Grace Paley, A Conversation with my Father

Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity

I had quite a slow start with the selected short-story this time, A Conversation with my Father. I’ve never read anything by Grace Paley before, so I took the collection “Enormous change at the last minute” from the library. Unfortunately it wasn’t the original English version but the translated one. I just couldn’t get myself into this book. There was something wrong with the voice, and I guess it had to do with the translation. As far as I could pick up, Paley’s strength lies in giving life to New York Jewish community, especially the voice of the older, Yiddish-speaking, immigrant generation. But on the page, in French, it didn’t work well, the characters came out quite brutal and not mellow enough.

In “A Conversation”, I can also pick up some of the Yiddish aspects of the father figure, something in the humor and in the way the father always criticizes the stories his daughter writes. You can tell they love each other but at the very moment of a fatal illness, all they do is bickering. On a larger scale, it’s also about generation conflicts and miscomprehension between an old man who has Chekhov, Maupassant and 19C European writers in mind when he approaches literature, while his American daughter tells the story of a drug addict in the 1960s or 70s. (It resonates to me with Roth’s American Pastoral which I’m reading right now, but in that novel the generation conflict is opposite: the father born in the 1940s is a conservative, optimist, all-American guy while the daughter in the 1960s and 70s is angry and ungrateful…)

I’m not very good at meta-fiction I’m afraid. Of course, I guess the story has to do with different expectations people have with fiction. The first story the daughter writes is so short it falls flat. It’s written on the structure of the fairy tale “Once upon a time…”, except that this tale is cruel and ends dramatically. I understand why the father wasn’t satisfied with it. The daughter says that she wants to please him, but she’s not trying her best, and she has difficulty going against her own taste of optimistic, open stories. She wants fiction to imitate life in its absurd, unpredictable and humorous sides.

I was sort of troubled by the sentence: “I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: “There was a woman…” followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Does that mean that she rejects all the classics? I was thinking of Stephan Zweig’s 24 hours in the life of a woman or Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, who would both fall into the category of tragic and seemingly unavoidable fate for women. Does Paley mean that these stories aren’t adapted to our time anymore? I’m not sure any writer still writes stories like Zweig’s or Wharton’s, but I don’t think they have no value anymore. These 19C tragedies resonate with our most antic myths who always have used tragedy as a mean to convey messages, emotions and values. It may be a bold statement, but I kind of side with the father, and I think we still need to read tragic stories.

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2 thoughts on “Grace Paley, A Conversation with my Father

  1. You seem to have missed the great humor and tenderness in this story. They aren’t bickering; this is the way they talk to each other. The father caught up so quickly in the woman’s story, caring so much, is both funny and deeply touching. The narrator (daughter?) so wanting her father to see the hope, denying the end because she doesn’t want the end for herself or her father. The funny way the fiction becomes real, the making of the story, the meta-fiction—and how it blends into the other story. The echoes of the older story-tellers, the Checkovs, and the question of how they approached tragedy and fiction, how they faced tragedy.

    I think the story is a masterpiece.

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