After the jump, I’ve posted a column I wrote two years ago for the Jerusalem Post about Paley’s 1959 book The Little Disturbance of Man, one of my favorite collections of short stories.
Political fiction or propaganda?
By Daniel Septimus
From the Jerusalem Post (Sep 16, 2005)
The 9/11 novel is here to stay. A few months ago, literary stars Jonathan Safran Foer and Ian McEwan published their somber, fictional renderings of our Al-Qaeda haunted world. Now we’re seeing the first comedic responses to Osama, including Chris Cleave’s debut novel, Incendiary (Knopf).
Tackling such a touchy subject is challenging. Disrespect is a danger, and more subtly, a politically charged work of fiction can be too political, turning a novel into propaganda. Author’s wishing to avoid this problem might take a lesson from the great Jewish-American story writer Grace Paley.
Paley’s name is well-known in literary circles, but she is also known for her social and political activism. Yet it’s amazing and, ultimately fortunate, that she doesn’t use her fiction as a vehicle for her politics. Her classic 1959 debut The Little Disturbances of Man (Penguin) is about just that — the small-scale struggles of life, not the political battles, like the anti-war movement, and the social battles, like feminism, that Paley herself fought.
The first story in Disturbances, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” for example, consists entirely of an elderly narrator, Rose, telling her niece about her relationship with a former lover, Volodya Vlashkin. Vlashkin was the star actor at the Russian Art Theatre where Rose sold tickets, but like their affair, Vlashkin’s career eventually tanked.
“[T]he management — very narrow-minded — wouldn’t give him any more certain young men’s parts. Fools. What youngest man knew enough about life to be as young as him?”
It would be difficult to find a passage as paradigmatic of Paley’s writing. The speaker, an animated wise-woman, regales her younger family member with a story that is at once advisory and informational. Rose never married, never had children, so to some extent she speaks from a position of loneliness, by the rules of 1950s culture, from a position of failure. But she is not a bitter woman. She is pragmatic, and ironically, principled. She breaks off the affair with Vlashkin the night she meets his wife. In her reminiscences, she does not demonize Vlashkin. She’s too proud and stable to denigrate a man she loved.