If there is a patron saint of blogs it should be William Saroyan (unless, of course, it is Sei Shonagon)
Now I should explain that William Saroyan is a great favourite of mine – ever since I read his short story ‘Seventy Thousand Assyrians” – now I’ll tell you how great a writer he is because I went Googling (as one does) for a story called ‘A Hundred Thousand Armenians” – that’s how much the idea of the story had grown in my mind. I knew Saroyan was an Armenian so why would he write about Assyrians? Now the thing with Saroyan is that he is one of the few writers who could be called great and still be very comfortably published by Readers Digest. And as more than one person has thought “for such a great writer you have written such a lot of tosh.” But because he was Armenian, and because he was a drunk and a gambler and a bluff, sentimental, thoughtful, honest man he was very popular – and there is to this day a William Saroyan Society. The things you discover once you start Googling.
Anyway the book I bought was called: Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon. It’s a small hardback book published by Michael Joseph with one of those hideous covers that is certainly not intended to attract readers. The name of the author is in a lipstick scarlet colour, the title of the book is black and both are set against a background of cursive lettering – black on a white background – that is bold or not bold in a way that results in a man’s face emerging. All in all, very clever but stupid.
The book itself consists of three months of random jottings – a daily blog if you like before the word even existed. The first month is Paris August 1967 – the other two months are November and December 1968. Now the thing is – the first month (Paris in August 1967) is absolutely charming. You get the feel of a man who is somehow freed from some burden, who delights in the little things of life – stealing sunflowers and so on. He goes out for long walks, he buys newspapers, he sits in cafes. We are there with him. There is an immediacy and freshness about these entries. The thoughts that he has appear to arrive directly from his activity. Why is this interesting? Because there is an underlying joyful immediacy. And of course because Paris in August is a ghost town – everyone who can leaves for their holidays – everyone who is left feels like a truant.
And Saroyan’s genius is for the incidental, the real, the hard-boiled sentimental. His story about the massacre of seventy thousand Assyrians starts with him going into a barber shop (if I remember rightly) and what follows is a musing on man’s inhumanity to man. Now the thing is I am certain that this story was, in fact, seeded in a barbershop. In fact there are probably tours organised by the Saroyan Society to that very barber shop – undoubtedly in Fresno – where they will point out the chair that he sat at and the names of his barbers. The place will so reek of Saroyan that you will be surprised the face in the mirror is not his but yours.
Then, it seems clear, a year later, he sees a chance to make a book . What better than to continue doing what he’d done as a lark in Paris and continue it in Fresno. But, and I’m guessing here, it’s already well into August by this time and when September rolls along he’s still not quite ready so November and December it has to be. Suddenly the joy goes out of the book. Fresno in November or rather Saroyan in Fresno in November is not the same as Saroyan in Paris in August. Every day there is explanation. There is no doing things, no accidental larking. No long walks. In Fresno, when he mentions going out it is always in a car. There is the difference. So November in Fresno is a bit of a chore frankly. But then comes December and explanation gives way to reminiscence. We (meaning I) still miss the innocent pleasures of Paris but at least Saroyan has become human again – he’s not lecturing us.
And the Moon? I’m referring to the title of the book which no doubt you have already forgotten. Well, towards the end of 1968 the Americans sent a rocket to circle the Moon – Here is Saroyan: “There they go, to the Moon. And on television, too. Had there been no television would they have gone? Of course not.”
There is an idea that dances – a thought to raise a smile and lodge in some remote crevice of the brain. There is the Saroyan we delight in. It’s the shape of his sentences as much as the shape of his thoughts.
And here – in Saroyan’s thoughts in December in Fresno – there is too a constant obsession with death – mention of people he knows who have died or are dying. That’s what you do when you’ve entered the death zone (the day after your 60th birthday – I know, I’m there!)
But what really got me – reading through this jumble sale of great writing and maudlin nonsense – was that here was a writer who was well past his prime who was younger than I am now – and I haven’t reached my prime yet (or did it steal by, silently, one night while I slept?).
Author of Dreams of Gold – the comic novel of the London 2012 Olympics http://amzn.to/zWCAPm