A 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.
Well, 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.
The 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.