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My Name Is Aram

William Saroyan

1940

(An open and curious boy growing up in an Armenian community in California encounters the rich quirkiness of his family and neighbors.)

Crop of Future Master Builder (1972), by Armenian artist Ashot Melkonian (1930-2009). Visible along with Melkonian’s other paintings at Por amor al arte.

Writing from the spirit of memory. Not a record of specific memories, but effortless intuitive writing that naturally conjures the ethos, tinged with wistfulness, that can accompany the distant remembrance of simpler times. This was the inspiration of William Saroyan as he sat down, and boom, suddenly there appears what would become his best loved book of stories. With all the intense effort I put into my other books, this one (I’m imagining he thought), the one that practically wrote itself, the one in which I warned readers that nothing extraordinary would happen, this is the one?! In his own incredulous (or perhaps disingenuous) words, he “does not believe this manner of writing is the way to get a message to go high-rolling down the ages”. Its greatest value, he thought (not without satire), would be to disqualify him for membership in prestigious literary societies. One can understand why he was thinking this way. In the second half of the 1930s, having risen to the top of the charts, so to speak, with his debut collection of stories including “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”, all eyes were on William Saroyan. Surrounded by the effervescing produce of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, the pressure was on Saroyan to be likewise that great writer. And he did have such ambitions for himself. Yet, something drove him when starting My Name Is Aram to leave society’s gauntlet where it was thrown… or else maybe to find a different way to pick it up. My hunch (with hardly any evidence to back it up) is that he looked at this literary world he had entered, and decided that one helpful thing he could do right away is to center or root himself—to ask himself what had been important in making him who he is. Then, to search that out, or to convey it, he sat back and reminisced (pen in hand) about his humble early life in the immigrant Armenian fruit-growing community of the San Joaquin Valley, California. His goal was not to expose the suffering of the poor or rail eloquently against social ills, not to decry materialism or the threat of fascism, not to create a work of stylistic genious. Rather, his goal was simply to paint vignettes of the sorts of characters that were his family and neighbors in pre-Depression Fresno—to smile at them, to paint them in a sympathetic light, and to draw gently from them what practical wisdom and wit influenced his own development and might be worth preserving for others. Thus we have the young Aram Garoghlanian. And as the author says of himself, though he might not be Aram, he is certainly not not Aram.

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Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert

1857

(An unhappily married woman pursues a lifelong quest for the fulfillment of her romantic desires, by any means necessary.)

Dolce far niente (Sweet Doing Nothing), by Auguste Toulmouche (1877). This painting is in a private collection, but can be viewed digitally on WikiArt.

When a novelist is said to rebel against romanticism, anyone with an imaginative, adventurous, passionate, chivalrous, or spiritual streak may be forgiven for wanting to give it a pass. Such a writer sounds staid and dry, shaking a finger at anything beautiful or enjoyable; or worse, morose—seeing the gray in everything and anxious to spend hundreds of pages sharing it with you. So who is this Flaubert, then? Flaubert with the beautiful descriptions, the engaging plot, the dramatic scenes, the fevered dialogue? With this great author’s help we should make a crucial distinction. Flaubert’s aim is leveled not at imagination or adventure or passion or chivalry or spirituality per se, but rather at the perverse attention romantics often pay to the emotional effects that these things have on us. Just as it is not money itself, despite frequent misquotes, but the love of money, that is said to be the root of all sorts of evil, likewise it is the worship of imagination’s fancy-tickling effects, rather than imagination itself, that novels like Madame Bovary seek to dethrone. Emma Bovary ruins her life because, in Flaubert’s words, she seeks emotions, not landscapes. She has a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, meaning she wants to gobble up beauty rather than appreciate it. The romanticism Flaubert criticizes is selfish, subjective, emotivist. It is that attitude which confuses sensual appeals of luxury with the joys of the heart. It is what says “Give me that” rather than “That is wonderful”. Even a true romantic, a healthy romantic– perhaps especially such a person– can doff the hat to Flaubert for this.

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The Little Prince

(Le Petit Prince)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

1943

(A little man leaves his tiny planet to explore the universe, only to discover that the most important things in life can be found anywhere.)

Watercolor illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from chapter 26 of Le Petit Prince. Original drawings, watercolors (though not this one!), and pages from the only known handwritten draft of the novelette are housed in The Morgan Library, New York. Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated this story in New York City and Long Island following the Nazi invasion of France.

As hackneyed as the term “gem” is in the description of short and delightful books, The Little Prince has got to be the epitome. What other modern story is so small, simple, beautiful, and valuable? It radiates purpose modestly, its convincing naivete managing somehow to soften sharp lessons within a sweet and personal story. An actual gem, however, can be valued by anyone, even the unworthy—those who value it only because they can use it to get something else. The Little Prince has no such utility. Its essence is a rebellion against the importance we tend to place on utility. If we find ourselves appreciating The Little Prince, it can only be because we see some light in the book’s countercultural perspective—because we love this small meandering tale according to its true worth.

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The History of Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells

1910

(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)

John Mills as Alfred Polly in the 1949 Anthony Pelissier film.  Mills’ expression seems to capture Polly’s listless anomie.  This still was also chosen to head the description of the novel for The Guardian’s list of the 100 Greatest Novels (Robert McCrum named it #39– but meant it to represent all of H. G. Wells’ work).  This photograph is in the Ronald Grant Archive.
  “HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!”  He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”

Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port.  Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole.  And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.

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The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy

1886

(The fortunes of a strong-willed hay-trusser prove to be as volatile as he is.)

“Hay-trussing–?” said the turnip-hoer, who had already begun shaking his head. “O no.”  The first of Robert Barnes’s 20 illustrations for The Mayor of Casterbridge in the 1886 weekly magazine The Graphic, where the novel appeared in installments between January-May 1886.  Here the protagonist, Michael Henchard, is asking whether there is local work available.  All 20 illustrations can be seen on The Victorian Web.

Michael Henchard is an unemployed field laborer who, under the influence of rum at a fair, impulsively starts to auction off his wife and baby daughter, to much laughter.  His wife stands.  A hush falls as a sailor actually puts five guineas on the table.

“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.”

But Henchard will not be shamed or threatened.  When he says something he means it!  And so minutes later he sits there blinking away his disbelief as Susan, with little Elizabeth-Jane, walks away with a stranger. Thus begins The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character. Here we see how a person’s destiny is shaped by the interaction of external forces and internal qualities– the world and the self. Take one part circumstance, add one part decision, repeat continually towards success or failure.

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