Saroyan, William (Vol. 10)
Saroyan, William 1908–
Saroyan is an Armenian-American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, and writer of children's books. During the Depression, Saroyan's sentimental fiction, with its nostalgia for a former, better time, was received with welcome relief by an American public who sought escape from the bleak reality of their lives. With the advent of World War II, however, the changing values and tastes of a more sophisticated readership rejected Saroyan's simplistic stories of optimism and the triumph of the American Dream. His refusal to adapt his fiction to the growth and change of a more complex society has prompted critics to dismiss his work as superficial and limited. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1940 for The Time of Your Life, but refused it saying that this play was "no more great or good" than the rest of his work. He has written under the pseudonym of Sirak Goryan. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Thelma J. Shinn
Saroyan's philosophy is not a resolution of but a recognition and acceptance of the contradictions of life. He tells us that life is both funny and sad, both violent and tender, and that generally the contradictions are present in the same scene, the same person, at the same time. Consequently, critics could not define Saroyan's plays—to give one interpretation would conceal the other interpretations simultaneously maintained by the symbolism. This led many critics to reject Saroyan's works because they felt that the plays, in appealing to the irrational and to the emotional in the audience rather than to the intellectual and rational, could be dismissed as mere Romanticism. The more perceptive critics, however, suspected that there was more to Saroyan than sentimentality. (p. 185)
The nonplot symbolic dramas of Pinter, of Beckett, of Ionesco with their usually unrelieved pessimism are remarkably similar to the "romantic fantasies" of Saroyan. Saroyan displays the same disregard for spelling out meanings to the audience, the same freedom with scenery and plot, the same concentration on the individual. Much of modern drama is considered existential because the individual is trying to find for himself some meaning in this absurd universe—and the meaning, if any, appears to be within himself. In this sense, at least, the existential theme is precisely what most concerns Saroyan.
Saroyan's departure from modern...
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[Saroyan's] contribution has been to write from joy, which is in short supply lately, and sparse as a tradition in our literature anyway, unless one looks back to some of the founding figures, such as Walt Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. He predates the glut of black humor and rancorous ethnicity, the literary theater of cruelty and the absurd, though part of the point about Saroyan which is so interesting is that he has been a profoundly, innovatively "ethnic" writer—one of the very first in America, one who has been a conscious spokesman for a people who survived a genocidal holocaust—but that throughout his life he has chosen to write not of despair and dadaism and devastation, but joy….
The Saroyan working method—and it can seem repetitive—is to swing way out from the trapeze, do a somersault or two, and reach out flatly for our hands, trusting partly in us, and secure in the faith that if he misses there is a God somewhere to break his fall. He is an all-around believer; and of course there are, for example, the two ways to lay one's hand against one's face: either feeling the cheek, or feeling the skull—death—underneath the cheek. One can look at one's hand and see a mechanized, strange set of bending pincers, terrifying to contemplate, or see the hand as an elixir of the spirit. Because we can admire artists who lean toward either view, it's not a matter of shutting anybody out: only of insisting that both be heard....
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Kenneth W. Rhoads
A careful reading [of The Time of Your Life] shows that Joe [the play's central character] may be seen as a valid Christ-figure—not a literal Christ, for The Time of Your Life is no Second Coming, nor even an allegorical Christ, but a type of Christ, essentially realistic and certainly very human—whose nature and behavior are completely consonant and who takes on stature as heroic protagonist within such a mode. Whether Saroyan consciously created Joe as Christ-figure is immaterial; this is the character which emerges and which the script projects—by allusion, by indirect revelation, by implicit scriptural parallel in Joe's motivations and the shape of his life, and by specific episodes whose relevance to the meaning of the play is carried by their symbolic content. (pp. 228-29)
Although, as with Christ, the facts of Joe's past essentially comprise a lacuna in his life up to the point of his ministry, he does reveal that—like Christ the young carpenter—he had once worked but ultimately gave it up. And the nature of that experience bears directly on his having rejected that life for his present endeavors. The commercial world brought him only disillusionment and a deep sense of guilt derived from his very success. For although he had learned how to make money, he found material success to be achieved only at the expense of others….
Joe is a type of scapegoat for the sins of his fellow man. He...
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"Chance Meetings" is another of the familiar, loosely tied remembrances that [Saroyan] has done before but, as always, there are new and marvelously alive passages, and his wonderful, unconditioned people…. Years ago Mr. Saroyan postulated that there are two kinds of writers: those who run to meet death, and those who fight to keep it off. It's always been clear which side he's on, and so every person he's met, everything he's done, becomes cause for celebration…. (p. 11)
There is a particular theory about friendship in this book: "Brief friendships have such definite starting and stopping points that they take on a quality of art, of a whole thing, which cannot be broken or spoiled." Mr. Saroyan prefers these brief acquaintanceships, these chance meetings; he sometimes gets upset when the friendship extends past that wholeness; when, for example, the bookseller he's been chatting with for months suddenly realizes that his customer is the Saroyan. What Mr. Saroyan is talking about, I believe, is his own special ability to see a wholeness, a unity, in an episode. It is what makes him a great storyteller. His many short stories in that long list of published work stay with us; though they are each a tiny thing, they are whole and complete.
So I continue reading him, because he is worth reading. Forget the sentimentality that threatens to sink each line, forget the cloying sweetness that...
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D. Keith Mano
So much for the omniscient observer. And the first-person narration. What you've got [in Chance Meetings: A Memoir] is the Ethnic Naïve. An Ethnic Naïve book will be less than two hundred pages long, with deep margins (for deep marginalia) and fat, blank chapter breaks. Also simple, sentence-length paragraphs that reveal simple-but-profound truth because, well, they're simple. (p. 599)
William Saroyan is our Great Wise Old Armenian (Black, Pole, Jew) Who Deigns to Favor You with Reminiscences of a Rich Long Ethnic Life. The reader had better show respect: in deference to age and Armenia. Being Saroyan, Saroyan can supply his own book-jacket propaganda. "Chance Meetings is as large as anybody who happens to read it." Some gall bladder there. An ad hominem attack in advance on his critics: those who don't appreciate Chance Meetings are not honest, authentic, heart-big enough. You may have caught on by now: Chance Meetings irked the lymph juice out of me.
"What is a story?" Saroyan asks. Right away I'm ticked off. That designation, "story," is arch and self-indulgent: affected. It implies a correspondence, doncha know, between Saroyan and the Primitive Bard, the Ancient Carrier-On of National Traditions….
And what does "story" mean? "It's a writer with his mind made up to tell a story. To remember something, or to invent something. (It comes to the same thing.)"...
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Nicholas J. Loprete
Chance meetings, William Saroyan tells us, are sometimes memorable because they have a definite starting and stopping point and take on a quality of art, something concluded and whole, which cannot be improved upon. In [Chance Meetings] Mr. Saroyan proceeds to prove his thesis…. Chance Meetings is a sketchbook, a homily, a philosophy of the self written from a unique perspective about "the stragglers everywhere and all the time, from the very beginning of one's memory."… (p. 121)
It is obvious that he is still having "the time of his life," and the undeniable charm of Saroyan the writer still exists, along with a sentimentality which threatens to sink the book. In less certain hands the danger would become reality, but Mr. Saroyan's warmth and irreverence save the day. "Human memory works its own wheel, and stops where it will, entirely without reference to the last stop, and with no connection with the next." (p. 122)
Nicholas J. Loprete, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), July, 1978.
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