William Saroyan: A 30-Year Retrospect

The question remains: If you could have dinner with any prominent Armenian, dead or alive, who might it be?

William Saroyan, in one of his last photos taken by this writer during a book signing at Belmont High School, shortly before his death in 1981, at the age of 72.

Would it be Mashdots, Gomidas, or Khachaturian? Perhaps Mamigonian, Karsh, Cher, Aznavour or Kardashian?

No doubt, all of them would be perfect subjects with which to converse and get to know on a personal basis. Mine would be William Saroyan.

Hard to believe that 30 years have passed since this prominent novelist, playwright, and short story writer left the planet. His absence created a void in the international literary world that has not and cannot be filled by any other.

Gone but not forgotten.

I would venture to say that Saroyan’s popularity has not waned one iota. He’s as renowned today as in the primal years when he crafted the stories that entertained one generation after another—from his early days as a Hairenik Weekly scribe to his Pulitizer Prize (for “The Time of Your Life”), 28 books, 25 plays, and a plethora of short stories. And, oh yes, a song (“Come-on-a-My House”), which was immortalized by Rosemary Clooney.

I would ask him where he got his inspiration. Was he an impulse writer? What would he regard as his most satisfying work? And which one made the biggest impact?

I would ask him what he thought of Armenian writers today and if there were any worthy of perpetuating his fame.

I have in my hand an inaugural issue of the Armenian Review, dated 1948, that contains Saroyan’s “The Theological Student.” In a word: “impeccable.”

Saroyan starts out by telling us about a theologian he met a quarter century ago in the plays of certain Russian writers, like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorki.

What struck me as unusual about the piece was nothing else pertaining to Saroyan. No introduction. No short bio. Nothing that might elucidate a reader about who the author was, or anything about his story.

His words were well crafted, poignant, and mesmerizing, like you were the one conversing with his subjects. He later adopted the pen name Sirak Garoyan. Why? I don’t know. Why would anyone dilute their given name?

I was only eight when that issue was launched, but Saroyan has been a role model ever since. I read his stories throughout high school with a voracious appetite. My favorite? The Human Comedy.

We met three times. The first encounter came in 1960 at the Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna. A mere 19 then, I had taken my sophomore year off from Boston University to study at the vank.

One day while poking about the library, I stumbled upon this gangling figure with a handlebar moustache, huddled over a pile of books. His eyes were like dancing marbles as he studied the pages.

He introduced himself as Saroyan, as if his identity didn’t precede him. I told him I wanted to become a writer like himself and what words of wisdom could he impart.

He looked up at me and snickered, “Write what you see and what you feel,” he said with encouragement. “Just be yourself. Draw upon your own experiences.”

I remember him pointing toward an old bearded scholar cowering in the corner of that library, documenting a copy of “Hantes Amsora,” a Mekhitarist publication.

“See that priest over there,” Saroyan said. “He’s written 50 books. I have a long way to go to catch him. There’s nothing like the first one.”

Saroyan made his breakthrough in Story magazine with “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” (1934), the protagonist being a young, starving writer who tries to survive in a Depression-ridden society. I recall giving a report on it to my high school English class.

Five years following the Mekhitarist experience, I made my way up three flights of stairs inside the old Hairenik Building at 212 Stuart St. in Boston, prepared to submit a story to the editor, Jimmy Tashjian.

In his seat was Saroyan. With no pants. Perhaps I mentioned this before but good stories bear repeating from time to time. Seems Saroyan was in Boston for a speaking engagement at the Ritz and ran into an embarrassing problem: He couldn’t close the zipper to his fly and asked Tashjian to find a tailor nearby.

So there he sat, bony-legged and all, somewhat embarrassed by his appearance, never suspecting an outsider. I happened to remind him that we had met five years prior in Vienna and he didn’t seem to recall the incident, only to say his visits to the monastery were regular and it was a pity how so many books in that library were being ignored.

Our last encounter followed a year or so before his demise. Saroyan had come to Belmont High School for a talk and book signing. A new work was just released titled Obituaries, an original and candid meditation about death and our only possible answer to it.

In some ways, I considered the work a memorial tribute to himself—the manner in which mortality overtakes us and the way we might prepare for it.

The line was 50 deep with guests when I made my way to Saroyan’s table. I didn’t bother with re-introductions that evening, but did beg for his indulgence in another way by asking him to pose for a photograph.

He looked up with a stoic expression as I clicked the shutter. I don’t think Karsh would have done much better given the situation.

Some months later, I read his obituary and dug out the photograph. Turned out to be the perfect illustration for a Jimmy Tashjian anthology on the author, and wound up being donated with some others to his Fresno museum.

Thirty years later and time marches on. Like he once said, “Death is not the end of a good Armenian. But the beginning. For when two of them meet …”

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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17 Comments

  1. I’m jealous of you Tom.  I never got to meet Saroyan, but I felt like I knew him.  Like a well known distant uncle, I’d imagine him coming for Thanksgiving dinner and sharing jokes and stories and throwing back a few before catching a late flight back to the coast. He’d think rarely of us, but he’d be fodder for our stories for all future Thanksgiving dinners.  I can picture it:

    “Remember when William Saroyan came to dinner?  

    Do you still have the napkin he wiped his brow with?  

    We should give it to the museum in Fresno.  

    Heck no, give it to the Armenian DNA project.

    Forget about it.  I washed that dirty old thing a long time ago.  It’s probably the one you’re using now.

    Hey, stop your crying.  You’re mixing your DNA with Saroyan’s”

    I think Saroyan would like this chance genetic encounter between Armenians. 

    • My family & I are tracing our genealogy & noticed your name. I am 1/4 Armenian, an English Lit./ major-FSU & living in GA. Possibly we are related. My G’Father’s name was Munjeg,Kevork Boyajian from Diabeker,Turkey. Would like to find relatives.

  2. Best  yet. In his later  years  Saroyan has been very much in demand  in Yerevan,RA.However,before I dwell on that a bit further down.I got to read his writings  through U.s.Army Armenian origin soldiers sstationed  in Amirabad,Tehra,Iran.The Human Comedy then a host  of others that htese good soldiers brought along .Then years later in Europe, where I lived near a qtr century I began to collect  his books,even in spanish,like ¨letter from rue Taitbout¨ and then when some 20 yrs ago settled down this side  of the ocean, I started to buy more  and more  of his wonderful books.
    What a co incidence…just a week or so ago, I went through my library and -though I have  all near  all of his books there-I picked  up this one ¨Saroyan,the new Saroyan Reader..a´ connoiseur´s Anthology of W.Saroyan,edited by Brian Darwent. In this book, a real collection  of his short, very short stories compiled  by said author/editor reflect  his GENIUS  to turn paltry events  in his life  into his  talented fashion -unique-to him.I would say  the ¨saroyanesque¨  Style.  I just counted ,approximately over 60 gems of short stories. I am to confess  now.I read  these  one by one  ,each night one sometimes  if sleep does  not take over  in bed having enjoyed  them   much more  than I would  T.V. or rad  newspapers.I do read  the Armenianweekly in armenian though to keep abreast  of what  goes  on in the Armenian  world ,also have satellite and now and then wtch one  of 5  Armenian channels, from yerevan and  CA.
    Nothing  entertains more to me than saroyanesque litterature..
    Oh yea  in Yerevan, a week or two does  not go by  that Saroyan  pop up on his visits  thereat  and speaking  his Bitlis dialect very  dearly… 

  3. Near  forgot, in 2010 Summer  in yerevan I went to a theater  where Saroyan´s play  ¨The oyster  and …the island…¨ sorry cannot recall rest  of the title.It is   there in my piled  up leaflets from Yerevan. The Actors/actresses did  really justify his  talent at that too!!
    By teh by ,do please  forgive me for fast typing resulting  in errors.My age  also begins to set  in  and a sense  of haste not to waste  a minute  of  time  in life.that  is while still living. His stature  was  erected  only a year ago on one  of those beautifull ¨Bouraks¨ parks  in Yerevan  last  year. It  is a pity  he  is  not widely re-published  in all those  languages already published ,either in Yerevan, Beirut  or U.S.(CA) with our non existing as  yet  NATIONAL INVESTMENT TRJUST  FUND  and distributed. Rather,sorry for  my mistake. Said  fund could  make  more money to be added to its capital by selling  them all over the world. This  is were we fall behind.Many Funds  fundlings  no   N.I.T.F.  

  4. Thanks for the article Tom.  I wish I met Saroyan as you have.  Although I am happy that I met Aram Haigaz but only from a distance when they were honoring him for his achievements through the years and he got up to give his thanks.  He was another prominent Armenian writer. 

    Thanks to my uncle who framed Saroyan’s famous saying about Armenians and he gave it to me as a gift that reads:

    “I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered.  Go ahead, destroy Armenia.  See if you can do it.  Send them into the desert without bread or water.  Burn their homes and churches.  Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again.  For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”   

  5. I should like to add that I also met Sylva Gaboudigyan when they were honoring her and I recited in her presence her famous poem, «Խոսք Իմ Որդուն» “Khosk Im Vortoun”.  I also got her autograph afterwards.

  6. Another remembrance, Ardashes my husband was active with the Armenian Literary Society which flourished in New York for many years – available to the Armenian community in so many ways… Then they had invited William Saroyan to come to New York for a Literary Society’s frequent
    programs for the community.  It seemed at the last moment he had been unable to make the trip east (if I recall correctly) he had asked his buddy to come from Chicago to appear in his place.
    Well, my husband and I went to meet his buddy… Dr. Kelegian, the famous Armenian physician and great friend of Saroyan.  His language was lively/colorfu, his stories of Saroyan were delightful and the event was a great success – a full house as they saying goes.  
    The plan was that following the program the members of the LIterary Society were to take Dr. Kelegian to a restaurant and thence get him back in time to his return flight home.  Well, 
    it soon became clear to the Literary Society members none of them were able to find where Dr. Kelegian was to be found…. Then, it was discovered that there were lines of Armenians all lined in a hallway leading to a closed door… wherein Dr. Kelegian was examining all who 
    sought his advice, gratis by the way, and he was doing what he most loved to do, caring for his own people…. and only ready to leave as he had met with all lined and waiting in the hallway.
    If I’m not mistaken I do believe that Dr. Kelegian was the doctor for our Congressional leader, Bob Dole, whose arm, although useless, was saved.  Too, via Saroyan’s unabllity to come gave our community the opportunity to know another great Armenian, Dr. Kelegian

     

  7. Well Tom, we all love reading your articles, but how about taking up Saroyan on his challenge to you — when are you going to write that first book? The first lines are the hardest, after that i’m sure you won’t be able to stop the rush of words. Come on now, America awaits you — at least Armenian America does anyway.

    Thank God for Saroyan. While in HS and having a difficult time explaining just WHAT an Armenian was to most people, there were many an English teacher who knew about Saroyan and that he was an Armenian. Fortunately for me they assumed ALL Armenians were genetically endowed as great writers like Saroyan. A report deserving a “B+” would often be come an “A” for fear perhaps of my telling uncle William on them.

  8. Mike M– loved loved loved your post.. :) very delightful….

    Manooshag– that is an amazing story.. we sure do have an amazing Armenians who we know little about.. and i am glad we have forums like this to share stories like this.. 

    Seervart jan– i get so emotional when i read Saroyan’s writing .. the one you posted on this thread.. it has so much passion, so much history, and so much optimism.. it basically captures everything Armenians stand for..      

    Thank you Tom for our article.. it was very much enjoyed…

    Gayane   

  9. Manooshag, What a nice doctor was or is Dr. Kelegian, indeed it was his calling to be a doctor for the way he was caring towards peoples’ health.  Nice story.

    Mike, That’s a cute story about your English teacher.  I am sure you deserved “A” anyhow. :)
     
    Gayane jan,  In his writing Saroyan sums it up about Armenians.  It’s true when he says that wehen we meet each other somewhere in the world and in the midst of odars, we do indeed create a little Armenia.  That’s us isn’t it? :)

  10. Thank you very much. I really enjoyed it.
    He has been my inspiration and He will remain one of my favorite writers. 

  11. Great post. Reading this article reminds me of the time when back in the late 1950’s while I was still in high school, he had visited Turkey to travel to his parent’s birthplace. Subsequently, his travel memoirs were published in the local Bolis newspapers jamanak or marmara- I can’t recall.  I remember mr dear mother reading those articles with great enthusiasm . Would anyone know if these memoirs stiil exist and how one can obtain them? 

  12. Thank you Tom,
    I am jealous with you. I am a Vietnamese, but I read Saroyan with most interesting. I read Human Comedy when I were 14, “The Daring Young Man..” around 17 (both in Vietnamese). Recently, I read Human Comedy in English, again, still have full interesting while I can not read Hemingway with that feeling anymore (except “For Whom the Bell Toll”).
    I didn’t know when he passed away (1981, you said). I wish to see him like you (very jealousy).
    Thanks again

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