle is somewhat bittersweet. They talked about how the family came from the old country, how being born in the new country of America makes it difficult to attach to the old country. And to understand the sort of connections with the area, it is very clear that the narrator wants a connection with his father that he never had in life.

It is also very clear that the uncle is not necessarily hesitant to share that connection, but might lack a emotional vocabulary to share that. And one interesting note is that the uncle notes that the narrator's father didn't talk much, but when he did, it was something important. This interlude, this interaction between the narrator and the and his uncle speaks of themes he would start to explore more in his later work, in particular, this could be a relatively small portion of a story in My Name is Aram. It is Saroyan’s attempt at connection with a family and a place that he did not know; he did not know his father, at this point he didn't know Armenia. So, he would very quickly visit this idea that he had of what both those things meant, and had to be mitigated through the others in his life. And much like Uncle Mihran did that for him in actual life, Uncle Setrak does that in the story. Again, we see the most important aspects of Saroyan’s literary style, as always he does not use quotation marks. This is an interesting choice and rare among literary writers. He simply uses said to indicate a speaker, though occasionally he even goes away from that, relying on the reader to keep track of the narration of the narrative, and the dialogue itself. For example –

Why are you so eager? He said.

Where did we live? First? I said.

You were born here. He said. You've lived in this valley all your life.

Where did my father live? I said.

 in the old country, he said.

What was the name of the city?


Where was this city? In the mountains?

It was built in the mountains, and the streets, they are made of rock and they were crooked and narrow.

Do you remember my father in the streets of Beatless?

Of course, he was my brother.

You saw him. I said.

Despite the fact that he has completely rid the text of tags throughout half of that speech, you could still follow it, not just because it is back and forth broken into paragraphs, but because it is question and answer. And Saroyan understood readers' tendencies enough to know that you could get away with it, that you could cut away at that, in essence, forming a more minimalist track for his writing. This may be why Kurt Vonnegut referred to Saroyan as the first and still the best of American minimalists.

This ability to work without many of the signifiers that writers of the literary canon had used for more than a century at that point, established Saroyan's voice as one which was at once sentimental, but at the same time, relatively avant garde. By simply figuring that a reader was smart enough to do this much work, he was signifying that his work was worthy of this consideration. This is a wonderful story, very short, but unlike “The Question,” it provides a full idea, this idea of reflection on a past that is distant and how sometimes you have to have a conduit to get to it to achieve it. And here, I think he's done that.

Thanks for listening to Forever Saroyan presents three times three. I'm Chris Garcia, your host. Archivists are Dori Myer and Christopher J. Garcia. Forever Saroyan’s founder is Charles Janigian. Tune in for our next episode: Public Speech

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

home1930 1939Reader -  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.

publicity 022He 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

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