Staff Picks: Tell Me A Riddle

March 8, 2013 | 4 books mentioned 3 3 min read

coverA few years ago, at a publishing conclave in Manhattan, someone handed me a slim unlovely galley called The Riddle of Life and Death. It consisted of a pair of novellas: Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Tell Me A Riddle, by Tillie Olsen. I’m always in the market for Tolstoy — even Tolstoy I already own. But who, I wondered, was this Tillie Olsen? And aside from a certain anagrammatic plausibility, what had she done to deserve the unenviable role of Count Leo’s undercard, the “Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man” to his “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction?” Before I could be bothered to find out, a move to a new apartment landed the book in a giveaway box on the stoop.

coverWell, praise be to the gods of books on stoops, who apparently make allowances for callowness. Walking through my neighborhood one day last December, I stumbled across a hideous Delta Trade Paperback of Tell Me A Riddle. If the Gift-like circularity hadn’t caught my attention (give an Olsen, get an Olsen) the promise of an introduction from John Leonard would have:

See how it’s done: First what Cynthia Ozick once called “a certain corona of moral purpose.” And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or pascal. memory, history, poetry, and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back.

Jesus, does it ever. I actually postponed reading Leonard’s introduction until I’d finished the book, but by the second page of the first piece, “I Stand Here Ironing,” I, too, was feeling the love: palpable, unflinching, almost parental. By the twelfth and last page, I was in tears. “I Stand Here Ironing” is a story about a working mother, but to call it that — even to call it the best story ever written about a working mother — feels reductive. Work-life balance may now be the stuff of Atlantic cover stories and Lean In, but in 1961, exploring it in fiction was a downright radical act.

230863riddle1The middle two of these four stories more obviously connect to Olsen’s reputation as a feminist and Paleyesque working-class heroine. But the political virtues that helped to land them in anthologies and on syllabi in the ’60s and ’70s may also have contributed to Olsen’s relative obscurity among readers of my generation, for whom the canon wars are settled history. (The fact that she never published another collection of fiction after Tell Me A Riddle can’t have helped. Nor, come to think of it, can the spectacular disservice book-cover designers have done to it.) Oddly, then, the partial eclipse of her politics might be a good and a timely thing: it gives us room to see her art.

The novella that concludes Tell Me A Riddle tells the story of a long marriage, and is one of the great pieces of writing about death. As the wife grows sick, the couple haul themselves around the country, visiting their far-flung progeny. And in the nearness of its approach to their worries, it approaches poetry:

In the airplane, cunningly designed to encase from motion (no wind, no feel of flight), she had sat severely and still, her face turned to the sky through which they cleaved and left no scar.

So this was how it looked, the determining, the crucial sky, and this was how man moved through it, remote above the dwindled earth, the concealed human life. Vulnerable life, that could scar.

There was a steerage ship of memory that shook across a great, circular sea: clustered, ill human beings; and through the thick-stained air, tiny fretting waters in a window round like the airplane’s — sun round, moon round. (The round thatched roofs of Olshana.) Eye round — like the smaller window that framed distance the solitary year of exile when only her eyes could travel, and no voice spoke. And the polar winds hurled themselves across snows trackless and endless and white – like the clouds which had closed together below and hidden the earth.

“Tiny fretting waters…” “Clustered, ill human beings…” “Vulnerable life, that could scar…”  I’ve been carrying these lines around with me for months now, waiting for a chance to share them. Normally, the fact that someone beat me to the punch here at The Millions would be a source of regret, but I’m happy to find myself in Alice Mattison’s amen corner. Tell Me a Riddle really does deserve a place next to Ivan Ilyich, it turns out — not because Tillie Olsen’s a progressive and a humanist (though more power to her), but because she’s a master, and this story, this book, is her masterpiece.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. Garth, knowing how erudite you are, I’m shocked that you didn’t know who Tillie Olsen was (or maybe you are slightly kidding?). I’ve been teaching “Tell Me a Riddle” to college students for decades, going back to the late 1970s and as recently as two years ago. It’s indeed a wonderful story by itself, as are Olsen’s other stories, and it’s been — or perhaps was? — standard in the kind of college literature texts made for second-semester first-year courses which are basically composition in which students write about literature. Also, I’ve taught the Short Story a lot, and “Tell Me the Riddle” has been in every volume of Ann Charters’ anthology, short and long, for as long as I can remember.

    I heard Tillie Olsen read in the 1970s and I myself read her as an undergrad. I recommend her book “Silences,” which is both — again, the second and last time I read was probably the late 1980s — a study of why writers don’t write or stop writing and about her own life and the silences imposed on her by it.

    She influenced me a lot, and you made me want to go back to her work for maybe the twentieth time.

  2. Tillie is (was) (is always) my Mother. After a long hiatus the four stories in Tell Me a Riddle will again be in print this summer (University of Nebraska Press). . Along with those four will be her story Requa 1 – which has been out of print since it was in Best American Short Stories 1971. We have also included in this new book several of her journalistic pieces she wrote in the 1930’s.
    Thank you for this thoughtful review. It would have meant so much to her.

  3. I’ve been a fan of Tillie Olsen’s for a very long time. Thank you for this review of her work. I was an editor at U of Nebraska Press and fought to put back into print her short novel “Yonnondio,” which she famously started at the age of 19 but was unable to finish (because she was a working mother) until many, many years later. It’s raw and fierce, but also lyrical. You might enjoy it, if for no other reason because it hints at her own life story. Her lovely nonfiction book, “Silences,” influenced a generation of women writers. She later regretted saying in that book that women with children couldn’t write. She would have been very proud, I think, of all the writing mothers working today.

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