Lucia Berlin: Posthumous Praise

A book group I belong to just finished reading and discussing the late Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, a book I heard of when one professor briefly discussed a passage of hers in my MFA program. Author Lydia Davis has helped bring Berlin to the public eye, as Berlin had sort of fallen out of favor or become obscure or perhaps never even been as renowned as she should have been. However, it seems that she is starting to have her day, over a decade after her death. Berlin (a seemingly attractive woman who bore a resemblance to Liz Taylor) struggled with alcohol throughout her life, finally getting sober toward the later part of it and teaching at different universities.

What strikes me about Berlin’s stories is that they are so vivid. Part of this comes from her extremely descriptive language, adjectives, carefully chosen details, as well as fascinating settings like Mexico, and also her (usual) first-person or close third narration. There is a sense of intimacy in her work, that you really feel the immediacy of what she’s feeling, are close to the other characters as well as the narrator. With a minimum of words (her stories are generally fairly short), she builds a world and gives you the portrait of a character. However, it would be fair to criticize her work as being more of character sketches rather than conventional stories with a strong narrative arc. One does not read Lucia Berlin for craft, necessarily, if one is studying to be a writer, or rather, not for plot and story structure the way one might study Carver (to whom she is compared). But so unlike Carver, her brevity does not feel like gravity; rather, it feels rich, evocative, where each word holds an explosion of meaning and feeling. Her stories are also accessible. Part of this may be due to the fact that in her collection, she features many working-class characters. Also, though she uses a lot of description and evocative language, her sentence structure is not difficult to follow. Berlin’s worlds are vast, just as her own life was, full of experiences from living in many different places and countries. One senses tremendous cultural literacy and a worldliness, which distinguishes her from many American writers who can tend to be a bit provincial and focusing only on relationship dynamics. The only other general criticism I would make of her work, as seen in this collection, is that since it is autofiction, there are many themes that are frequently repeated: alcoholism, broken marriages, menial labor, etc. and this can get a little bit tedious. To be fair, one can make this criticism of any story collection, that the themes get repetitive after a while and that there is not enough variation among the stories. Perhaps this collection should have been only half or two thirds the length it is. Some readers might find her style a little bit too “stream of consciousness,” perhaps a little too rambling, too close of a narrative distance almost all the time.

Berlin is truly unique; I cannot think of any other writer who is quite like her. She is modern and yet the same time she feels relaxed. Her prose is very detailed but it flows smoothly and never stops the reader. She writes about working-class people and yet the reader senses a tremendous intelligence and sophistication about the author. She writes a lot about Latin culture and peoples, yet she is American. There is much to enjoy about A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I encourage readers unfamiliar with her work to discover the pleasure of her writing. Finding a new writer that one is intrigued by is one of the great joys of life.

Willa Cather: The Grande Dame of American Letters

My inaugural post is a tribute to my favorite American writer, Willa Cather.  To me, she is the Grande Dame of American letters, highly underrated and much-ignored.  We scarcely find her works read or discussed in academia, her novels have still not claimed her rightful place in the academic canon.  Why not?  She is incredibly intelligent, and, like Tolstoy, very sympathetic, warm, and caring for her characters.  There are some writers in whom the reader can immediately sense an element of misanthropy; this is not the case with Cather, who takes a tender view of the individuals who populate her books.  She knows all the great classics of the Western canon, is highly literary (just look at the numerous cultural references throughout The Song of the Lark), and very cultured.  Despite all her knowledge of European high culture, her writings reflect a uniquely American sensibility, for Cather is careful to distinguish between the Old World and the New, and is able to recognize what the latter can offer—-the strength of America’s people, who are all virtually immigrants.  Her aesthetic eye is strong; she has a keen sense of beauty, an appreciation of the finer things in life.  There is always a tension in Cather’s lead characters, because they seem to embody the Oscar Wilde quote that “All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars”; they are aspiring to something better than what their circumstances can provide.  Cather’s writings frequently use an omniscient narrator, one who is worldly, gracious, and wise.  Like Tolstoy, she is a social critic, for she sees the follies of humanity, the petty sides of human nature, but yet tries to find something beautiful in human nature that is beyond that, something bigger in life.  There is always a touch of humor in her works.  Cather is like a wise, old, kindly aunt, who, after years of experience, is gently recounting her tales for you.  Or, perhaps, she is more like a seasoned, old professor whose vast erudition keeps the listener spellbound at her feet for hours.  Her compassion, wisdom, culture, humanity—-these are the qualities that make Cather such a joy to read.