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Posts Tagged ‘Grace Paley’

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I continue to read quite a lot of short stories, and this is another fairly large collection that I dipped in and out of over the course of about three weeks. I recently bought this pretty new VMC anniversary edition of Collected Grace Paley stories, only to get home and realise I already had the book. The other edition was such a physically different book that it hadn’t rung a bell with me at all. It’s not the first time I have bought a book I already have, the perils of a large tbr!

This collection brings together the stories of three previously published collections into one volume: – The Little Disturbances of Man (1959)
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985).

Grace Paley’s stories are of the world she knew well, the noisy vibrant neighbourhoods of New York city. She writes in a style which can take some getting used to, a sort of stream of consciousness style – lots of dialogue and no speech marks. Often in the vernacular of her city, the voices of her characters are loud, insistent, and hard to ignore. Paley has an ear for voices – and she recreates them with great authenticity and affection.

The collection opens with Goodbye and Good Luck and seems to be a letter written from a woman to a much younger female relative. Rose explains her long-term relationship with a Russian actor who she met while working in a New York theatre. She spends her life loving this man she can’t have – turning down other marriage proposals, waiting. One day he does return, years have passed, times have changed. As Rose, who is now firmly in middle age, ends her letter she is about the embark on a new life with the love of her life.

One character we meet in many stories is Faith Darwin – a woman at the heart of the New York Jewish community. She’s a typical Paley heroine. In the earlier stories Faith is a young mother, her husband is absent, and she is rooted in her urban community. In Faith in a Tree we find Faith suspended above the children’s playground in a Sycamore tree contemplating the children of her neighbours as well as her own. In Conversation with my Father – Faith has become a writer, and her father tells her he would like her to write a simple story just once more, the kind of story Maupassant or Checkov might write. In Dreamer in a Dead Language Faith visits her ageing parents in a Jewish retirement home. Here, Faith is drawn into the lives of the other residents, knitting is undertaken, ailments discussed, advice given.

“The boys are down playing Ping-Pong with Mrs Reis. She kindly invited them. Faith, what is it? You look black, her mother said.
Breathless, Mr Darwin gasped, Crazy, crazy like Sylvia, your crazy sister.
Oh her. Mrs Darwin laughed, but took Faith’s hand and pressed it to her cheek. What’s the trouble, Faith? Oh yes, you are something like Sylvie. A temper. Oh, she had life to her. My Poor Syl, she had zest. She died in front of the television set. She didn’t miss a trick.
Oh, Ma, who cares what happened to Sylvie?”
(Dreamer in a Dead Language)

Through these and other stories we see Faith grow, meet her friends and family watch her raise her children. There is often little plot in these stories, but Paley recreates an entire world. There’s a wonderful spirit in Faith, she is ever an optimist, loves her children and her community – and is constantly evolving.

In other stories Paley writes of politics, and we hear voices raised in protest. There are absent fathers, lovers and friends. We meet the mothers of the neighbourhood playgrounds, she introduces them in typical Paley fashion.

“When I went to the Playground in the afternoon I met eleven unwed mothers on relief. Only four of them were whores, the rest of them were unwed on principle or because some creep had ditched them.”
(Northeast Playground)

grace paley storiesIn one story a woman runs into her former husband and they sneak off together to make love. A boy is killed in a sudden senseless accident while messing around on the trains with his friends, in Samuel. In Friends a group of women friends who first knew one another when their children were young visit a dying friend, and travel home together afterwards. An elderly couple raise the child of their mentally ill daughter, while an elderly pharmacist is forced to face up to his own past racism in Zagrowsky Tells – which was one of my favourite stories. The voices are strong, their stories those of any city – and yet also, they seem particularly the stories of New York.

In these stories Grace Paley is funny, wise and frequently angry – she understands life in all its difficulties and her characters are very real. There is a rhythm and inventiveness in Paley’s use of language. There is a sort of aural quality to Paley’s stories, from the lilt of the Yiddish spoken by many characters, to the rattle of subways trains, the voices of children playing in city playgrounds – the laughter and protest of people living in close proximity.

 

 

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