With her first two books of short stories, Grace Paley established her niche in the world of letters. Her distinctive voice and verbal gifts have captured the hearts of critics who praise her vision as well as her style. In short and sometimes plotless tales, she plumbs the lives of working-class New Yorkers, mapping out what New York Review of Bookscontributing critic Michael Wood called "a whole small country of damaged, fragile, haunted citizens." Rather than action, Paley relies on conversation to establish character, reproducing Jewish, Black, Irish, and other dialects with startling accuracy.Americareviewer William Novak deemed her "a writer's writer" who "focuses her talent and energy on the craft itself" and "observes the classic rules: she writes what she knows, she does not attempt too much, she shies away from any hint of cliché and tells a simple and honest story." Walter Clemons's assessment was even more generous; in aNewsweekreview he proclaimed her "one of the best writers alive."
The daughter of Russian immigrants who arrived in New York around the turn of the century, Paley was raised in the Bronx. At home, her parents spoke Russian and Yiddish, and Paley grew up within two cultures, influenced by the old world as well as the new. From her surroundings, she gleaned the raw material for her short stories, and both her Russian-Jewish heritage and her perceptions of New York street life pervade her work. With the publication of The Little Disturbances of Man, Paley began to attract critical attention. Initial sales were modest, but the collection drew a loyal following and good reviews. The New Yorker assessed Paley's writing as "fresh and vigorous," noting that "her view of life is her own." To Kirkus Reviews the collection seemed "alternately humorous and touching, simple and unaffected . . . a demonstration of a considerable talent." The ten stories that comprise the volume focus on the inhabitants of a boisterous city neighborhood where, to use Paley's words, "dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother's mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home." Ordinary people in unexceptional circumstances, these characters demonstrate the way man deals with the "little disturbances" of life. In her introduction to the Virago edition of this volume, A. S. Byatt pointed out that "we have had a great many artists, more of them women than not, recording the tragedies of repetition, frequency, weariness and little disturbances. What distinguishes Grace Paley from the mass of these is the interest, and even more, the inventiveness which she brings to her small world."
In "An Interest in Life," the set piece of the collection and the story from which the book's title is drawn, Paley's mode becomes clear. Initially the story of a husband's desertion of his wife and four children, it begins: "My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn't right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly." In a Partisan Review article, Jonathan Baumbach explained how "the matter-of-fact, ironic voice of the protagonist, Ginny, distances the reader from the conventions of her pathos, makes light of easy sentiment, only to bring us, unburdened by melodrama, to an awareness of the character as if someone known to us intimately for a long time. Ginny, in a desperate moment, writes out a list of her troubles to get on the radio show Strike It Rich. When she shows the list to John Raftery, a returned former suitor unhappily married to someone else, he points out to her that her troubles are insufficient, merely 'the little disturbances of man.' Paley's comic stories deal in exaggerated understatement, disguise their considerable ambition in the modesty of wit."
Unlike her later fiction, Paley's first book features several conventionally crafted stories that are narrated by a speaker who is not the author and built around a series of incidents that comprise the plot. "The Contest," "Goodbye and Good Luck," "An Irrevocable Diameter," and "A Woman Young and Old" belong to this category. Paley's other approach is more open and fragmentary and can be seen in "An Interest in Life" and "The Used-Boy Raisers," stories narrated respectively by Virginia and Faith, two women not unlike the author. Explained Byatt: "Faith and Virginia both appear elsewhere in Grace Paley's work, with their dependent children, their circumscribed lives, their poverty and resourcefulness, their sexual greed and their consequent continuing openness to exploitation by, and readiness to exploit, men. Their tales have no beginnings and ends, in the sense in which 'An Irrevocable Diameter' has, or, best of the 'well-made tales,' 'In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All.' But they have beginnings and ends verbally, and they are brilliant, as the choice of the parts that make them is brilliant."
Another six years would pass before the appearance of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Paley's second collection of short stories. But, as Ivan Gold reported, "during her literary lean years, Grace Paley's life was fat. She gave to the roles of wife and mother the profound, existential attention her readers would have been able to predict." In addition to her homemaking concerns, Paley submerged herself in political activities—distributing antiwar pamphlets, marching on the Capitol, and traveling overseas to protest American involvement in Vietnam. "I think I could have done more for peace," she told People, "if I'd written about the war, but I happen to love being in the streets." Her later commitments were the women's movement and antimilitarist groups.
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute not only plays off the title of Paley's first volume (The Little Disturbances of Man), but also features the same setting and several of the same characters. Faith reappears with her boys Richard and Tonto, and so does Johnny Raftery—his love affair with Ginny recounted this time from his mother's point of view. While William Novak found the second collection "somewhat broader in range . . . more American and less parochial," he attributed the change to "subjects and themes rather than . . . the basic techniques of writing." For Novak, the crucial quality was still howPaley writes rather than what she is saying: "We are so accustomed to responding to fiction in terms of its themes and characters that we must reawaken our linguistic sensitivities when reading Grace Paley. The qualities and substances that give strength to most of our good writers are quite alien from her work."
Plot, for instance, figures in these stories almost as an afterthought. The tales are open-ended, fragmentary, and sometimes actionless. In a story called "A Conversation with My Father," Paley explains why. The piece begins with an ailing father's request to his daughter: "I would like you to write a simple story just once more . . . the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write." Though she would like to please him, the daughter reveals that she has always avoided plot "not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone real or invented deserves the open destiny of life."
In the eyes of Michele Murray, however, Paley disregards her own requirement. "Even with the glitter of its style, over which Paley skates like some Olympic champion of language, Enormous Changes is a book of losses and failures," Murray wrote in the New Republic. "It's not tragedy that weighs down these stories, it's no more than despair and repetition. Tragedy suggests depths and alternatives and is built into a world of choices. Paley's world . . . is severely limited, the world as given, without any imagined alternatives, only endless vistas of crumbling buildings, bedrooms opening onto air shafts, and a phalanx of old people's homes."
But Burton Bendow argued that Paley "is right to avoid looking tragedy in the face; she knows where her talent lies. It is, if not for comedy exactly, for virtuoso mimicry. I would guess," he continued in the Nation, "that the first thing she has in mind when starting work on one of her better stories is a voice. Definitely not a plot which would keep her to the straight and narrow and cramp her digressions, or a situation or a point of view or even a character, but a voice with a particular ring and particular turns of phrase." Paley herself told Ms. interviewer Harriet Shapiro that she "used to start simply from language. . . . I would write a couple of sentences and let them lay there. Not on purpose, but just because I couldn't figure out what was going to come next. I've always worked very blind."
Paley's technique may explain what academics sometimes called the "unevenness" of her writing. As Vivian Gornick wrote in the Village Voice: "Her successes are intermittent, unpredictable, often unshapely and without wholeness; there is no progression of revelation, the stories do not build one upon another, they do not—as is abundantly clear in this new collection—create an emotional unity. On the other hand: Paley when she is good is so good that she is worth ninety-nine 'even' writers, and when one hears that unmistakable Paley voice one feels what can be felt only in the presence of a true writer: safe."
Though she acknowledged that Paley's technique of writing is indeed "chancy," Time's Martha Duffy concluded that "the stories—whether two pages or twenty—run their courses as cleanly and surely as arrows flying in air." Newsweek's Walter Clemons summed up his reaction this way: "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute was worth the wait."
Several characters from her first two collections, notably Faith, reappear in Paley's third, again much-delayed, collection, Later the Same Day, published in 1985. And another decade on, The Collected Stories appeared, earning a nomination for the National Book Award. Though the sum of Paley's oeuvre in the short-story genre totaled a mere forty-five stories in 1994, when Collected Stories was published, she is nonetheless considered a seminal American short-story writer of the twentieth century. She has also published several volumes of poetry, however, a genre she has favored since her earliest days as a writer, and in which she displays many of the same virtues as those that have made her famous as a short-story writer. Of Leaning Forward, Long Walks and Intimate Talks, New and Collected Poems, and Begin Again, Carolyn Alessio wrote in American Writers:"Throughout, her poetry has tended to be more baldly political than her fiction and sometimes more limited in scope. Critics, and Paley herself, have downplayed the significance of her poems; she has pronounced them 'mostly about flowers' and 'too literary.' But some of them display the verve and innuendo that energize her fiction."
"What marks Grace Paley's Begin Again, . . . apart from its lyricism and close observations of life (human and natural), is the humility and humanity of her voice," remarked Kate Moos in Ruminator Review.Begin Again collects work from throughout Paley's writing life, providing a kind of autobiography in poetry, marking her days as peace activist, feminist activist, her years of mothering, and her experience of grandmotherhood, of living in New York City and of Vermont. "This radiant volume is alive with Paley's wise humor and free-flowing empathy," declared Donna Seaman inBooklist. A contributor to Publishers Weekly compared Paley unfavorably with the poetAdrienne Rich, however, for Paley's failure at the type of well-made poems, finely honed language, and subtle or complex metaphors at which Rich excels. Still, "fans of the fiction will want these unguarded looks at the illimitably appealing Paley persona," this critic added.
Some of Paley's poems are included in her collection Just As I Thought, along with essays, reviews, and speeches written over the course of thirty years. Here, more so than in the short-story or poetry collections, Paley's political opinions take center stage, bearing the brunt, occasionally, of critical attention the book was paid. Thus, for example, John Kennedy, reviewing Just As I Thought in the Antioch Review, called Paley "extremely leftist," and remarked that the author "provokes misunderstanding," and "controversy" by refusing to take into consideration the views of the opposition in some of the pieces collected in the book. But for Iain Finlayson, writing in the London Times,the voice displayed throughout this volume "cherishes a flawed world that should be grateful for her tough, passionate love."
Grace Paley, the celebrated writer and social activist whose short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives, died on Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill, Vt. She was 84 and also had an apartment in Manhattan.
Ms. Paley had been ill with breast cancer for some time, her literary agent, Elaine Markson, said yesterday.
Ms. Paley’s output was modest, some four dozen stories in three volumes: “The Little Disturbances of Man” (Doubleday, 1959); “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974); and “Later the Same Day” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985). But she attracted a devoted following and was widely praised by critics for her pitch-perfect dialogue, which managed at once to be surgically spare and almost unimaginably rich.
Her “Collected Stories,” published by Farrar, Straus in 1994, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (The collection was reissued by Farrar, Straus this year.) From 1986 to 1988, Ms. Paley was New York’s first official state author; she was also a past poet laureate of Vermont.
Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.
To read Ms. Paley’s fiction is to be awash in the shouts and murmurs of secular Yiddishkeit, with its wild onrushing joy and twilight melancholy. For her, cadence and character went hand in hand: her stories are marked by their minute attention to language, with its tonal rise and fall, hairpin rhetorical reversals and capacity for delicious hyperbolic understatement. Her stories, many of which are written in the first person and seem to start in mid-conversation, beg to be read aloud.
Some critics found Ms. Paley’s stories short on plot, and in fact much of what happens is that nothing much happens. Affairs begin, babies are born, affairs end. Mothers gather in the park. But that was the point. In Ms. Paley’s best stories, the language is so immediate, the characters so authentic, that the text is propelled by an innate urgency — the kind that makes readers ask, “And then what happened?”
Open Ms. Paley’s first collection, “The Little Disturbances of Man,” to the first story, “Goodbye and Good Luck”:
“I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised — change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don’t notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary’s ear for thirty years. Who’s listening? Papa’s in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. So she waits in a spotless kitchen for a kind word and thinks — poor Rosie. ...
“Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten.”
For Ms. Paley’s immigrant Jews, the push and pull of assimilation is everywhere. Parents live in the East Bronx or Coney Island; their grown children flee to Greenwich Village. A family agonizes over its lively daughter’s starring role in her school’s Christmas pageant.
Later stories are even darker. A girl is raped; children die of drug overdoses. Threading through the books are familiar characters, in particular Faith Darwin, the subject of many of Ms. Paley’s finest stories, grown older and world-wearier.
Though Ms. Paley’s work also rings with Irish and Italian and black voices, it was for the language of her childhood, a heady blend of Yiddish, Russian and English, that she was best known. Reviewers sometimes called her prose postmodern, but all of it — even the death-defying, almost surreal turns of logic that were a stylistic hallmark — was already present in Yiddish oral tradition. Consider:
A man meets a friend on the street.
“Nu, how’s by you?” the friend asks.
“Ach,” the man replies. “My wife left me; the children don’t call; business is bad. With life so terrible, it’s better never to have been born.”
“Yes,” his friend says. “But how many are so lucky? Not one in ten thousand.”
Grace Goodside was born in the Bronx on Dec. 11, 1922. (The family changed its name from Gutseit on coming to the United States.) Her parents, Isaac and the former Manya Ridnyik, were Ukrainian Jewish socialists who had been exiled by Czar Nicholas II — Isaac to Siberia, Manya to Germany. In 1906, they were able to leave for New York, where Isaac became a doctor. They had two children, and, approaching middle age, a third, Grace.
Grace’s childhood was noisy and warm. There were stories and songs and glasses of good strong tea. Always, there was glorious argument. The communists hollered at the socialists, the socialists hollered at the Zionists, and everybody hollered at the anarchists.
Grace did a year at Hunter College before marrying Jess Paley, a film cameraman, at 19; the marriage later ended in divorce. Hoping to be a poet (she studied briefly with Auden at the New School), she wrote only verse until she was in her 30s. But little by little, the narrative speech of the old neighborhood — here, that of young Shirley Abramowitz in Ms. Paley’s story “The Loudest Voice” — began to assert itself:
“There is a certain place where dumb-waiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.
“There, my own mother is still as full of breathing as me and the grocer stands up to speak to her. ‘Mrs. Abramowitz,’ he says, ‘people should not be afraid of their children.’
“ ‘Ah, Mr. Bialik,’ my mother replies, ‘if you say to her or her father “Ssh,” they say, “In the grave it will be quiet.” ’ ”
A self-described “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist,” Ms. Paley was a lifelong advocate of liberal causes. During the Vietnam War, she was jailed several times for antiwar protests; in later years, she lobbied for women’s rights, against nuclear proliferation and, most recently, against the war in Iraq. For decades, she was a familiar presence on lower Sixth Avenue, near her Greenwich Village home, smiling broadly, gum cracking, leaflets in hand.
Ms. Paley, who taught for many years at Sarah Lawrence and the City College of New York, was also a past vice president of the PEN American Center.
Some critics have called Ms. Paley’s work uneven, but what they really seemed to mean is that it was too even: similar people in similar situations in similar places. But the stories that worked — and most did — were so blindingly satisfying that the lesser ones scarcely mattered. In her best writing, Ms. Paley collapsed entire worlds into a few perfect paragraphs, as in the opening of “Wants,” from “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute”:
“I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
“Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
“He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
“I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
“The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.
“My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.
“That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began.”
Ms. Paley is survived by her second husband, Robert Nichols, a landscape architect and writer whom she married in 1972. (The two collaborated on a book, “Here and Somewhere Else,” which collects poems and stories by each of them, published this year by The Feminist Press.) She is also survived by two children from her first marriage, Nora Paley of East Thetford; and Danny, of Brooklyn, and three grandchildren.
Her other books include a collection of essays, “Just As I Thought” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), and several volumes of poetry, among them “Leaning Forward” (Granite Press, 1985) and “New and Collected Poems” (Tilbury Press, 1991). A film, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” based on three stories in the collection and adapted by John Sayles and Susan Rice, was released in 1983.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1978, Ms. Paley described the grass-roots sensibility that informed her work.
“I’m not writing a history of famous people,” she said. “I am interested in a history of everyday life.”
Grace Paley once said, “I think I could have done more for peace if I’d written about the [Vietnam] war, but I happen to love being in the streets.” Grace Paley was the author ofThe Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Later the Same Day, The Collected Stories, New and Collected Poems, and a gathering of essays, Just As I Thought. Her many honors included a National Endowment for the Arts Senior fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship in fiction, the Edith Wharton Award, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for short story writing, a Lannan Award, and a citation as the First Official New York State Writer. Grace Paley was clearly a writer of great renown, but in some circles she was known primarily for her political activism. She was a member of the War Resister’s League, the Women’s Pentagon Action, and she was long an influential member of PEN, the international association of writers. Perhaps the best description of her politics was her own: she called herself “a cooperative anarchist.” This side of Grace Paley grew out of protests against the American involvement in the Vietnam War, but the end of the war did not stop her involvement in grass roots and feminist causes. Her linking of personal life to political issues showed both in her approach to politics and in her writing, although her fiction was never didactic. Its subjects were apparently modest: friendship, child-rearing, divorce, intolerance at a very human level. Her politics were likewise apparently modest. As the narrator in the story “Wants” says, “I want to be the woman who brings these two [library] books back in two weeks. I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center. I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.”
George Bernard Shaw used to apologize occasionally when writing friends, “I’m sorry I did not have time to write a shorter letter.” Grace Paley was a teacher of mine and the best advice she gave me was to be unafraid of writing little. By that she did not mean spend little time writing. A critic once said of Grace Paley that her “commitment to political activity and to raising children limited her literary activity.” I disagree. Grace Paley wrote some of the densest, most complex short stories in the language, and the writing of these stories clearly took great time and care. Angela Carter said “Paley’s work makes the novel as a form seem virtually redundant.”
The poetic compression, the amazing efficiency, the vivid voices, and the extraordinary compacting of the comic and the tragic in her fiction mimics its most common setting—New York City. Grace Paley is a profoundly urban writer, someone whose life and art and voice were formed and tempered by the city around her. Her fiction is usually about the interrelationship of friends, acquaintances, strangers, and even enemies, all ordinary necessities of city living. Paley combines traditional oral storytelling aesthetics with a postmodern narrative self-awareness. This organic experimentalism differs interestingly from that other practitioner of urbane and urban literary redevelopment, Donald Barthelme, longtime neighbor and dear friend of Paley. Whereas Barthelme was influenced by the world of art and collage, Paley’s fiction seems to have grown out of guerrilla street theater and perhaps an attempt to reconcile politics and fiction. The very word politics comes from the word city, or polis, and Grace Paley’s cityscapes are political in the way her characters endlessly try to mediate responsible behavior with elbow-jostling survival instincts. Jonathan Baumbach wrote, “improvisatory casualness is another of the disguises of Paley’s fiction. The stories seem to have been invented from moment to moment and offer a sense of immediacy and surprise.” Improvisation strikes me as being the heart of the urban condition and also at the heart of Grace Paley’s fiction, “which happens to love being in the streets.”
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Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (short stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1974.
Later the Same Day (short stories), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1985.
365 Reasons Not to Have Another War, New Society Publications/War Resisters' League (Philadelphia, PA), 1989.
Long Walks and Intimate Talks (stories and poems), paintings by Vera Williams, Feminist Press at The City University of New York (New York, NY), 1991.
New and Collected Poems, Tilbury House (Gardiner, ME), 1992.
The Collected Stories, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
Conversations with Grace Paley, edited by Gerhard Bach and Blaine H. Hall, University Press of Mississippi (Oxford, MS), 1997.
Just As I Thought, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Mel Rosenthal) In the South Bronx: Photographs, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1998.
Begin Again: Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
Author of forewords to At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel, by A. N. Pirozhkova, Steerforth, 1996; After Sorrow: An American among the Vietnamese, by Lady Borton, Kodansha, 1996; and Serious Kissing, by Barbara Selfridge, Glad Day (Warner, NH), 1999. Author of introduction to The Author's Dimension: Selected Essays by Christa Wolf, edited by Alexander Stephen, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993. Contributor of stories to Atlantic, Esquire, New Yorker, Ikon, Genesis West, Accent, and other periodicals.
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Shenandoah, Volume 27, 1976, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Grace Paley, and Walker Percy, "A Symposium on Fiction," pp. 3-31; Volume 32, 1981, Joan Lidoff, "Clearing Her Throat: An Interview with Grace Paley," pp. 3-26.
Studies in American Jewish Literature, Volume 2, 1982, Adam J. Sorkin, "'What Are We, Animals?' Grace Paley's World of Talk and Laughter," p. 144; spring, 1988, Minako Baba, "Faith Darwin As Writer-Heroine: A Study of Grace Paley's Short Stories," pp. 40-54.
Studies in Short Fiction, winter, 1994.
Threepenny Review, fall, 1980, pp. 4-6.
Time, April 29, 1974; April 15, 1985; January 27, 1986, pp. 74-77.
Times (London), November 7, 1985; September 26, 1987; July 22, 1999, Iain Finlayson, "A Fight for Peace," p. 45.
Times Literary Supplement, February 14, 1975; November 22, 1985.
Vanity Fair, March, 1998, p. 220.
Village Voice, March 14, 1974.
Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1985, pp. 9-10; September, 1992, p. 5.
Washington Post, April 14, 1985, David Remnick, "Grace Paley: Voice from the Village," pp. C1, 14; November 15, 1986.
Washington Post Book World, April 28, 1985, p. C1.
Salon, http://www.salon.com/11/departments/litchat1.html/ (1996) Wendy Lesser, "Writing with Both Ears," conversation with the author; http://www.salon.com/books/interviews/ (October 26, 1998) A. M. Homes, "All My Habits Are Bad," author interview.