Listen My Dear Alones: Notes on Gina Berriault’s ‘Women in Their Beds’

This is an excerpt of an introduction that will appear in a forthcoming re-issue of Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault from Counterpoint.
 © 2017 by Peter Orner 
 I feel a little like Burley, the hack in Gina Berriault’s own “God and the Article Writer.” Things aren’t going well for Burley. His son has threatened to kill him. His wife left him and took all the furniture. Even so a writer’s got to make a living. Burley goes out an assignment up in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. After interviewing the eccentric physicist, a winner of the Nobel Prize, a man who has just told him absolutely nothing about physics, and everything about his sudden belief in the existence of God—Burley drives back to San Francisco, despondent, knowing that at least in terms of his article, he’s got zilch. At the first stop sign he tore off his coat and loosened his tie, but an entanglement other than his clothes was upon him. I’m similarly entangled. My affection for Women in Their Beds being unabashed and unprofessional, the self-inflicted pressure to say something cogent about it has begun to ruin my days. I wake up in the morning and reach for this book and re-read another story and I think: What else is there to say? She makes my pulse quicken. Any attempt to say anything more is bound to sound ham-handed—or worse. This is a writer who never lards a sentence with an unnecessary word. The only proper response to Women in Their Beds is hushed awe. It is often said of Gina Berriault that she is chronically under-read. With the zeal of a crazed convert, I’ve been hollering about this myself for years, since the day I bought a copy of the old North Point edition of The Infinite Passion of Expectation in a used bookstore in Iowa City in the late 1990s. (I was late to her.) The red cover has long since faded to the lightest pink. Glib John Updike is feted to the grave while people ask Gina who? It’s criminal. It’s the East Coast hegemony in action. If she wrote about Park Slope, you think she wouldn’t have been rediscovered 18 times over already? But here’s the thing. This crowing about her lack of readership is just noise. Berriault has always had enough readers, a small, motley band of loyalists who couldn’t imagine their lives without her stories. But the tyranny of numbers dies hard. As Berriault herself said in a eulogy upon the death of Richard Yates, a writer she referred to as her guardian angel, writers often can’t help doing the math. It’s that making a living thing again. Publishers have to keep the lights on, too. Yates (who died destitute) must have sometimes succumbed, Berriault says, to “the delusion that it’s the counting that counts, all that noisy counting that seems to sum up the value of a writer.” In the end though Yates came to what she calls “a wise comprehension of the madness of crowds.” Berriault, too must have known that good work, the best work, may not always pay the bills, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, it outlasts the counting. I believe that no matter how many readers this book ultimately finds, these stories will always retain a fierce outsider quality. They speak from the fringes. They reject, wholeheartedly, the madness of crowds. I’ve always considered them almost private conversations meant only for certain open hearts. I don’t mean to sound elitist here. On the contrary. You’ll find no less elitist writer than Gina Berriault. These stories are for the lonely, the ignored, the isolated, the broken-hearted, the over-worked, as well as anybody else who hasn’t figured it all out yet and probably might never will. These are also stories for the Burleys of the world who remain, in spite of every obstacle, every degradation, every humiliation, resilient, who look at their own bare toes and say like Beckett, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Except with Beckett, it seems to me, it’s comes down to a stubborn human inertia. With Berriault, it’s more affirmative, as if she can’t help but give witness to ordinary splendor poking out the crevices of a broken world. This book, originally published in 1996, in is one of the seminal collections of North American short fiction of the latter half of the 20th century. Place these 35 stories of imperceptibly delicate force on the shelf with the big red book of stories by Cheever. Put it up there with your Welty. Your O’Connor. Your Baldwin. Your Jane Bowles. Your Paley, Malamud, Gallant, Carver. Your Dubus. Your Munro. And when you’re not reading it, nestle Women in Their Beds right there next to the stories of her angel, Richard Yates. Both writers, born in a month apart in the same year, depict the devastating anxieties of their generation, financially and otherwise. But there’s something inherent in Berriualt’s work that rejects such trumpeting and comparing. Berriault, raised in southern California by Jewish immigrant parents from the Baltics, inhabits people from all backgrounds, any social or economic status, ethnicity, or race. She does it so seamlessly that the last thing a reader notices is that the writer has captured the essence of someone who might be unlike herself. We are too busy being concerned for the person on the page. She is primarily concerned with people—often women but by no means exclusively—on their own, struggling not only with the problem of making a living, but also the problem of making a better life. In Berriault’s work the two are never the same. The paycheck, critical as it is, is not the better life. That shiny promise ahead is out there, just beyond the grasp. Her people can almost see it on the horizon, they can even feel it’s heat, but they can’t quite reach it. I think of the waitress and the elderly phycologist in “The Infinite Passion of Expectation.” Since she always looked downward in her own surroundings, avoiding the scene that might be all there was to her future, she could not look upward in his surroundings, resisting its dazzling diminishment of her. But out on these walks with him she tried looking up. It was what she had come to him for—that he might reveal to her how to look up and around. What he reveals to her, unfortunately, is that no matter how many text books he’s written, he’s a foolish cad, willing to use his eminence, his erudition, at the first opportune moment to manipulate her into bed with him. In lesser hands that would be the whole story. But Berriault finds a way to redeem those who deserve it least. This isn’t because she’s soft, and make no mistake these “quiet” stories are often brutal. God knows how many times I’ve read “The Infinite Passion of Expectation,” and every time I reach the end I’m floored, once again, by how the unnamed waitress crushes the psychologist with generosity. She gives him back the nobility he so flippantly squandered while simultaneously delivering the blow of ultimate judgment. After meeting him for the first time in over a year she sees that he’s withdrawn back into “his life’s expectations.” They were way inside, and they required, now, no other person for their fulfillment. Re-reading these stories the past few months, I was reminded of something Harold Washington, the first black mayor of the city of Chicago, my home town, once said. Washington, who was elected in 1983 after one of the most contentious, racist, and despicable elections (I was naïve enough to think it was a low point we Americans would never return to) in our city’s history, declared: “No one, but no one in this city, no matter where they live, or how they live, is free from the fairness of our administration. We'll find you and be fair to you wherever you are.” It’s a gracious, funny line. But Washington wasn’t entirely kidding. It’s why his election was so alarming to the white power structure of the city. Make good on the promise to be fair to everybody? What would this even look like? In fiction, given that Berriault’s unshakeable faith in dignity and social justice is infused on nearly every page of her work, it might well look like Women in Their Beds. Washington’s line is also something of a threat. We’ll find you…I can’t help but see Berriault in this light as well. Again, genial as she often appears to be, no character is safe from her probing, intense, fair gaze, and this includes those who likely would never have wanted to be found in the first place. I think of Eli in “The Overcoat,” Berriault’s homage to Gogol, as he makes his way back to Seattle to seek out his parents. Old when they had him, they’re even older now. And they’ve long since gone their separate ways. He’s waited 16 years to return home. It’s almost too late. Eli’s a junkie, needle scars on his arms, and so thin he’s wasting away beneath his big coat. After spending the night on a bunk in his father’s fishing boat, he finds his demented mother in a nursing home. When he comes upon her she’s combing her hair with a scrap of comb she’s just taken out of her pocket. “Mother, I’m Eli,” he said. “Eli, your only child.” “You’re right about that,” she said. “Had one and that was it. Well, no. Had another but lost it in the womb. Fell down or was pushed. Things come and go. I figure they go more often than they come. Not much came my way but I lost more than I had. If you see what I mean.” “Mother, I wish I’d stayed around,” he said. “I wouldn’t let him hurt you anymore.” “Who hurt me?” “Dad did.” “Oh, him? Once in a blue moon I get a postcard. One time he visited but I was ashamed of him. He walks like an old dog with something wrong in his hind end.” I’ve read a critical appraisal of Berriault that describes her work as belonging squarely to the “American realist movement.” I’ll try and be polite. This is a curious academic simplification. As if this tribe of “realists” all employ a formulaic, replicable pattern. As if the psychological complexity of being human is merely transcribable.  As if observing and taking into account the myriad strange ways we people relate to each other isn’t itself a supreme creative act involving an infinite number of creative choices. You’d have thought Chekhov, Berriault’s constant companion (she kept a picture of him on her bookshelf), would have freed us of this stuff long ago. If Berriault’s stories are rooted firmly on the ground this doesn’t mean they don’t distill, as few I know of, the bizarre, routinely inexplicable nature of every day existence. Take “The Stone Boy,” arguably Berriault’s most well-known story, one that was made into a pretty good movie starring Glenn Close and Robert Duvall. But the film, predictably, fails to capture the obscure mysteries of the story. On a farm in an unspecified time and place, a boy, Arnold, accidentally shoots his brother while the two of them are stepping through a gap in a fence. Arnold, seeing his brother has died, continues on his way to pick peas. It’s only later after his parents ask: Where’s your brother? that the truth comes out. When the local sheriff asks why he didn’t run to his parents right away, Arnold answers: “It’s better to pick peas when it’s cold.” The sheriff responds to his father and his uncle: “Well, all I can say he’s either a moron or he’s so reasonable that he’s way ahead of us.” As a meditation on the bewilderment of grief, the story is bottomless. Arnold will always be standing outside his mother’s bedroom, forever unable to explain himself. For me, no story, not even the magnificent story that bears the title, embodies the impossible contradictions of this phrase more than “Stolen Pleasures,” one of the set of new stories in Women in Their Beds. The book divides, as I understand it, between the first 10 “new” stories and the later 25 “selected” stories, all of which had previously appeared in book form in both The Mistress and Other Stories (1964) and The Infinite Passion of Expectation (1982). I bring this up because it may help a reader gain some insight into how Berriault’s story writing style evolved from the time of her early stories dating back to the early 1960s such as “The Bystander,” (The Paris Review, 1960) and “The Mistress,” (Esquire, 1964) through the 1970s and early 1980s compared to the 14-year period between the publication of The Infinite Passion of Expectation and Women in Their Beds.[1] I contend that in the set of 10 post-1982 stories, and in particular, “Stolen Pleasures,” the risks she’d always been willing to take, with compression, with time, with transitions, become even more audacious. Re-reading “Stolen Pleasures” this morning I was struck by how the story simply shouldn’t work. A novel maybe, but a story? Its scope appears, at first, too vast. There’s the story of the two sisters, Delia and Fleur, as well as the story of their mother’s rare "stolen moments" of pleasure. There’s also the story of their father’s ignominious birth. The prose, when compared to earlier stories, feels indirect, meandering. Things don’t connect. The transitions read like private murmurs only the writer herself could understand. But thank god it isn’t a novel. Not that Berriault didn’t write very good novels, she did (notably, my favorite, The Lights of the Earth) but it is in the short story she roams places no one else roams. And now we are moving far beyond demographics, as well as any technical craft choices, and into the darkest realms of the heart. In “Stolen Pleasures,” a story that roams in possibly the most difficult territory of all, the space close to home, there are autobiographical glimpses that speak to deep personal anguish. The story seems both an indictment and a defense. By taking responsibility for so much weight of the past, so many different threads of her family’s story, Delia tries to make amends to those she’s loved and lost. Years earlier, Delia left home leaving her sister Fleur to care for their blind mother. As a consequence, Fleur’s own expectations were thwarted. After their mother’s death, Fleur comes to live with Delia and ultimately confronts her: “When you stayed out all night, Mama said terrible things were going to happen to you. She never slept. Nights were like nightmares for me. I told you but you didn’t care. Then you left me alone with her forever when you came here.” Then Fleur turned away. She had so much to say it could only be said a little at a time. The paragraph that follows is of nearly unendurable honesty. I won’t quote it. The two sisters are lying in twin beds in Delia’s room. Suffice it to say that Delia tells her sleeping sister things she could never say to her face. Things can she hardly tell herself. No, she didn’t lead the life they thought she was leading. And no, her life didn’t turn out how she thought it would. The fact is she’s always felt exiled from the music of other people’s lives. Still, her life was her own and no one else’s. Fleur will never hear her, but we do. Delia, in the darkness, listens to her sister breathing. This is Berriault. The mercy is hard-won and incomplete, but never, ever, false. [1] A scholar/writer/reader might delve into a further study of the comparison between the new and selected stories, as well as the fascinating, subtle revisions Berriault made in “The Mistress” and “The Bystander,” both of which were slightly revised at least three times after their initial magazine publications. Thank you to Megan Staffel for pointing the existence of the revisions out to me. Jane Vandenburgh also discusses Berriault’s tendency to keep revising in her graceful foreword to Berriault’s Stolen Pleasures, a volume of selected stories (2011).

Under All This Noise: On Reclusion, Writing, and Social Media

I recently made the mistake of confessing a fantasy to a friend. I told him I dreamed of being a reclusive writer. Tame, I know, given the whole point of a fantasy is to go whole hog. Yet isn’t there something incredibly seductive about those mysterious figures who hide away? We imagine them toiling away in a remote mountain cabin or a Manhattan apartment and only rarely, and with much fanfare, releasing dispatches through an intricate web of agents and lawyers, dispatches that allow an anxiously waiting reading public to make sense of the chaos that has become our world. A guru who bursts forth every thirteen or seventeen years like a cicada. Hermit, Thoreau wrote. I wonder what the world is doing now. My friend cut to the chase. “You’re not famous enough to be reclusive,” he said. “Actually, you’re not famous at all. Maybe you’ll get some traction after you’re dead?” Apart from the obvious -- i.e., there’s always death and the possibility of posthumous resurrection -- my wise friend might also be right that a person might need a certain amount of celebrity in order to be known for having disappeared. And to my discredit, deep down, I admit this is pretty attractive. I want to retreat from the world and think and write in solitude. At the same time I wouldn’t mind a few readers knowing I’m out here being all mysterious. Orner? Wait, didn’t he kick for the Vikings? No, no I’m talking about the writer, you know the dude that vanished… A genuine recluse, of course, wouldn’t give a damn. Lately, I've wondered if this odd fantasy is rooted in my uneasy relationship with how connected we all are with each other these days. Not long ago I was at a Literary Festival (so much for being reclusive) and I attended a panel discussion about the future of the book as the book. The prognosis, I learned, is inconclusive. Might have a few actual physical books in the future, might not. Only one thing didn’t seem in doubt at all, and that is the future of the writer of these inconclusive books. This future, we were told, is directly tied to having a personal online presence. A writer, one panelist declared, who doesn’t personally reach out to readers via social media is DOA. This was alarming for several reasons. One is that I’ve tried it. I’m never quite sure what to say. I’ve shared things my friends are doing. “Teddy Finkel just got back from the trip of a lifetime in Banff!” I’ve also posted a few things I’m up to as well. But each time I’ve done so, there's this dread. The impulse -- now an industry -- to spread good news about oneself far and wide has become soul-crushing. It makes me want to retreat into the garage (where the Wifi can’t find me) with my outmoded books and unfinished manuscripts. Maybe I’m just not that good at being myself. I’ve come to see social media as a skill like anything else. Some are talented at it; others, less so.  I’m a mediocre interior decorator also. Nor can I cook, change the oil, or dance. And yet if I don’t I’m DOA? There is, though, a larger issue at stake. For me, the whole point of fiction has always been to forget about me. To paraphrase Eudora Welty, the most elemental aspect of the art of fiction is the challenge of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. I spend much of my life trying to live up to Welty’s gauntlet. There is something about the increased demand that fiction writers speak as themselves that feels like a violation of what I used to hold so sacred, the tenet that it is not about me but about the characters I create. I’ve always considered inventing people and introducing them into an already crowded, indifferent world to be an act of faith. The only faith I’ve got. It’s my way of saying that I love this planet and its people in spite of everything we do every day to kill it -- and each other. Obviously, social media itself isn’t the trouble. The crux, as I see it, is that lately the substance of what we create is often considered almost incidental to the way that we writers, personally, market our product. We now must sell our books like we sell ourselves. During the panel discussion on the future of the book, for instance, what goes inside the books in question received passing, almost grudging mention. It isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this trend. Just yesterday I read a piece about pricing in self-published e-books. Apparently $3.99 is the sweet spot? Sweet spot? Am I a dinosaur to wonder what this $3.99-dollar book is actually about? And yet, paradoxically, I find that this almost fanatical focus on sales over content might provide the alternate route of escape. No need to flee to the cabin in the Bitteroot just yet, as appealing as this sounds. Maybe I can live out my reclusive dream by hiding in plain sight, by choosing not to engage personally on-line, to declare myself, on my own terms, DOA. Don’t do it, the experts cry. Besides being a recluse has been out since Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah. Forget it, you want to be read, you got to sell baby sell. But do we? Really? When for so many of us out here have a hard enough time inventing lives that aren’t our own? It may say too much about me that I take my life not only from Eudora Welty, but also from the beautifully goofy movie Say Anything. I’m a child of the 80s, what can I say? You remember Lloyd Dobler? I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed... I take solace in the example of writers who, in spite of all trends, have gone another direction. On my desk, right now, I have a book of poetry by a man named Herbert Morris. Aside from his six books, the fact that he attended Brooklyn College, and the date of his birth (1928) and death (2001), almost nothing, as far as I can tell, is publicly known about him. The man clearly wanted it this way. On the jacket of What Was Lost, his last book, published in 2000, there is no author photo, no biographical information, and no acknowledgements. Richard Howard deepens the mystery with a quote: “Always the dark stranger at Poetry’s feast of lights, Herbert Morris has returned to haunt the banquet with these fifteen notional ekphrases, surely the most generous creations American culture has produced since Morris’s own Little Voices of the Pears.” It took me three dictionaries to track down the word ekphrases. A gorgeous word, it means a concentrated description of an object, often artwork. Apt as it applies to Morris whose poems are all about paying attention – truly seeing. I may have found my recluse, minus any fame, in this dark stranger. I only have his poems, not his personality, but they are exactly what I need. For me it takes great concentration to read What Was Lost, and thus, I slow way, way down as I follow the tangled, meandering thoughts of his intensely lonely characters. Morris may be a poet, but he is also, to my mind, among the most hypnotic fiction writers in contemporary literature. I fall into a Morris poem the way I do into a Sebald novel. It is a whole immersion into the intensity of a moment. Morris writes of other people, sometimes well-known people, such as Henry James or James Joyce, in moments of profound isolation. One utterly breathtaking poem “History, Weather, Loss, the Children, Georgia” is about a photograph taken of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as they sit in a car before a group of schoolchildren. The photo was snapped just before the children began to serenade the president. The poem begins slowly, exquisitely, as Morris constructs the scene through the smallest of details about the children. They’ve been rehearsing all week for this occasion. Their mouths are poised, frozen forever in little O’s. Even the threads of their clothes receive attention. As does the hand printed banner, Welcome Mister President. Only toward the very last lines does the poem zero in on Franklin and Eleanor themselves. These two icons may be long dead, as is this haunted moment in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1938. And yet, and this is where the poem aches, Franklin and Eleanor are not historical props but rather two vulnerable human beings sitting together -- apart -- in the back of an open car. The poem delicately, yet vehemently, chastises Franklin for “his wholly crucial failure” to do something pretty simple and that’s touch his wife. or once, once, whisper to her intimacies any man might well whisper on the brink of the heartbreak of the Thirties (the voiceless poised to sing, air strangled, sultry, the music teacher’s cue not yet quite given… I imagine Morris, whoever he was, staring at this photograph so long and with such absorption that Frankin and Eleanor began to sweat in the humid air. And still Franklin’s fingers don’t reach for her. The poem mourns the loss of so many things, including this touch that never happened. Ultimately this is not only what I crave as a writer, but as a reader of fiction. I want living, breathing, flawed characters on the page. Now more than ever I want to know about private failures not publically shared triumphs. Herbert Morris gives us the miracle of other people in their intimate, unguarded moments. He may not have trumpeted himself when he was alive. He kept himself apart, and the details of his own life out of the equation. Perhaps as a consequence he may not have sold many books, but even so he found his way to my desk. I dug him out of the free bin outside Dog Ear Books in San Francisco. How can I express my gratitude to a man who never sought it, who only wanted me to know his creations, not their creator? And think about it, how many others might be out there, somewhere, under all this noise, telling us things we need to hear? Photo courtesy of the author.