Francine Prose on Grace Paley

Grace Paley was a great writer and a magnificent human being. That combination is so rare that—I don’t know why—sometimes people mention the great human part as a kind of wink-wink gloss on the great writer part, as if to suggest: maybe not all that great a writer but a decent soul, nonetheless. Grace Paley was that rarest creature: brilliant on the page, kind and smart in person, and a stellar example of how a human being should behave in relation to other human beings. After the very first time I read her work (actually, I heard her work, but more about that in a moment), I wanted to write like her. Later I wanted to be her. I was in awe of her. I read everything by her that I could find. She was tiny, charismatic, immensely warm. If you met her, even once, even briefly, you would never forget it. You would never fail to recognize her when you saw her again.

For a year during the 1980s, I taught, as did Grace, at Sarah Lawrence College, and the thing I liked best about the job was walking across the campus with Grace, watching her greet, in her proudly unmodified and unreconstructed Bronx accent (“Honey! Dawling! How ah yah?”), her students. In some cases these were the very same students I was finding difficult in my classes. Her warmth, her presence, and her enthusiasm (and the sound of her actual voice, so like her literary voice) altered how I saw the school—and beyond that, the world. She wasn’t false about anything; she was the last person who would have spread false cheer or, as they say, put on a false face, but every time I went for a walk with her I felt more cheerful, and more hopeful about the future.

I can remember precisely the first time I heard one of her stories. I say heard because, before I read her work on the page, a teacher of mine read one of her stories—“An Interest in Life”—aloud to our class. (Since then, having read and admired her work, and having been lucky enough to have heard Grace read her own work, I still think that the best way to be introduced to Grace Paley’s fiction is to hear it read aloud, preferably by Grace Paley.)

This was in the late 1960s, in a writing workshop at Harvard. Our teacher, Alan Lebowitz, read us the story, which begins with these lines: “My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. That wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was kindly meant.” The tone, the vocabulary, the cadences of the urban domestic female smartass shocked me. I had never heard a voice—urban, wisecracking , wise—like that before. It sounded like the voices of my aunts, my cousins, like all the intelligent, sharp, vivid, Jewish women I had known growing up in Brooklyn. It sounded like Faith Darwin, a character who appears in a number of Grace Paley’s stories: a woman with not enough money, a couple of kids, a husband, an ex-husband—and a group of friends who, over time, move closer to the center of the stories. As Faith says to a friend in “Living,” “We’ve had nothing but crummy days and crummy guys and no money and broke all the time and nothing to do on Sunday but take the kids to Central Park and row on that lousy lake.”

I had read Philip Roth, and maybe a little Saul Bellow, but they were male voices. Paley’s voice—sympathetic, funny, wry, loving—was new (or new to me, anyway). I’d had no idea that a writer could do that, that it was possible—permissible—to write like that. No one, so far as I knew, had written about sex like that. In Grace’s stories, sex is pleasure and fun, to be enjoyed but also respected for its power over our lives. About to become lovers, Faith and her neighbor John make each other laugh. It couldn’t be further from D. H. Lawrence or further, in a different direction, from Philip Roth.

And all the stories I went on to write for that class were pathetic imitations of Grace Paley.

I’m not sure that anyone familiar with my work would immediately identify Paley’s fiction as a formative influence. But it changed me forever, in all sorts of large and small ways. My family had told me about the Yiddish theater, for which my maternal grandmother (who died before I was born) had an abiding passion. But it wasn’t until I read Paley’s story “Goodbye and Good Luck”—narrated by a woman named Rose, whose life intersected with that of the Russian Art Theater of Second Avenue—that I decided that the Yiddish theater might be a promising subject for fiction, a promise I kept in my 1983 novel, Hungry Hearts.

I’ve been asked to write about the role of Judaism in Grace Paley’s work. Many of her characters are identifiably Jewish, among them the little girl who is chosen to perform in the school Christmas play because of her special gift, “The Loudest Voice.” Paley’s men and women have names like Teitelbaum, like Shmul, Eddie Braunstein, Marty Groff. Beyond that, all I can say is that her writing is suffused with the aspects of Jewish culture that are still the most meaningful to me.

One example: humor. Excellent books have been written about the nature and character of Jewish humor, but I’d paraphrase Chief Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. Grace’s story are often funny, but each funny line seems to compress a whole way of looking at the world into a few words: a transcendent punch line. Her humor is rueful, ironic, self-aware, frequently even self-mocking, without ever seeming self-regarding or self-involved. Female Jewish humor is in a class of its own: Sarah Silverman, Peggy Guggenheim, Joan Rivers, Elaine May. Grace Paley.

 And there is something about the way in which Grace Paley tells a story that (again for complex and slightly inchoate reasons) seems to me to fit squarely within the tradition of Jewish storytelling. Some of her best stories are about storytelling, its techniques, burdens, and pleasures. One of my favorites is “Conversations with My Father,” in which a writer tries to come up with a story that will satisfy the demands of her father, who is ill and who is a lover of literature.

I first discovered Grace Paley’s work around the same time I was introduced to the work of Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Leonard Michaels, with whom Grace Paley has much in common, aside from the fact that all were Jewish; they tell us the most outrageous things in a sly, laconic, but spirited tone, as if it were nothing at all. All four seem to have been perfectionists, the lucky result for us being that so many of their stories are jewels.

Not all Jews are socially conscious or have political views with which I agree, but Grace’s political activism—her lively presence at meetings and conferences, on picket lines, at demonstrations and writers events—was a source of inspiration. Grace Paley made me appreciative and grateful for whatever we had in common: we were both writers, women, Jewish, New Yorkers, mothers, teachers.

Let me return once more to the fact that the first of her stories I heard was called “An Interest in Life.” As a writer, as a person, Grace Paley had—as much as anyone I’ve read or known—an especially active and attractive interest in life, in the lives of the people she knew, of people she didn’t know, of the characters she created, of the men and women and children with whom she shared (and we continue to share) a city, a country, a planet, and whatever might lie beyond that.


*                                                                       *                                                                     *


Francine Prose is the author of twenty works of fiction. Her novel A Changed Man won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent works of nonfiction include the highly acclaimed Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. The recipient of numerous grants and honors, including a Guggenheim and a Fulbright, a Director's Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, Prose is a former president of PEN American Center, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book is Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. She lives in New York City.