William Saroyan’s The Gay and Melancholy Flux
William Saroyan’s literary powers not only found a receptive audience in the United States, but also around the world. One of the countries where he was most popular was the United Kingdom. A part of why he was so popular in the UK is that he had an excellent publisher for most of his early books, including several while Britain was in the midst of World War II. The relationship between Saroyan and his primary UK publisher, Faber & Faber, ran for decades, and it includes one of the most impressive and unusual of all Saroyan’s collections – The Gay & Melancholy Flux.
Saroyan had been selling stories and articles since 1928, and in 1934 he released the masterpiece, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories. The reaction to the collection was immediate, and Saroyan was referred to by The Guardian as “An Armenian Genius.” He was a sensation and he sold thousands of books on both sides of the Atlantic. He was flying high, and then even higher when he released the much-praised Inhale and Exhale in 1936. Established as one of the leading young writers in the world, Saroyan was arguably the most popular young writer of the mid-1930s in the UK and North America. Reviewing Inhale and Exhale, The Guardian printed, “The universality of William Saroyan is, in a word, titanic.”
Faber & Faber was one of the most prestigious of all UK publishers at the time. The imprint was founded in 1925 as Faber and Gwyer by Geoffrey Faber and Maurice Gwyer, who was the publisher of The Nursing Mirror, a weekly medical magazine. They quickly brought on board one of the glowing literary lights of the day – T. S. Eliot. Already a major figure of Modernist literature following the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” Eliot served as Faber and Gwyer’s literary advisor, eventually joining the directorial board. They began publishing many of the most important poets and writers in the UK at the time, including W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, and Eliot himself. In 1929, The Nursing Mirror was sold, Gwyer went his own way, and Faber renamed the imprint Faber & Faber despite the fact that he was the only Faber involved!
Eliot was arguably the most important aspect of Faber’s editorial direction, and he was well-aware of what was going on in the American literary scene at the time. Saroyan was an obvious choice to add to the fold. His masterpiece, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, was published in the UK by Faber. As they would often do throughout their relationship with Saroyan, the Faber edition did not include Saroyan’s introduction and omitted one story. Some of the stories in it, like “Dear Gretta Garbo,” were a bit beyond the grasp of contemporary audiences, but have since grown in stature. Eliot and Faber certainly recognized the quality of the writing and possibly even understood the direction these works would take in the future. After the 1935 publication of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories in the UK, Faber & Faber acquired the rights to Saroyan’s Inhale and Exhale, a powerful collection that was very well received. There were several stories from the US edition of Inhale and Exhale that were not included in the 1936 Faber edition, possibly because the US edition ran almost 450 pages. Faber left out the important pieces “Ah-ha” and “I Can’t Put Two and Two Together,” among others.
Because of the omission of these stories, or perhaps wanting to publish more of his voluminous output, Saroyan pitched the idea of a new compilation: the stories that were not included in Faber’s edition of Inhale and Exhale, about twenty in all, including some that Saroyan thought to be among his best. These included some that would go on to be oft re-printed, such as “The Great Unwritten American Novel”. Saroyan’s European agent, Lawrence Pollinger, went about negotiating with Faber for the release of these stories. Initially, there was excitement about publishing the stories, but not about the titles Saroyan pitched.
“They are not, however,” Pollinger said in a letter to Saroyan on January 7th, 1937, “very happy about your choice for the title – THE GAY AND MELANCHOLY FLUX, WORLD WILDERNESS OF TIME LOST, or TEARS OF THE WORLD AND ITS CHILDREN – and ask if you will kindly let them have two or three other alternatives. Kindly push these along to me for Faber are anxious to go ahead with the manufacture of the book.”
At nearly the same time, three young UCLA students, Gil Harrison, Hal Levy, and Bill Okie, made a trip from the Westwood campus to Hollywood to visit Saroyan, then at work writing for “the pictures,” as he called it. This meeting would lead to the formation of a publishing company, The Conference Press, which would begin operations with the publication of Saroyan’s collection Three Times Three. The collection featured nine new stories. This third collection of stories featured one of the most important pieces Saroyan would ever write -- “The Man with His Heart in the Highlands.” In 1939, he would adapt as his first successful stage play,
Saroyan had Pollinger offer Three Times Three to Faber for possible publication, but T.S. Eliot was not sure about the amount of material. After a meeting with Eliot and Frank Morley, also a director at Faber, Pollinger wrote to Saroyan on January 15th, 1937:
“They feel, and I am inclined to agree with them, that to publish THREE TIMES THREE as a separate book would not cut a great deal of ice here. Further, by adding the eight or is it nine stories (I haven’t a copy of the book with me to check) from this volume to THE GAY AND MELANCHOLY FLUX will make that book a really meaty volume in every way. Without the THREE TIMES THREE stories it would run to not more than 212 pages which is a pretty slim volume for which to ask 7 shillings and 6 pence.”
Faber stated they wanted all the stories from Three Times Three, save for “Quarter, Half, Three-Quarter and Whole Notes,” and none of the introductory material. The newly recombined volume, The Gay and Melancholy Flux, was announced in the Faber & Faber catalog, but the story list was not yet finalized. Apparently in the last iteration, three stories were added: “Love,” originally included in the US edition of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories, as well as two pieces that had yet to be published anywhere – “Hunger” and “Ben.”
The stories in The Gay and Melancholy Flux explored many of Saroyan’s most important themes from his early career: mortality, the difficulties of youth, love (romantic and otherwise), and the promise of the future. These are works that fit in well with those that had been included in his previous collections, but also extended his reach stylistically. His story, “My Picture in the Paper,” focuses on how the modern age of mass communication has changed the meaning of fame, a theme he dealt with pointedly in “Dear Gretta Garbo,” but now explored the idea beyond a simple single event and worked with a stronger set of literary devices. “The Great Unwritten American Novel” plays with large ideas of identity and creation in a stream of consciousness style. He returns to the extreme fluidity of language and location in the story “The Train.” The works here are, perhaps, a bit less traditional, with a flair of modernism that wasn’t fully explored in his earlier writing. In the end, “Quarter, Half, Three-Quarter and Whole Notes” was included in the collection, and is another example of Saroyan eschewing traditional narrative in favor of a fairly philosophical rumination on writing.
Though these works had appeared before, when placed together, the Modernist sensibilities become more evident. They feel more influenced by writers like Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and even T.S. Eliot. When mixed with his traditional approach, the ‘Saroyanesque’ style as it would come to be called, this makes for fascinating reading.
The best examples of the approach come through the two stories that had not appeared anywhere previously. “Hunger” is not so much a traditional story as it is an examination of the interaction between a viewer and the setting, in this case the darker side of the urban environment.
The writing is unlike his earlier work, far more impressionistic while leaving much of his vaunted characterization aside. The result is a story that brings a reader to a place and allows them to explore their own relationship with the idea of the city. From the opening line, “On the seventh day of nothing, he began to laugh,” it is clear that Saroyan is working from a different playbook than he had in his previous writing.
“Ben” is a completely different beast.
It explores mortality and history, and how the two concepts play off of each other. The style Saroyan deployed borders on prose poetry, and echoes of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” can be heard in the deeply symbolic prose. In fact, it would be fair to put “Ben” on the list of most far-reaching short stories ever written, invoking ideas of terror and wonder, light and dark, and the deep impact of many of the most significant moments in human history, all packed into less than ten thousand words. One reading of the story, that long-passed events that should have no impact on our lives in the present day end up defining our lives, can be seen as an extended metaphor for the impact of the Armenian genocide as a defining force on all Armenians, Saroyan included.
Perhaps it is this experimentation that led both of those stories to never be re-printed or offered in any of his later collections. Reviewers of the time seemed to understand that some of these stories were looking far further ahead than others.
“…such nightmare rhapsodies as ‘Ben’ and ‘The Great Unwritten American Novel’ do one thing better than all others – they emphasize the vast gulf that divides writers of other times from those of our day,” noted The Guardian in June, 1937.
Often, stories that are ahead of their time end up languishing in the days of their creation, and perhaps that it what happened with “Ben” and “Hunger.” Or perhaps it was simply the fact that they appeared in a single UK anthology instead of one of his US bestsellers. It’s impossible to say for sure.
The reviews for The Gay and Melancholy Flux were positive, if not exactly plentiful. Thomas Moult of The Guardian praised the work, noting “Mr. Saroyan is bitingly witty, humorous – grinning and grimacing in the face of life and death the whole time, - and in his courage and sympathy with his people, his anger and pessimism, he might be called a laughing and snarling philosopher.” The Daily Express called it “the most yawn-proof book in the bundle.”
Sales for the book, though, were not nearly as impressive. Released in 1937, the book was the third Saroyan title on UK shelves in less than 2 years, and thus he may have crowded his own marketplace. The title only sold 636 copies in the first 90 days, and a total of 997 by March 31st, 1938. The UK release of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and other stories sold 1391 copies in the first year, and Inhale and Exhale 762 copies in the first 4 months. This had to be disappointing, though several stories in the collection did find new life in translation. “The Man with His Heart in the Highlands” was reprinted several times beginning with The Evening Standard in the UK, and in French translation for the magazine Mesures. Rights for the title story, “The Gay and Melancholy Flux,” were sold for translation into several languages, though possibly never actually published.
Saroyan followed up The Gay and Melancholy Flux with another collection, Little Children, which sold much better, moving 2,221 copies in the first year, making it his most popular UK title up to that point. Saroyan would continue publishing with Faber through the War years and into the 1960s, thirty titles in all. The relationship roughly correlates to Saroyan’s most prolific period. Though he published new works with companies like Peter Davies and Cowles throughout the 1960s and 70s, his best-known and most loved works had come out with Faber & Faber.
While The Gay and Melancholy Flux remains one of his least known collections, Forever Saroyan has taken up the cause of one of the stories: “Ben.” As a part of the 113th Birthday Celebration reading series, actor and writer Derek McCaw read the story, marking the first time it had been published in any form in the United States.
Chris Garcia - Archivist for Forever Saroyan - October 15, 2021, San Jose, California