Thursday, September 10, 2015

William Saroyan, Family Gatherings, The Yiddish Theater, and Narrative Voice

The arrival of William Saroyan's title, My Name Is Aram in your writing life was the literary equivalent of being rescued by the AAA on a busy freeway.  

Here you were, stuck in the traffic of creativity, believing you’d be lucky to produce publishable short stories, and caught up in the hypnotic cadence of Hemingway’s narrative voice.

Compelling and engaging as Hemingway’s style emerges from his narrative, there is, as his onetime friend, Gertrude Stein, said of her own hometown, “no there there,” no voice.  

With My Name Is Aram, tucked away in your memory, Saroyan seemed to be offering you the choice between style and voice.  Every time you reread this narrative, I feel the presence of a man you actually knew in life, and remind yourself of the need for story to have a voice.

There is little doubt you could be given two unmarked pages of text, one from Hemingway, the other from Saroyan, and within moments identify each.  There is that much difference.  

True enough,Hemingway had an enormous effect on narrative and on dialogue.  His work will no doubt outlast Saroyan's, but there is an impersonal tone to Hemingway, for all his cadence and evocation.  The narrative and dialogue of Saroyan are shot through with humor, whim, and a bristling sense of absurdity so reflective of people at their best.

By the time Saroyan came into your life, you'd read most of the Hemingway short stories, were at work on his novels, and had been impressed enough with Death in the Afternoon to absorb as much as you could of the ritual of bullfighting.  Hemingway was not easy to give up or shift off to a sideline, but the more time you spent studying My Name Is Aram, the more you recognized the attractive qualities you found in his dialogue that you wished to have in your own, and in many ways were beginning to have.

Simply put, Hemingway was too detached and controlled, Saroyan's characters were hopelessly caught up in the same antic eccentricity you found so attractive. You could and did for the longest time transform works of the Western canon you were reading as an English Literature major into immigrant Armenian families and then, as you saw that working, you transferred works from the Western canon into a closer to your own culture filter.

Thus did novels from Henry James,Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, George Elliot, and Virginia Woolf begin to sound in your ears as though they'd stepped off the stage of the Yiddish theater.

My Name Is Aram sent you scavenging about in the hunt for your own voice, leading you, through some of those near absurdist exchanges of dialogue, to playwrights associated with the theater of the absurd.  You understood that view, but wanted more of the kind of impatience that comes toward the end of the main course at a family dinner, when the host is preparing the deserts and coffee, and those at the table have moved beyond politeness and familial ties into the growing conviction that their point of view is being misunderstood.

Thanks to William Saroyan, you came to see how many of your characters are responding to secret regrets they did not pursue some hidden dream.  As family gatherings, life in general, and the growing ties through marriage with other families increase, the fallout from the regrets becomes more coded but less hidden, producing epic arguments in which something as simple as the relative density of a matzoh ball becomes the rallying cry for arguments at hand which have nothing whatsoever to do with matzoh balls and everything to do with the hidden yearnings of hearts least expected to be nourishing so much spleen.

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