Friday, 21 February 2020

Lucia Berlin, Lydia Davis, Grace Paley

I imagined that a book of essays by Lydia Davis would be just the thing in a stormy season. However, 500 bright white pages printed in a too-large font have me darting about, unable to settle. The tone is either explanatory or self-indulgent and clubby: I am a writer who knows many other writers and this is the kind of thing we talk about when we meet. She is an insider, she can shriek and moan. She is a teacher, she can offer up her experience. Somehow I'm not grateful.

However, her intro to the stories of Lucia Berlin sent me to A Manual For Cleaning Women and for that I am grateful. Lucia Berlin is all immediacy, on the bus to cleaning jobs as in the title story, getting older, getting drunk, pulling events into stories with the stop/start choppiness of a difficult life.

I was a cleaning woman, once a week for a year or two, of Spithurst House in Sussex. As I cleaned I looked at the books in the library, inspected the contents of the cupboard in the breakfast room with its rows of tins ready for world war three, dusted round the curare-tipped spears from South America (the house had been owned by a descendant of Hermann Melville). I was not a real cleaning woman; I was a literary tourist.

At the start of a story called 'Mourning' Lucia Berlin says 'I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that's one reason I don't mind working as a cleaning woman. It's just like reading a book.'

Lucia Berlin is a real everything: cleaning woman, drinker, mother, sister, daughter. Her life veered about among difficulty and disaster and the relentless ordinary of babies and lovers and launderettes. Her tone is abrupt, very verbal and comfortable.

Like Grace Paley's stories of the daily life of New York radicals she is beguiling because inclusive, inclusive because open: the reader is a friend, a neighbour, immediately an equal, someone she might have met on a bus.

My mother was good at talking to strangers on the bus, or in a queue. Even if you share nothing of the same experience, it's the willingness that counts, the way the bumpy human commonality shines through for exactly the time of the bus ride, the extent of the queue, and you move on in your day, extended.

Reading Lucia Berlin is a bit like that.

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