Thursday, August 23, 2007

A different obituary

Parterre has posted an obituary for Rose Bampton, but I've saved my words for someone who has nothing to do with opera.

A year out of college I worked in a bookstore because that's what you did in Austin. Downwardly mobile was the thing. Driving home one day, I had that NPR program on the radio where actors read short stories, is that still around? I'm pretty sure it was Linda Lavin who read Grace Paley's three page story "Wants," and pretty much ended my interest in the novel as a form. Paley put whole lives in these miraculously tiny stories. I've put "Wants" in an email more than once, because I wanted to impress someone, and because it didn't take long to type.

There weren't many of them. She had her art firmly in perspective, and what was more important to her, much of the time, was living her life and keeping up her anti-war activism. Apparently she was often to be seen on her corner in the Village handing out pamphlets like Grace Goodside from the Lower East Side, child of radical Jewish immigrants, rather than Grace Paley, beloved and influential writer of stories. She was 84, and had lived as one imagines she wanted to, but there's a certain bitterness that she had to die in this era, having thrown herself unsparingly into agitating against the war in Vietnam.

Paley was a casual linguist with no credential and a better ear than plenty who have one. There is Russian and Yiddish in her stories, and she mines each for its exact emotional content, the things that don't translate and show up only in a sentence spoken in English but thought in Russian. "Goodbye and Good Luck" is a map of starry-eyed regret, and equally of resourcefulness and wit, made perfect by its guilelessly precise sense of what it means to learn to talk about what's going on around you and sometimes talk your way out of it in one country and then, by necessity, in another. In with the bargain, Paley's insistence on looking at the hard part of everything and not blinking.

Immediately he said "Rosie Lieber, you surely got a build on you!"

"It takes all kinds, Mr. Krimberg."

"Don't misunderstand me, little girl," he said. "I appreciate, I appreciate. A young lady lacking fore and aft, her blood is so busy warming the toes and the fingertips, it don't have time to circulate where it's most required."

Everybody likes kindness. I said to him: "Only don't be fresh, Mr. Krimberg, and we'll make a good bargain."

I saw Grace Paley once, reading a story she wrote for The New Yorker in the last decade, at the Chicago Historical Society. It was, truth to tell, a bit of a rehash of older stories, not the better for time and wisdom. It didn't matter much. It was a joy to see her. Studs Terkel also appeared, and for part of the time they were both onstage, affectionately interrupting each other like the grandparents you'd have in a perfect world.

Someone asked Grace Paley to read aloud the little paragraph that serves as an epigraph to her collected stories. Coincidentally I picked the volume up off my shelf this morning and have it at hand. These are the words I got to hear her read aloud in her resolutely prosaic voice, the voice of a century of New York:

It seems right to dedicate this collection to my
friend Sybil Claiborne, my colleague in the Writing
and Mother Trade. I visited her fifth-floor
apartment on Barrow Street one day in 1957.
There before my very eyes were her two husbands
disappointed by the eggs*. After that we talked and
talked for nearly forty years. Then she died.
Three days before that, she said slowly, with the
delicacy of an unsatisfied person with only a dozen
words left, Grace, the real question is--
How are we to live our lives?

*a reference to the first line of "Two Short Sad Stories from a Long and Happy Life"

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