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Goodnight, Grace

Posted by David Mehegan  August 27, 2007 10:57 AM

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Colleague Mark Feeney offers this remembrance of short-story writer Grace Paley, who died last week:


The short story is not what it once was. The novel long ago did to it what the movies have since done to the novel (and, who knows, what the Web will do to everything). So it may sound like damning with faint praise to call Grace Paley, who died Thursday, at 84, as one of the three or four best American short-story writers of the past half century. But it's not meant that way at all. What author wouldn't want to be considered in the company of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor?

Very much their peer, Paley was a writer of phenomenal gifts, with a voice as yeasty and vibrant as that of anyone in our literature not named Saul Bellow. In his novel "The Ghost Writer," Philip Roth has E.I. Lonoff (a Bernard Malmud stand-in) describe authorial voice as "something that begins around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head." Paley's began at the ankles and grazed the ceiling.

Such stories as "Goodbye and Good Luck" and "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" and "A Conversation with My Father" are minor miracles, so full and rich and muscular it's always a surprise to realize Paley published just three collections: "The Little Disturbances of Man" (1959), "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (1974), and "Later the Same Day" (1985). Only three, but such collections!

Paley's stories -- all of them, not just the great ones -- are smart and funny and vital and they can be extraordinarily moving. Is there a more genuinely affecting story in the language than "Zagrowsky Tells"? There's an emotional density to Paley's writing that makes reading her like getting a hug from someone you love (a lot) -- a someone you know loves you right back. Perhaps I can best suggest this amazing sense of humanity in her work with a personal example. When a dear friend suffered serious depression after her mother's death, and when another friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I responded in what I thought the most supportive, life-affirming way I knew how: giving each a copy of Paley's "Collected Stories."

Describing Paley in such terms might make her sound like some sort of cozy-cuddly bubbe, the ultimate Oprah Book Club author. (In fact, it's a bit startling that Oprah -- who really is a force for good in this culture -- hasn't gotten around to making Paley one of her reading picks.) No, her work is so much more than just warm and fuzzy. It's also tough, knowing, sometimes daringly experimental, and not unaware of the pleasures of the flesh. Even more than most writers, Paley's words are an extension of who she was -- and she was very much all those qualities: a tiny, well-padded woman with a gorgeous shock of white hair, a latke-thick Bronx accent. In the music of her prose, you can feel the stew of Yiddish, Russian, and English she grew up listening to. "That's what's in my ear," she once said of that intermixture. "It got through my Eustachian tubes or whatever and into my throat, with several diseases that came along also."

Paley published a collection of her occasional prose, "Just as I Thought," in 1998, and I drove up to Vermont to interview her for the Globe. Her house was in the middle of a woodsy nowhere -- a surprising place for such an echt-New Yorker to be, but one of Paley's gifts was the ease with which she shrugged away expectations -- and as I walked toward the steps she had the door open, sweeping up. "It just came over the radio," she called out. "They've put back direct flights to Cuba. Isn't that great?" It was more statement than question (Paley was the Jewish lefty to end all Jewish lefties).

She thought I looked hungry after the drive from Boston and insisted I eat something. It's not every great American writer who'll make you some toast. A mutual friend had recently had his first child, also named Grace, and had asked me to show Paley her picture. I did, and she was so delighted that when she finished admiring her namesake's photo she put it in a family album. I didn't have the heart to tell her my friend had expected it back (not that he minded when I told him what had happened).

By its very nature, any interview is a social artifice. Yet I don't know that I've ever interviewed -- or maybe even met -- anyone who seemed less artificial. Paley was that open, that natural, that genuine. Talking to her was like stepping into one of her stories, only with the storyteller along to offer additional commentary.

For all that meeting Paley was a terrific experience, it wasn't that successful qua interview. In all her writing (the poetry and nonfiction as well as the stories, but supremely so in the fiction), there's so much personality that actually being with Paley felt almost redundant: The work is that flavorful, that full bodied, that alive. Marvelous as Paley in person was, there was little she had to say that wasn't already on the page. It was less a case of art having imitated life as, in a sense, surpassing it. I mean that not as criticism of Paley -- I hope that's apparent -- but rather as praise for her fiction.

Quite a few years ago, like David Mehegan, I was the Globe's book editor. For that reason, presumably, people still occasionally ask me to recommend a book for them to read. It's not advice I'm comfortable giving. Reading is so personal, so idiosyncratic, that I'm hesitant to suggest something unless I know the person well (and if I know the person well, he or she knows better than to ask). Still, if pressed, I have one title I invariably recommend, regardless of the person: "The Collected Stories." You don't need to be depressed, you don't need to be dying (except in the sense that we are all of us dying). All you need is to be literate and human. Maybe not even literate: the orality of Paley's stories is such that they might best be experienced listened to.

Anyway, if you've gotten this far, you likely don't need persuading. Reading Grace Paley is the next best thing to being with her. No, even better -- and that's really saying something.

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