Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The book of the dead

"Do we mock the dead by staying alive, by reading their names in lists, by remembering them in the world, by speculating about those we never knew? Do we perhaps take pleasure from our own survival, and even from their sad or joyous failure to do so? Bet your life we do." -- William Saroyan

I came across a curious book the other day, in a secondhand bookshop here in Madrid. It's a book called Obituaries, written by the writer William Saroyan, and published by Creative Arts Book Company in 1978. It was the last book published by him in his lifetime.

"I am a subscriber to a weekly paper called Variety. The 71st Anniversary Edition, dated January 5, 1977, arrived a few days ago, and I examined with fascination - on the last page, 164 - the names in alphabetical order in the annual feature entitled 'Necrology'. I had predicted that among those listed would be 34 men or women that I had met. I was not far off the mark: there were 28. But many of the 200 or more others listed were of course people I knew about."

And so the book goes on, told as a series of stories, some scandalous gossip and some rambling thoughts about death and life. It's clear that, at 68, Saroyan felt he hadn't long left for this world, and would use the list as an aide memoire to tell a few stories he hadn't yet told in print. Unfortunately, the list itself doesn't seem to help him much, at least at first.

"The first name on the list is Victor Alessandro, but I never had the honor. I never met him, never saw him, and therefore cannot say anything about him that might be possible I had met him... The second name is Alyce Allen, and I don't know her either. I am instantly intrigued by the spelling of each of her names, however. There must have been something in her reality that was connected in a very important way with the spelling. She may very well have meant to encourage not being instantly forgotten both during life, and after giving it up. The third name is Geza Anda, a fine name for a fine variety of reasons, but I have no idea who Geza Anda was, male or female, actor, clown or what."

Because the names appear only in the form of a list (the obits themselves appeared soon after death, scattered throughout the year), he has no real clues to go on. And so the book goes on more or less in this vein, as he hunts around for further stories. At one point, Saroyan allows the death of someone called Marion to let him talk about a more famous Marion, John Wayne.

So, not an essential read - but an interesting curio, if you come across it.

Link to listing


McKie said...

Hello Andrew. I worked on the Telegraph diary for a couple of months with a girl called Strawberry Saroyan, who was either William's grand-daughter or great-neice or something. Her sister was called Amber and her grandmother married Walter Matthau, if I remember rightly. She was mad as a fish, but very nice.She went back to America, which, with a name like Strawberry, is probably where you belong.

Andrew Losowsky said...

Goodness. I wonder if her family was filled with similar fruits? If so, I pity poor young Kumquat.