Grace Paley

Masterful short-story writer activist
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Grace Goodside, writer: born New York 11 December 1922; married 1942 Jess Paley (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1971), 1972 Robert Nicols; died Thetford Hill, Vermont 22 August 2007.

Grace Paley had to wait until she was in her mid-thirties before she found her voice as a unique writer of short stories. In fact, she found many other voices in the process, all of them captured on the page with beguilingly humorous authenticity. These tales, penned or typed at the kitchen table in her New York apartment while her two young children were being cared for after school because their mother was too ill to tend to them, were rejected by all the literary magazines of the day. An editor at Doubleday read them, and offered her a contract to produce seven more. She did as he suggested and the result was the collection The Little Disturbances of Man, which was published in 1959 to justified critical acclaim.

Paley was praised for the very qualities which had disconcerted the magazine editors – for her oblique approach to narrative; for her refusal to be lumbered with the conventions of plot; for her frankness concerning sexual matters, but above all for her brilliant and inventive dialogue. The stories seemed, on the surface, to be slices of life in the anecdotal mode. Closer examination showed them to be what they remain – exquisitely crafted vignettes, of the kind Isaac Babel, one of her heroes, pioneered 30 years earlier.

Grace Paley's parents, Isaac and Manya Goodside, were of Ukrainian origin. He was imprisoned in Russia on many occasions for the revolutionary convictions he shared with his wife. He was set free for the last time when Tsar Nicholas was granted a son and heir. Isaac and Manya escaped from Russia in 1905, and settled eventually in the Lower East Side of New York City alongside hundreds of other impoverished Jewish refugees from Eastern and Central Europe. With the help of Manya, who worked as a photograph retoucher, and his sisters, he was able to pursue a career in medicine.

When his third child, Grace, was born in 1922, he and his family had moved to the Bronx, which was a middle-class district in those days. He wasn't rich, but his practice was successful and the atmosphere in his home, Grace would recall, happy and lively. Her paternal grandmother, who had lost another son in his teens, lived with them, as did an aunt. Her brother was 16, her sister 14, so they were already adults when she reached adolescence. The Goodsides communicated with each other in three languages – Russian, Yiddish and English, which the grandmother never learned to speak.

Grace grew up in a household where politics was a constant topic of conversation and debate, for Isaac and Manya hadn't cast aside the beliefs they had held as students. Grace inherited their utopian idea that the world could be made a better place. This was the idea that sustained Paley through several decades as one of America's most prominent activists. She coined the term "combative pacifism" to account for the missions she made to Hanoi in 1969, to Chile when Salvador Allende's rule was soon to be toppled, and to Nicaragua in 1985. She was also involved in local politics, fighting the everyday injustices the poor and outcast are fated to suffer in major cities.

After abandoning her studies at New York University she married, in 1942, Jess Paley, a film cameraman, and went with him to North Carolina when he was drafted into the army. She lived in an army camp, with other soldiers' wives for two years, and the future combative pacifist befriended many of them. Her fascination with the domestic turbulence endured by so-called ordinary women probably has its roots in this experience.

The couple returned to New York in 1944, and Grace took on a number of secretarial jobs before becoming a teacher. In the camp she had been a doctor's receptionist, a babysitter and a sales assistant in a five-and-dime store. She was writing poetry whenever she could find the spare time.

She gave birth to her daughter Nora in 1949 and her son Daniel in 1951, and then she and Jess drifted apart. They were formally divorced in 1971, and the following year, she married the writer and landscape architect Robert Nicols. By now she was teaching writing courses at Columbia University, Syracuse, City College of New York and Sarah Lawrence College.

Her second and finest collection – Enormous Changes at the Last Minute – appeared in 1974, after a silence of 15 years. In this extraordinary book Grace Paley is transmogrified into Faith Darwin, a divorcée who is trying, and failing, to come to terms with her inadequacies as wife, mother, writer and political protester. The world has decidedly not become a better place, but she will not give up fighting the good fight with all her limited might. Faith takes a sardonic view of her impotence in the face of familial slights as well as the grander issues of American imperialism she regularly protests against. She is both heroine and holy fool, a Dostoyevskyan idiot in absolute possession of her faculties.

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute contains two masterpieces of storytelling. I have been teaching the opening story "Wants" to the undergraduates at Kingston University for the past three years, in order to show them that much can be said about a life in a mere two pages when the writer is possessed of something close to genius. Faith is sitting on the steps of the library when her ex-husband appears:

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.

And then Paley discloses why the marriage failed. The ex-husband accuses Faith of never wanting things enough. He tells her she will always want nothing:

He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber's snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment.

In "A Conversation with My Father", Faith's father, who is 86 and suffering from a heart condition, chides her for not writing stories the way Maupassant and Chekhov wrote them. He wants a story that develops and comes to a satisfactory end.

I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: "There was a woman..." followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

I underlined that last sentence when I reviewed the book 33 years ago, and I still find it wonderful. It beautifully encapsulates why Grace Paley is such an uncommon writer.

A third and final collection, Later the Same Day, which is dedicated to her children, came out in 1985. Then, in 1994, the three books were published in one volume. The Collected Stories of Grace Paley runs to 386 pages. Can she be deemed a great writer on such a slim output? Of course she can. Many major poets have produced less. She is great because her stories retain their freshness, their rich and recognisable comic insights, over continued re-readings. They seem to be completely natural and spontaneous, catching life the moment it happens, but the naturalness and spontaneity are the work of a fiercely dedicated artist, whose every word has to be in the right place.

Paul Bailey