Thursday, August 23, 2007

Grace Paley

Grace Paley died yesterday. She was one of the first women writers I really loved. I saw her at a PEN conference in Houston around 1977, and again when she read at George Mason University from her 1985 book Later the Same Day (just checked my autographed copy). The Times obit is correct about her voice, both her writerly voice and her actual, physical voice. Her stories are best read aloud, and really best read by her. I had her on Books on Tape once, only once, a library copy, but there's a stretch of Wade Avenue in Raleigh that I can't go down--this is 10 years or more ago now--without hearing her voice. Most times, she is reading the story "Wants," which starts like this:

“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.”

But don't stop there! You can hear the whole short story read, not by Paley, but by another interesting reader.

It's a story that sticks with you, like the smell of the bacon that Paley's narrator and her (not yet ex) husband had, and yet didn't have, in their small apartment, where, it seems, they had, and yet didn't have, many things.

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