Thursday, August 23, 2007

Goodbye to Grace Paley

PaleyYet another loss in August, a loss for the world of literature, American arts, New York writing, and the Left: Grace Paley (1922-2007, at left, Ms. Magazine) has died, after a long illness, at her home in Thetford, Vermont, at the age of 84. Paley's name brings immediately to mind New York City, and specifically Greenwich Village, where she lived for many years and set a number of her stories, like "Wants," "Northeast Playground," and "Friends." Her comic, highly ironical, frequently lyric, usually voice-driven, plotless prose is distinctively her own; Paley repeatedly took the raw materials of her life as a divorced, secular Jewish mother, pacificist and activist, and transformed them into the works of art. As some of the obituaries of her note, and as she detailed when she spoke to my fellow MFA students and me some years ago, she primarily wrote poetry until her 30s, when she realized that another genre, fiction, was calling her. She began listening to the narratives in her head, the Yiddish-influenced voices and stories of her childhood and young adulthood, and rather than setting them as verse, she allowed the lyric impulse to unfold as short stories. And what stories! Paley can set a sentence on its side, and double it back again, while making it sound as if someone uttered it, effortlessly, without much thought but also with the finest consideration. In "Wants," she manages to telescope an entire life into a few pages: a woman must return books that are overdue--years overdue--but in the process of journeying to what is the Jefferson Market Library on 6th Avenue and 9th Street, she also journeys to and through her past, with each memory, each event, each word really, assuming significance and resonance. I often reread Paley's work, so utterly different from my own, and teach it, as a way of understanding how a writer can make the most out of so very little, how crucial precision and humor and irony are, how a light touch can carry inestimable gravity. At the Whiting Foundation Awards ceremony a few years ago, Paley read one of her best stories, and one of my favorites, "A Conversation with My Father," and I thought then, as I always have when I've read this story, in the hands of many a writer this might sound like a carefully revised snippet of nonfiction drawn from memories or a journal, but after Paley's touch, it is undeniably fiction, and a work of art.

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