There is nothing more extraordinary, more exhilarating than the discovery of a great voice. A singular talent tucked away and unsung except for those who know, and those who search to fill that space within their souls that only is filled by beautiful things.
William Saroyan is one such character. His writing is good in the way of an amazing meal or a fine wine. Not like going to a prestigious restaurant in Paris inside the ring to pay five hundred Euro for the privilege of being able to agree with your betters when they say “ah but the truffles in XXXX” to which you say knowingly “yes, but nothing like their foie gras“, choking down the tiny portions with vinegary wine of the right year. No, William Saroyan is like the nourishment of the time I was wandering through Buenos Aires when a hunger came upon me, and I slipped through an unmarked door following an old man in a worn-out vest and beret smoking a cigarette to sit at a solid wood table while the waiter expertly brought out a milanesa with mashed-potatoes and a carafe of the day’s wine, eaten heartily and quietly but with extraordinary satisfaction under a television showing the local soccer game muted to allow for the grissled guitar player in the corner strumming something by Mercedes Sosa.
That’s what reading William Saroyan is like.
I just finished “The Man With The Heart In The Highlands” which is a collection of Saroyan’s short stories. I couldn’t put it down; each story witty but overflowing with charm and wisdom and humanity. Saroyan is an Armenian American; his family arriving in California along with so many others fleeing the mayhem and violence of genocide in the “old country”. I think this is what makes his writing so extraordinary. English was his first language, his native tongue (if not his ‘mother tongue’, which I’m guessing was Armenian) – and so he wrote in English giving his stories the fluidity which translated works don’t have. But with that, he also brings the millenarian story of the “old country” into his perspectives and his imagination. He writes about fresh things, as America was 100 years ago, from the perspective of a five-thousand year old civilization. That is what makes it extraordinary – to capture the opportunity of America as it was in the ’30s, with the gratitude of somebody whose family had fled great trauma, but with the understanding of wisdom which is brought only by a connection to the past in waves and waves. This is what much American writing lacks – the United States having become un-moored from history at first willfully and now (in 2020) contemptuously.
Please, I entreat you – read Saroyan. You will probably find yourself connecting with the American story in ways you never thought imaginable, and that is important. You will be taught, from the eyes of a grateful immigrant, a refugee from great tribulation, of the freshness of opportunity juxtaposed against the sorrow of the “old country”. And that will make you thoughtful, which is – above all else – the most important thing, especially during this the year of our discontent.