Friday, August 24, 2007

Amazing Grace

American short story writer and poet Grace Paley died Wednesday. If you've never heard of her, you've never lived.

The first and last of a generation, Paley was a street-corner agitator, a poet of everyday speech, a fantasist of the porch stoop. She was one of the few remaining voices of the Bund, the Jewish Socialist unions who brought Yiddish humour (and food) to the tenements of New York.

In her stories, the Big Apple is its own country, half American but half Eastern European, and half purely itself. She did that kind of math, brilliantly. She was a mistress of the shrug, the pause, the glinting eye, the ear as keen as a journalist's pen, the absurd punchline that had you in tears.

Her stories were like Chagall paintings more than a little: a woman climbs a tree in Central Park to think; an American tourist decides she prefers China; a very overdue library book holds the secret of a failed marriage.

In my favourite story, a Jewish preschooler gets to play Mary in a nativity play - a matter of complex pride, shame and surprise to her parents, a microcosm of what is means to be a secular working-class Jew in America summed up in the neighbour's question after the play:

"Nu, so how's the Virgin?"

I can't think of any better tribute than that I'm going to hunt down my Collected Stories, signed by Paley at a reading in 1996, and re-read every story, treasuring them. Then I'm going to hoist my soapbox under my arm, go out and protest the war, and listen in on the lives and dreams of passers-by as I do.

1 comment:

Alison Croggon said...

Beautiful tribute, Sophie. Thanks.