Sunday 15 January 2012

Penguin no. 201: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan

I am of Frisco, the fog, the foghorns, the ocean, the hills, the sand dunes, the melancholy of the place, my beloved city, the place where I had moved across the earth, before daybreak and late at night, the city of my going and coming, and the place where I have my room and my books and my phonograph. Well, I love this city, and its ugliness is lovely to me. And the truth is that I am not at all a writer and it is the truth that I do not want to be a writer. I never try to say anything. I do not have to try. I say only what I cannot help saying, and I never use a dictionary, I never make things up. All the prose in the world is still outside of books and largely outside of language, and all I do is walk around in my city and keep my eyes open.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is the preface written for the 1939 edition, in which William Saroyan tells the tale of how this collection of short stories, first published in 1934, came to be written. This is him reflecting on his own writing:
In this book this unpublished writer is proving to the world that he can write, that he has something to say, that he has a new way of saying it, and that the world had better listen, or else.
On learning that his short story The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze was to be published in a magazine with a nationwide circulation, Saroyan determined to take advantage of this first success and keep his name in his editors' minds. He says that he decided to write and send to them at least one short story every day for a month, and in this month of writing he managed to pen 36 stories. Twenty-six of them were collected into this successful and well received book. To read his words is to wonder how anyone could be so prolific, but having read them all I think I now understand. There are some unforgettable stories in this collection which give a human face to the problems of the Depression, and which are so moving and so simply told that they leave you feeling numb. But there is also much that is average and repetitious; some that are irritating; some that are very dull. Perhaps he did have something to say; the problem was that he said the same thing too many times.

Even though his stories are of struggling individuals in Depression-era America, his message is one of optimism and hope. It is a call to life, an appeal to embrace and celebrate the good fortune that is being alive, and being alive in this moment, exhorting the reader to wake up and live every moment deeply: forget money, you are already wealthy because you are alive.

Evil and ugliness are elsewhere: in groups, mobs, and organisations, in war, machinery, capitalism, and industry. Only the individual has dignity; goodness and beauty are in people. His stories are of men in desperate straits living on the fringes, but all proud and all with an insight into what he perceives to be the truth. Although they may be the lowest and poorest members of society, their low status is a marker of their inherent superiority, an indication that they haven't conformed. Everyone else is sleepwalking through their lives, trapped in their stupor by convention, ambition, Hollywood and asprin.

His new way of writing embraces a freedom of style, and a rejection of plot and structure, sometimes extending to a rejection of punctuation. He states many times that he is not a writer, and has no desire to be one, he simply wants to capture the truth, a truth observable in the people on the streets. But you can see in these statements that he is casting himself with his protagonists, and that in effect he is boasting of being something better, of perceiving a truth that other writers have missed.

I have read that he never revised his work, and often didn't even re-read it: he wanted to capture the rawness of his impressions, and he wanted every word he had written to be published. But I think this is the problem: he is too prolific and so he repeats himself; too much effort is put into writing and not enough into reflection or planning. Does any writer, no matter how talented, always write perfectly? Or is the level of quality best described by a spectrum, and when they publish they filter out all that is not their best? I think Saroyan was talented and capable, but I think he dilutes the impact of his writing by publishing the mediocre along with the exceptional. It is the same idea presented 26 times and it could not sustain my interest, but I wouldn't have wanted to miss reading the story that gives this collection its title.

Don't Go Away Mad by Theodore Dalrymple

1 comment:

  1. Saroyan knows how to get you if you let him. My mom used to read his stories to me - I especially remember "Locomotive 38, the Ojibway". I always pretended I was bored because the sentimentality in his writing was more than obvious, and rejecting it seemed the manly thing to do to my six year old self. However, while rolling my eyes I listened and listened.



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