Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tell Me a Riddle, by Tillie Olsen

tell me a riddle tillie olsen i stand here ironingThere are four stories in this very brief book: "I Stand Here Ironing," "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" "O Yes," and "Tell Me a Riddle." It is entirely my fault and not Olsen's, but all through the first three stories, I kept wishing I were reading Grace Paley once again; I missed her wit and warmth. Olsen is not terribly funny, and her warmth is less glow and more burn; there is an intensity to her stories which wrenches, building without cresting; Paley is all dynamics—building, cresting, falling, spinning, redirecting, doubling back, and most of all accelerating.

I should double back myself, however, to speak to the similarities of these two writers. Both have a completely unalienated relationship to what is simply called handiwork: sewing, ironing, cooking, even dressing. Their writing, as well as the scattered depictions of reading in their work, is not part of a different existential order or rank; it is mixed in, sometimes as an escape from, but never as a triumph over the quotidian. Activities of the mind live with and in activities of the hands.

Still, as I said, I can't read the first three stories without considerably missing Paley's charm; they are so much a part of Paley's world and its population that I can't help feeling any absence of the Paley humor to be a profound lack. The fourth story, while it does not move out of or beyond this world, nevertheless achieves everything on its own terms. Its greater length may go some way to accounting for this, or its position as the last story: perhaps I was by then relaxed into Olsen's slower rhythms of narration and dialogue. And this is clearly Olsen's intention: while I'm sure all writers of a short story collection pay attention the published order of their stories, there is a greater deliberateness to the patterning of certain ideas and even people that exceeds even the scope of the linked or related story collection. The comparison between parts of a literary work and the movements of a musical work is overdone, but there is something to be said for how Olsen creates ripples of thought which hang in the air until they are answered in the last story by a new, stronger ripple.

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I am constantly amazed at how well John Leonard could praise a book, and the introduction he wrote to the 1994 re-printing of this book is a classic case of this ability. It's obscene for me not to quote Olsen's really fantastic prose and to quote instead Leonard's introduction, but I simply loved this passage, and find in it a sort of beatific rationale for reading:
we enter books as if into a conspiracy: for company, of course, and narrative, and romance; for advice on how to be decent and brave; for a slice of the strange, the shock of the Other, the witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored, or despised; and also for radiance and transcendence, that radioactive glow of genius in the dark.

1 comment:

mel u said...

I just read this story yesterday and also listened to the beautiful reading of it on Miette's Podcast web page-that is where I found your post-I have not read Paley-I found "I Stand Ironing" a really wonderful deeply sad and wise story-I loved the last few lines, "My wisdom came to late"-if Paley is better than Olsen I must read her soon.,