Having reached the age of cancer, ever more of my acquaintances seem to be coming down with it. When they are very ill I am unsure whether they would find a visit intrusive or comforting, or even whether my delicacy in this matter is more for my sake than for theirs. Do they want me to come or not? The gesture of taking grapes to the dying can seem so eloquently futile.
William Saroyan (1908 – 1981), the American author of Armenian descent, died of disseminated cancer of the prostate. A year later his son, Aram, also a writer, published a memoir of his father’s last illness. It is extremely painful reading because Saroyan had been so impossible a father, fanatically determined to keep his children at arm’s length and inclined to insult them in the crudest possible way. For almost all of his illness, which was short, he was cruelly determined not to be reconciled with his children.
Saroyan, whose work is now little read on account of its tendency to sentimentality, was a man deeply venerated by Americans of Armenian extraction, and the success of his books, many of them set among the Armenian immigrants of California, was world-wide. He lauded the capacity of love and humour to overcome adversity, a very popular theme in the years of the Depression, but he was an abominable husband. He married when he was 35 and his bride was 17; he married his wife twice and divorced her twice in quick succession, abandoning the children almost entirely, and gambling and drinking his money away. His literary portrayal of his wife was scandalously unfair, and he always regarded himself as her victim. He left practically nothing to his children in his will.
His son attributes William Saroyan’s inability to love anyone in particular, despite his literary paeans to the power of such love, to the death of his father from appendicitis when he was only three, after which his mother sent him and his brother and sister to an orphanage for five years. Any attempt thereafter at intimacy enraged him, presumably because he so feared abandonment. But a vice that is explained does not become any the more likeable.
One of Saroyan’s plays, Don’t Go Away Mad, published in 1951, is set in a ward in a hospital in San Francisco in which all the patients are suffering from unspecified but fatal diseases. One of the characters is Buster, who says that he misses his son. Another of the characters asks him when he last saw him:
Two years ago, when he was almost five. His mother left me then… I wrote to my wife and asked her please to let me see my son, but she never answered my letters, so one night I went to the bar on Ortega Street to speak to her. She made fun of me in front of everybody.
This is an almost mirror-image of the truth.
In the introduction to the play, Saroyan asks ‘Is there no behaviour that is not theatrical?’ and replies ‘I believe there is no such behaviour; it is simply that of acting of some people is more tolerable than that of others.’ His own was often intolerable; he affected the greatest agony when his daughter, then a little girl, put medicine on his athlete’s foot.
It is not easy to like a man who did that. But when his son learnt, after years of estrangement, that his father was dying, ‘I saw, clearly, right way’ that such things ‘were no longer significant.’
Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels