18 November 2014, 15:08
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Memorable Moments from the Magazine: Saroyan and Hemingway's Love-Hate Relationship

"We've seen them come and go. Good ones too. Better ones than you, Mr. Saroyan." These are the scathing words of the famous 20th century journalist and author, Ernest Hemingway, to Armenian-American playwright and author William Saroyan. It is well known that the two writers were not of one mind, but to what extent is still debated. This article by Raphael Hakopjanian from a previous issue of the English version Yerevan Magazine, written in honor of Saroyan's centennial, offers a unique perspective on the complex mixture of respect and contempt that characterized these two great writers' relationship.

I feel guilty toward William Saroyan, whom I adore. I was wicked and cannot be forgiven!

We were strolling around Moscow in autumn of 1978, when he stopped suddenly in the middle of the street and shouted in his deafening voice: "This city is full of life!"

Of course, I thought rather sadly, Even Saroyan is persuaded by the communists’ propaganda! How can this Soviet reality be called ‘life’!

But twenty years later, at six in the evening, standing in the center of the city square of the deserted autumnal Fresno, I lifted my hand to heavens and screamed at the top of my voice, Forgive me, Saroyan, for I was foolish! Of course, compared to sleepy Fresno, Moscow would seem like the center of the Universe!


I feel guilty toward Hemingway, whom I adore. I was wicked and cannot be forgiven!

In 1987, visiting his huge mansion Finca Vigia in the vicinity of Havana, I unkindly exclaimed, So this is Hemingway who is said to need only a typewriter and a stack of paper! 

Twenty years later I myself moved into a Victorian mansion in San Francisco. One of my Yerevan friends visiting me in California noted, “I wouldn’t say that you have a ‘bohemian’ lifestyle.”

I sadly thought in response, Forgive me, Hemingway, for I was foolish! It is true, a writer’s lifestyle is determined by the storyline of his existence.


My beloved Saroyan and Hemingway did not always, to put it mildly, get along with one another. And they were each, to a certain extent, guilty. But the sins of titans cannot be measured by the same standards as those used for mere mortals. Their scale, as it were, is cosmic.

On the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the writer -- who was born in America, who wrote in English, but who had an Armenian soul -- I would like to explore some themes of the relationship between these titans, who influenced, to a certain degree, Soviet literature, and, in particular, the generation which is conventionally referred ot as “The Sixties Generation.”


An Award, Declined

In 1940 the Pulitzer Prize in the category of Letters and Drama was awarded to two Californians. 37-year-old John Steinbeck received the prize for his novel The Grapes of Wrath, and 32-year-old William Saroyan, for his play The Time of Your Life.

Such an award should have made its two recipients from the Golden State fast friends. One was from Salinas, famous for its cabbage; the other, from Fresno, famous for its raisins. But it didn't turn out that way. Steinbeck never forgiven Saroyan for his demonstrative decline of the prestigious Pulitzer, and for, intentionally or not, diminishing his own fame as a winner.

Hemingway’s sarcastic remark followed shortly thereafter: “Is it worthy to copy Sinclair Lewis fourteen years later!?” It was an acid reminder of the precedent that took place long ago – Sinclair Lewis was the first who declined the prestigious award, and four years later, in 1930, became the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize. The transparent hint meant that the rejection of the Pulitzer Prize does not guarantee the nomination for the Nobel Prize.

In response Saroyan sharply made fun of Hemingway’s work about Spanish bullfighters Death in the Afternoon. The reaction of “Papa Hem” followed without any delays: "We've seen them come and go. Good ones, too. Better ones than you, Mr. Saroyan." I wonder why Hemingway decided to compare the writer with the bullfighters! And by the way, Hemingway received the Pulitzer Prize thirteen years after Saroyan and Steinbeck, a year before he received the Nobel Prize (1954). A curious thought expressed Kurt Vonnegut, saying that Saroyan, Hemingway, and Steinbeck in their twenties were writing better than they had a right to do so (considering their young age).


The Oscars

In 1943, two Armenians were nominated for the Oscars, the highest award of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: 45-year-old Akim Tamiroff (for the role of Pablo in Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls) and 36-year-old William Saroyan (for the original script of the black-and-white film The Human Comedy).

Hemingway’s novel, written in 1940, was directed by the elderly Sam Wood, who will remain in history as the director who paved the path to the Oscars for Ginger Rogers. Saroyan’s novel, completed in 1943, was soon directed by the prominent Clarence Brown, the director who helped Greta Garbo at the beginning of her career in Hollywood.

Hemingway was very dissatisfied by the movie adaptation, claiming the politics were cut from the novel; and out of the two Armenians the Oscar was presented to Saroyan. In his brief thirty-six years he became a controversial “winner-rejecter” of the Pulitzer Prize, the winner of the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and, on top of it, the recipient of an Oscar from the Academy. Saroyan’s fame was reaching its pinnacle. He was accepted in Hollywood – “the brains, honor, and pride” of American culture, yet Hemingway was never nominated by the Academy.


A Battle of Beards

Two American writers, 46-year-old Ernest Hemingway and the 36-year-old William Saroyan, met in the early spring of 1945 in the liberated Paris. Saroyan entered the bar of the bohemian hotel Scribe, where Hemingway was having a drink with one of the journalists.

“Here comes Bill Saroyan!” exclaimed the correspondent.

“Where is Bill Saroyan?’ asked Hemingway looking directly at Saroyan.

“You had a beard in London. In Paris, you have shaved it, but I still recognize you. Is it possible that losing your beard, you stopped recognizing your acquaintances?” maliciously asked Saroyan. Hemingway remained silent, perhpas recalling an incident over an unpaid loan to Saroyan. 

But, as the story goes, a week later, in a luxurious restaurant at another hotel, the up-scale George V, noticing Saroyan, the drunk Hemingway screamed, “God, what’s this son of a b****, lousy Armenian doing here?!” At that, supposedly, Saroyan threw his fists at him. The two fighting writers, again allegedly, were separated only by the arrival of the police. Many years later Saroyan himself completely denied the incident (And there isn’t anything about it in the Encyclopedic Dictionary Ernest Hemingway: A to Z)

Did the fight take place? Some researchers are very skeptical. I am not so sure myself. As has been mentioned, the main source of this information was a single individual, a British pilot, who later became a Marshal of Aviation of the British Air Forces, Peter Wickham. The alleged fight took place in the presence of a large number of military personnel and journalists. It would have been logical if that same night all newspapers received the breaking news about the incredible adventures of the two American novelists in the liberated Paris. Nothing even close to it! I could not find any mention of the sensational incident in the literary world in any of the American newspapers of the time.

It would be appropriate to quote here the words of a Soviet literary critic, "If the works of Hemingway are full of 'malicious drunkards,'the novelty of Saroyan’s short stories was in his use of the 'kind-hearted drunkards.'" For my part, I think that 'malicious drunkards” always have a hate-love relationship towards 'kind-hearted drunkards,' and 'kind-hearted' drunkards have a certain feeling called love-hate towards malicious drunkards and thus, never throw fists at them.Saroyan, compared to Hemingway, could be called a great teetotaler.

Is this version credible enough to disprove the Parisian gossip?


The Unexpected Encounter

Once a week I visit some second-hand bookstores in San-Francisco. Sometimes I get lucky, and other times, not so much. Recently, in one such bookstore, I hit the jackpot. For just a dollar, I bought Saroyan’s My Name is Aram, published when he was still alive. It was like an omen, considering the upcoming 100-year birthday celebration of the writer. After I paid for my purchase, I clarified with the salesperson:

"Does this book cost a dollar?"
"But you’ve already paid for it!"
"So you can’t change the price."
"I can’t change the price after you’ve paid for it."
"In that case, can I show you the title page?"
"Why do you need to show it to me? I know this book very well."

I opened the book. On one of the pages was written in Saroyan’s uneven handwriting: “For my nephew Arnold Papazian’s teacher Mrs. Baranga with sincere regards, William Saroyan. SF, May, 1942.”

An antique cover of My Name is Aram. Image taken from http://www.antiqbook.com/search.php?action=search&author=SAROYAN%20WILLIAM%20&title=My%20Name%20is%20AramAn antique cover of My Name is Aram. Image taken from http://www.antiqbook.com/search.php?action=search&author=SAROYAN%20WILLIAM%20&title=My%20Name%20is%20Aram

"Consider having won a hundred dollars. The starting price of such a book with the author’s autograph is a hundred bucks," said the disappointed salesman.

Now, my goal is to obtain the lifetime publication of Hemingway’s In Our Time, naturally, autographed, where the short story "On the Quai at Smyrna" is. In just a few words, he describes the horrors of the genocide: "That was the only time in my life that I dreamed about things. You didn’t mind the women who were having babies as you did those with the dead ones."

For now, My Name Is Aram stands lonely on my bookshelf waiting for In Our Time.


Continuing an Armenian Tradition...

When, in 1944, Saroyan went to a meeting with Bernard Shaw, he bought a gift for the great Irishman: a bunch of muscat grapes, a bunch of Riviera grapes, a yellow melon, and some more fruits and vegetables. The 88-year-old Dubliner, accepted the gifts, saying (as far as I can remember):

"Why do all Americans think that I am food deprived? I have enough of everything. I cannot eat more than I need. I’ll have to give all this to my neighbors. It’s more than I need!"

I visited London this past May. Remembering that 2008 is announced by UNESCO as the Year of Saroyan, I bought “a bunch of muskat grapes, a bunch of Riviera grapes, a yellow melon, and “some more fruits and vegetables” and headed to a small village Ayot St. Lawrence, where Bernard Shaw and his wife are buried.

“Usually people bring flowers,” said the approaching cemetery guard stand-offishly, noticing my “gifts.”

But the great eccentric Shaw, in his present state of a bronze statue, kept a haughty silence, looking into the distance. It seemed to me - in the direction of Ireland. I looked back to the South-East, in the direction of Armenia.



A whimsical critic in San Francisco’s literary café, Vesuvio, once told me that Saroyan’s decline in popularity started in 1951, after he married his first wife for the second time, grew gorgeous mustaches, and divorced her again a year later. In contrast, Hemingway’s popularity began rising three years prior to the time when he regrew a beard, met the young Italian beauty, Adriana Ivanchich, and finished his next masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea.

Some odd literary critics can be met at the café Vesuvio.



In January 1988 the City Government of San Francisco came to a decision to satisfy the request of the poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and renamed twelve streets after certain famous individuals who lived in San Francisco. Thus, along with Ambrose Bierce Street, Dashiell Hammett Street, Jack Kerouac Street, Frank Norris Street, Richards Henry Dana Place, Kenneth Rexroth Place, Via Bufano, Isadora Duncan Lane, Mark Twain Place, appeared William Saroyan Place. It was a tribute not only to the playwright who wrote the best play about San Francisco, The Time of Your Life, but also a tribute to a writer for his sharp artistic characterization of the most romantic city of the US: "San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art. Every block is a short story, every hill - a novel." It was a perpetuation of a great writer, who lived in San Francisco and left a distinct ambiance in American literature, an inimitable “Saroyanism”!


Yerevan Magazine, Fall, N2, 2008

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