Books: Grand old lady who likes acting the fool

The Collected Stories of Grace Paley and Just As I Thought by Grace Paley Virago pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
'I am foolish but I am not a fool," says a character in a Paley story - "The Loudest Voice" from The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), her first and still her best-known collection. It's such a round, ringing declaration that you can't help feeling that Paley is speaking for herself here, too. But I'd have to disagree: a fool is precisely what she is - not a holy fool (though check out the serene idiot expression she is wearing on the cover of Just As I Thought and you could be forgiven for the mistake), but the Shakespearean type of fool.

One of the distinguishing features of Paley's stories is that you never quite know what is going on - like Isaac Babel, one of her heroes, she writes stories that will submit to repeated reading, yet always seem to yield some new information. In a story like "The Floating Truth", which apparently deals with a man who lives in the back of a car and runs an employment agency, it's hard to piece the context together, impossible to know how literally we are meant to take any of it. But even though you never know quite what she's on about, even though the tone is often comic and alert, there is an inescapable sense of stiff morality, of the cap and bells being taken as a licence to push uncomfortable truths.

Personally, I've always had the sense that Shakespeare's fools may be fine on the stage but they would be bloody irritating to meet in real life, and the same applies to Paley.

Given the way that her stories seem to recycle her own life, it's risky to make hard and fast distinctions between her fiction and her non-fiction; but the disorientating vagueness and the iron certainty that the stories are seductive turn out to be difficult to take in some of the essays collected in Just As I Thought. She gushes, she burbles, but she is too certain of the righteousness of her causes - feminism and pacifism - to ever engage in argument, to think in any detail about the concrete facts that might obstruct her ideals.

Too many of her essays ("Feelings in the Presence of the Sight and Sound of the Bread and Puppet Theater") are too abstract in expression and/or particular in application to convey much. But still and all: she's a grand old lady. Forget the essays; buy the stories.