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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ways in which Grace Paley was ahead of her time - and not

Amused to read Grace Paley's first story collection - published sometime in the 60s, stories published for the most part in the 50s - The Little Disturbances of Man, and in particular to see some of the blurbs (affixed to me 1980 pb), all of them noting that she's frank and "un-ladylike" in her portrayal of female sexuality. No doubt about it - the heroines of her stories had largely been segregated from literature up to her point in time. It was fine for men to have powerful sexual drives, to flirt, to cheat, to break up marriages and homes - at least in was fine in the macho lit of the time, Miller and Mailer and even Hemingway and a thousand followers - but women were the objects of desire, not the perpetrators. Until Paley; in each of the stories at least from the first half of the collection the women pursue the men and get the men into deep troubles: a devout Christian trying to help a woman abandoned by her husband falls for her and risks or loses all; a famous Yiddish-theater actor takes on a woman as his mistress, sets her up in an apartment etc., and to hell w/ his wife - and she thinks this is a great deal, and eventually wins him in marriage; a woman has sex her ex who turns up unexpectedly and later reveals to him that she's happily married and her husband's away on a business trip - and so forth. In other hands, these stories could be bitter and tendentious, but Paley makes each of them hilarious and conversational - even the most disturbing one, about a 13-year-old girl coming on to a soldier on leave (he tries to get the OK to marry her, but fails the health test, a victim of VD) - are funny and sharp. GP had a great ear for street dialog and a good sense of how working-class (mostly) Jewish families lived, talked, and struggled. The stories stand up really well today and can take a place beside Roth and Bellow (and maybe Singer) among American Jewish humor. One element that's missing, however, is the political energy and perspective that by all accounts was central to Paley's life but that I think she didn't embrace in her fiction until the more active decades of the 60s and later - the years of struggle for civil rights for women's rights and against the Vietnam War.

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