Three Times Three - Quarter, Half, Three-Quarter, and Whole Notes.
Welcome to Forever Saroyan presents - Three Times Three. I'm Chris Garcia, and this is the final episode of Three Times Three, and the final story, “Quarter, Half, Three-quarter and Whole Notes.”
It's another one of Saroyan’s very thoughtful pieces. I will now read the entire introductory note – “ideas.”
Saroyan as a writer really came through a number of different periods to get to the point where he became a major figure in American letters. The period of 1935 through about 1940, saw him evolve in a number of ways just through the sheer volume of writing he was doing, and his ability to make stories out of nothing. It seemed often he wrote short vignettes, sometimes brief encounters, and sometimes, even just talking philosophy. That makes it possible for stories like “Quarter, Half, Three-quarter and Whole Notes” possible.
There's only one way to write a story and only one way to write one sentence, and that is to be pious, and simple and inwardly isolated. Above all things, inwardly isolated.
There are a number of statements by writers at this time where they were specifically talking about the art of writing. In essence, writers were becoming big enough celebrities within the overall collective unconsciousness to write about writing, and have their words taken seriously. Another famous writer known for doing just that was Ernest Hemingway. Saroyan's friend, rival, enemy, and often competitor, though I doubt either would see each other as such. In fact, I think each of their views on one another was informed more by how they were seeing themselves at any given time.
Here, he talks about getting a job briefly, and buying book, which is something that a number of writers do, but then he goes off into a long, sometimes disjointed, talk about his writing, about what he's reading, about various people. He jumps around. He's talking about writing, but at the same time, he's referencing things outside of his own writing.
Prose should get the simultaneity; of events, of thought and incident. things do not happen by themselves. They happen together with innumerable other events, thoughts, remembrances, moods, words, emotions, melodies, mingling and generally unrelated, sad and comic. Pious conversation at the beach, Pacific waves, goals, fishing boats, the sea sound debris, walking, I will be around waiting to say what is essential, nothing more. Break down the stupid structure of the language and make it live. Sometimes gaiety, sometimes not a story.
As he goes through his ideas of what a story is, we kind of see ties to external writing, and writers. As many have pointed out, Guy de Maupassant was one of his major influences, yet Maupassant was exceptionally broad and out there, and in his writing, particularly detailed. It wasn't until writers such as Chekhov where a paring down of language became much more popular. And from it, the idea of minimalism arose. And so this is certainly minimalist, but much of it is thoughtful, and perhaps even ponderous.
Birth, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection.
A funeral Psalm.
I have fallen asleep and dreamed my end in time and eternity and I have awakened and dreamed again the living of my flesh. Now, as motion again, he who walks whistling over the cement sidewalk and reaches the city, who enters its order, stands amongst its inhabitants, speaks and returns, walking to his room. And between these two dreams, the one of death to be and the other of life which is, is the long road or the broad plane, or the bright city of living. A lonely path through the rich forest of Earth unborn, or the clean, clear plain of the smiling heart or the vast, wide city of strength. And for this reason that I am so deeply caught and fixed within this order, which is not really tragic, though it sometimes is. I must laugh and feel that all is right, though I'll be wrong, that death is right that pain is right that diseases right hatred, cruelty, mockery, sin, despair, fear, and only for this reason that I and yourself, of course, am so deeply caught within this magnificent time and place of error and waste which we call life. So amazingly entered into the earth upon it, standing so magnificently related to the universe, so ridiculously the son and brother of God so pathetically immortal, so sinfully, innocent of old guilt, since the only guilt is being having once been born, but not twice.
He does actually contradict many of the things he would say later in his career in the story, most famously his actual claiming that writers are actually born twice. That said, the story moves fairly well and keeps you reading largely because of the way he writes. The beauty of passion, I think, is the way to look at it. How it looks at the story, and in a way reflects the rest of the stories in the book.
A work of prose may be said to be good, though not necessarily great, when it has wholeness, for it is wholeness that man instinctively desires and works of art, and thus, this wholeness need not be purely technical, as many writers imagine. As a matter of fact, the logical growth of the story form would seem to be towards a dismissal, or at least a regulation to a position of minor importance of technical virtuosity, and a more powerful emphasis of the spiritual and emotional intensity and wholeness of a piece of writing involving man.
He, in essence, is calling for an acceptance of a form of modernism or at least expressionism. He's rejecting a technical perfection that marked the works of writers such as Chekhov, Babel,and others over that period. He's saying new writing of the 1930s is not necessarily technically perfect and polished, but one that exhibits emotional content. His methodology for doing such often takes the form of writing, as he would speak or as if he is speaking. Now there is a perfection to that. The power of his dialogue, for example, is based in its rootedness in naturalistic expression. That said, at the same time, his works are not slapdash recordings of conversations. They are perfected and polished. But the perfection and polish that he is trying to achieve is not such of the high level of intellectualism. But yet one of emotionalism he's presenting himself to appeal to the emotions to the the softer side of the human intellect, because his works are not non-intellectual. In fact, they're highly intellectual. Their intellectual explorations of emotional topics by use of evocation. He calls out emotional reactions to events in his story to his dialogue to plot points. And then makes you look at that and what they mean and how they play in you and in others. That, perhaps, is the greatest power of William Saroyan and perhaps the most important part of the story “Quarter, Half, Three-quarter and Whole Notes.”
As a whole, Three Times Three is a book that documents a very strange time for William Saroyan, not only insofar as it is at the beginning of his career, but it is a moment where he was creating for publication very quickly. We hear his origin tale for the stories. We hear Subway Circus was punted, and if you read Subway Circus, it's a pretty good play. It's not a great play. But schematically, it doesn't work here. It is not an exploration of meaning and content. It is a formation of meaning and content, and thus it feels wrong for Three Times Three.
Most of the stories here have more or less faded away, even with Saroyan purists. While stories such as The Living and The Dead and The Man with the Heart in the Highlands have been reprinted and are well known, at least among Saroyanphiles, they truly surpass the book in which they're contained. The Man with the Heart in the Highlands is far better known for its inclusion in work such as the play My Heart’s in the Highlands and other works that were made after, not necessarily referencing this publication, but other times it appears in Saroyan’s writing, notably, The Saroyan Special and The William Saroyan Reader, while stories such as “Public Speech”, “Life and Letters,” “The Beggars” and “The Question” may seem slight when compared in general to other Saroyan works, they're certainly an example of what he was working on to get to where he ended up.
This was published after his first truly magnificent collections, both of which marked him as a major figure. While this collection did not succeed, at least as the book was not a great financial success, where Saroyan did succeed is in feeling out the edges of his stories. Even in his introductions, he'll point out where he overreached himself. Where when grasping for the edge, he just went too far and pulled more back than he could handle. That happens, and we see as his work progresses into collection such as Little Children and in particular, My Name is Aram, he has found the edges and is better defined as a writer. Without going through projects such as Three Times Three, he may never have found that and perhaps it's even Three Times Three that drove him to the type of writing he would do in My Name is Aram. His understanding that the philosophical works have a place in his writing, but yet story needs to be solidly at the heart of everything he writes.
I would argue that The Man with the Heart in the Highlands is the most important story here, though “Quarter, Half, Three-quarter and Whole Notes” has also been reprinted several times. It is The Man with the Heart in the Highlands, the most different story in this collection, largely because it's the most traditionally short story-like story, that stands tall, and its presentation here certainly makes Three Times Three a better book overall. While Conference Press never became the major press that we would have thought, it did publish a couple of very good books, and Three Times Three does have a very important place in the lung bibliography of William Saroyan.
Thanks for listening to Three Times Three. I'm Chris Garcia. Stay tuned for this space. We'll be coming back with more looks at individual books down the line. But for right now, this has been Forever Saroyan Presents: Three Times Three. Thank you for listening.