Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Unpraying, But Religious With Joy

This week I've been reading through an old issue of Story magazine. November, 1934. A friend was kind enough to lend it to me. The highlights of the issue were contemporary stories by William Faulkner and William Saroyan, nestled among other fine stories by authors whose names have been lost to the years.

Reading the stories in this magazine from some 75 years ago (!) put me in a magic place, as I revisited that feeling I had when reading these authors for the first time. I felt like a kid, discovering these magicians all over again. I felt once again the awe and wonder of the power of words. It made me excited about reading and writing in a way I haven't been in years.

I compared the issue with similar magazines of today, such as they are, wondering where so much of the magic went. Is it the circumstances of particular generations that have the power to produce amazing writers? World wars? Is it something in the earth, the air, or is it mere chance? Is it like celebrities dying in threes? I dunno. I just know that much of contemporary writing feels to me at best competent and staidly clever, but often lacking what I would consider a soul. It doesn't have the ring of honesty. Many writers seem more in love with their words and their selves than the doors they have the power to open and the people they have the power to move. I certainly don't mean to say the world is currently lacking in good, even great, writers. I am lucky enough to call a fair amount of damned good writers my friends. But it's not the same, not quite This writing seemed to come from another, truer place.

Saroyan's story in particular amazed me. Resurrection of a Life, it's called, and I'd never before read it. It's not exactly a narrative, but rather a man reflecting upon his lost youth, upon life, and death, all the big questions. Very common themes, but it's such a powerful piece, not a word wasted. Every sentence is what it should be. I read it though twice in one sitting. I did a bit of research and found that the story was collected in Saroyan's second book of fiction, Inhale & Exhale, published in 1936. Long out of print. That fact in itself amazes me, that work like this is allowed to fade into obscurity while so much junk is allowed to litter the shelves until the end of days.

As I read Saroyan's story I feel the pain and the joy of life, the horror and the beauty all at once. It's not fakery, it's not cleverness. The writer feels this fire of being and is doing his damnedest to make us feel it too. He says, this is what it feels like for me to be human, is it the same way with you? Here is life, your life, my life, our life, in all it's beauty and misery, it's joy and ugliness. It's meaningless purpose. He's showing us that we're alive right now in this moment and burning, and it means everything and it means nothing at all, but the important thing is to feel it. Laughing, crying is one and the same. Nobody much writes like that anymore. This angry joy, this joyous anger.

This is how the story ends:

"I was this boy who is now lost and buried in the succeeding forms of myself, and I am now of this last moment, of this small room, and the night hush, time going, time coming, and gone, and gone, and again coming, and myself here, breathing, this last moment, inhale, exhale, the boy dead and alive. All that I have learned is that we breathe, from pleasure to ghastly pain, now, always now, and then we remember, and we see the boy moving through a city that has become lost, among people who have become dead, alive among dead moments, crossing a street, the scene thus, or standing by the bread bin in the bakery, a sack of chicken bread please so that we can live and shout about it, and it begins nowhere and it ends nowhere, and all that I know is that we are somehow alive, all of us in the light, making shadows, the sun overhead, space all around us, inhaling, exhaling, the face and form of man everywhere, pleasure and pain, sanity and madness, over and over again, war and no war, peace and no peace, the earth solid and unaware of us, unaware of our cities, our dreams, unaware of this love I have for life, the love that was the boy's, unaware of all things, my going, my coming, the earth everlastingly itself, not of me, everlastingly precise, and the sea sullen with movement like my breathing, waves pounding the shore of myself, coming and going, and all that I know is that I am alive and glad to be, glad to be of this ugliness ands this glory, somehow glad that I can remember, somehow remember the boy climbing the fig tree, unpraying but religious with joy, somehow of the earth, of the time of earth, somehow everlastingly of life, nothingness, blessed or unblessed, somehow deathless like myself, timeless, glad, insanely glad to be here, and so it is true, there is no death, somehow there is no death, and can never be."

The mere act of typing this passage excites me, fills me with a particular joy rarely found elsewhere in life Like the best music. The best wine. Your best love.

I amuse myself imagining this passage, and Saroyan's work in general, being critiqued in some writing workshop of today: "Well, first of all, you have far too many commas and run on sentences. The entire structure is horrible and you can't really understand what the hell's going on. You repeat yourself. Nothing really happens. The protagonist is unlikable. Be concise. Here. Do these exercises."

All the while missing the point, missing the point., missing the point. These fuckers so oblivious to themselves and everything around them burning. Anyway, that's all. I just wanted to share this feeling. It might make sense to some of you.

I'm gonna go try and write something worth reading.


  1. Makes a lot of sense, Bill. Saroyan is great. Never before read this piece, either. That ending is spectacular.

    Great thought on the greats being critiqued in modern-day workshops. Imagine Faulkner. My god. Even Hem would be sent packing.

    Great post!

  2. makes perfect sense my man. that feeling is the WHY of writing. the magic...

  3. Nice Post~!!!. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

  4. This is the most moving blog post and excerpt I can remember reading. We're in an age of veneers (the ironic age of Vico's three, I think), but postmodernism will post itself soon, we can hope.

    Thank you for this. My eyes did not make it to the end without misting.

  5. Complete story here:

  6. Thanks for all the comments on this piece. Thanks to the folks at Rumpus for linking to it. And thanks to Jeremy for the link to the entire story. I didn't know it was available online!

  7. Buk! I love this piece--great lil' literary musing! I also am loving the whole blog...