Resurrection Of A Life by William Saroyan, 1935
The magic trick:
Tripping back and forth between first and third person to tell his personal narrative
Elsewhere on this blog, you can find me losing patience with Harold Brodkey and his oh-so-precious-and-proud first person childhood regurgitations. “Resurrection Of A Life” could easily fall into the same traps. Saroyan is covering similar territory as Brodkey, but he performs a very neat magic trick. He bounces between first and third person to tell his story.
By my count, this technique accomplishes three things. It creates movement in the narrative, keeping things interesting and not strictly stuck to a straight-line flow. It creates a sense of distance – artificial as it obviously is – that allows Saroyan space to comment on the past from an adult perspective. Finally, and most crucially, the shifting narration emphasizes Saroyan’s central theme of the story, that nothing dies, life cycles continue, and memories are linked from the past to the present and passed on to the future forever. When the first person narrator steps in to write about himself in the third person, it creates the illusion that this life is that of two different people. But it’s not. It’s one person, and the memories and experience never die.
Saroyan has created a universal context for his memoir – something I’d argue Brodkey never manages in his work. And that’s quite a trick on Saroyan’s part.
I was this boy and he is dead now, but he will keep prowling through the city when my body no longer makes a shadow upon the pavement, and if it is not this boy it will be another, myself again, another boy alive on earth, seeking the essential truth of the scene, seeking the static and precise beneath that which is in motion and which is imprecise.