Gina Berriault Essay - Berriault, Gina (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berriault, Gina (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Gina Berriault Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories

Award: National Book Critics Circle Award

Berriault is an American novelist and short story writer.

For further information on her life and career, see CLC, Volume 54.

Writing about Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories (1996), Berriault's prizewinning collection, Tobin Harshaw asserted: "In these 35 stories, one struggles to find a sentence that is anything less than jewel-box perfect. And the author uses her gift for language to do more than show us the world through her characters' eyes; we are also forced to think about it from their point of view—no small feat for someone who favors third-person narration." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly stated: "Each story is constructed so gracefully that it's easy to overlook how carefully crafted Berriault's writing is. Her lilting, musical prose adds a sophisticated sheen to the truths she mines." Yet Berriault, who has been writing for more than three decades, is not widely known. She has, says Lynell George, "achieved the dubious distinction of a writer's writer, praised to the heavens in literary circles, but who moves outside of that orbit incognito." George, like many other critics, considers this an unfortunate situation for such a talented writer. "Her writing," he remarked, is "imbued with a haunting resonance, is like a secret accidentally spilled. A poltergeist, she moves lives off foundations, so doors don't shut as cleanly or securely as before." Utilizing some common, recurring themes, many of Berriault's short stories deal with the ambiguous feelings of failed relationships and the pain of loss. Many of the women in her stories are preyed upon by men. Yet Berriault does not resort to stock characters or stereotypical stories. Gary Amdahl said, "One of the most notable features of her work is the absence of categorization, of description by quick (lazy) reference. There are no brand names, trademarks, franchises, buzz words or jargon here, no free rides on fads, no trading on popular issues or current affairs." Amdahl concluded, "Berriault does not imitate, cater, affect or posture. She deepens reality, complements it and affords us the bliss of knowing, for a moment, what we cannot know."

Principal Works

The Descent (novel) 1960

Conference of Victims (novel) 1962
The Mistress, and Other Stories (short stories) 1965
The Son (novel) 1966
The Infinite Passion of Expectations: Twenty-five Stories (short stories) 1982
The Light of Earth (novel) 1984
The Stone Boy (screenplay) 1984
Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1996

Criticism

Gina Berriault with Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver (interview date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: "'Don't I Know You?': An Interview with Gina Berriault," in The Literary Review, Vol. 37, Summer, 1994, pp. 714-23.

[In the following interview, Berriault discusses her writing and motivation.]

Gina Berriault has been writing stories, novels, and screenplays for more than three decades. Best known and most honored as a short story writer, she has published two volumes of stories, The Mistress and Other Stories (1965) and The Infinite Passion of Expectations: Twenty-Five Stories (1982). Called "exquisitely crafted," and "without exception, nearly flawless," her stories are remarkable for their subtle craft and the variety of characters, settings, and subject.

Her first novel, The Descent (1960), is about a Midwestern college professor appointed the first Secretary for Humanity, a Cabinet position designed to help prevent nuclear war. A plea for disarmament, The Descent depicts politicians militarizing the economy, harassing dissidents and promoting theories of winnable nuclear wars. Conference of Victims (1962), her second novel, explores the effects of the suicide of Hal Costigan on his family and mistress. The Son (1966), Berriault's third novel, is the account of the devastating effects of a woman's dependence on men for meaning in her life. This need to attract men eventually leads to a disastrous seduction of her teenage son. Her fourth novel, The Lights of Earth (1984), focuses on Ilona Lewis, a writer whose sense of self is undermined by the end of her relationship with a lover who has recently become a celebrity. Initially feeling unmoored, Ilona is finally drawn back into the world by the death of her brother, whom she has neglected.

In response to critics who have referred to Berriault's stories as "miniatures" or "watercolors," Berriault has said, "whenever I was referred to as a miniaturist or a watercolorist, I wondered if those labels were a way of diminishing a woman's writing. I believe that, now, because of the feminist movement, no reviewer would use those comparisons without hesitation." She added, "I hope my stories reveal some depths and some strengths, but if those virtues are not to be found in my work, then at least the intentions and the effort ought to call up a comparison with 12′ × 12′ acrylic."

Berriault also rejects any category more limited than "writer," saying, "I found my sustenance in the outward, the wealth of humankind everywhere, and do not wish to be thought of as a Jewish writer or a feminist writer or as a California writer or as a left-wing writer or categorized by any interpretation. I found it liberating to roam wherever my heart and my mind guided me, each story I've ever written."

Although she has received many fellowships and awards, is currently under contract with Pantheon for another story collection, and The Infinite Passion of Expectation has been called "the best book of short stories by a living American writer," we believe that Berriault's work has yet to receive the attention it deserves.

We talked with Gina Berriault in the Sausalito apartment of her daughter, Julie Elena. Although she was initially reticent about talking about herself and her work, her comments have the same honesty, depth, and humanity as her fiction.

[Lyons and Oliver:] How do you think your childhood reading affected you as a writer?

[Berriault:] That little girl who was me was a restless spirit, confined in a classroom and yearning to be out and roaming, either in the landscape or in her own imagination, and that restlessness was channeled into reading. I read more books than any other student in grammar school, roaming everywhere the persons in the stories roamed; I was those persons. Among the earliest books was Water Babies (that one belonged to the family across the alley and I remember climbing in through their kitchen window when they were away on vacation, reading it over and over, sitting on the floor in a corner) and George McDonald's great-hearted books, especially At the Back of the Northwind about a poor family and their love for one another. That deepened me. I began to know who I was, and that kids in poor families were worthy of books about them. And A. A. Milne, who wakened in me a delight in dialogue, an intuitive ear for what goes on between us and our beloved small animals—conversations of pretend naivete and subtle wit, that can make a child feel she knows more than adults think she knows. And later, in the novels of I. Zangwill, who wrote about Jewish families in Europe, I found a secret kinship, and I found that Jewish persons were worthy of being in novels. No one, all through my school years (except for a teacher who must have felt a kinship with Hitler) suspected that I was Jewish, and I must have been one-of-a-kind in that small California town. An insatiable reader, I began early to write my own stories, because, when you find yourself enthralled by their marvelous manipulation of language, when you find your wits sharpened, your heart stirred, your conscience revealed, then those writers become your guardian angels. They bring you to see your own existence as valuable—why else would they write their stories for you?—and they seem to be giving you their blessing to write your own. They seem to be blessing all children, even those who can't read a word.

Do you remember how you actually began writing?

My father was a free-lance writer for trade magazines and he had one of those old, stand-up-high typewriters. So I began to write my stories on it.

So you began writing when you were very young?

Yes, I began to write on that typewriter when I was in grammar school. I also wanted to be an artist and an actress. A drama teacher in high school offered to pay my tuition to an excellent drama school, but just at that time my father died and it was necessary for me to support my mother, brother, and sister. I never had any formal training as a writer, either.

Do you remember anything specific about how you taught yourself to write?

I simply wrote and wrote, and I was an avid reader. One thing I'd do was put a great writer's book beside the typewriter and then I'd type out a beautiful and moving paragraph or page and see those sentences rising up before my eyes from my own typewriter, and I would think "Someday maybe I can write like that."

You mean you'd type the words of someone else's story?

Yes, to see the words coming up out of my typewriter. It was like a dream of possibilities for my own self. And maybe I began to know that there was no other way for that sentence and that paragraph to be and arouse the same feeling. The someone whose words were rising from that typewriter became like a mentor for me. And when I went on with my own work, I'd strive to attain the same qualities I loved in that other person's work. Reading and writing are collaborations. When you read someone you truly love, their writing reaches your innermost self. You're soulmates.

How old were you when you did that experiment with your father's typewriter?

In my teens. I did it a few times. You shouldn't do it more than a few times because you must get on with your own.

Could you talk a bit more about how you began writing and publishing?

My experiment with my father's typewriter was going on at the same time I was writing my own stories. Rejection cards and letters with hastily scribbled encouragement helped to convince me that I existed. I remember a letter from an elegant, slick magazine, asking me to make a change or two and offer the story again. I did that, and when it was returned I cried for hours. By that time my parents had lost their house and the orange tree and the roses, and I wanted to earn enough with my writing to buy a farm for them. (I'd always wanted to live on a farm.) My father died before I could be of any help to him with my stories.

Elsewhere you mentioned that your mother began to go blind when you were fourteen. Could you talk about how that affected you as a person and as a writer?

As I wrote in my essay for Confidence Women, my blind mother sat by her little radio, listening to those serial romances and waving her hand before her eyes, hoping to see it take shape out of the dark. That could be a metaphor for my attempt to write, hoping to bring forth some light from out of the dark. I haven't yet.

How much formal education did you have?

After high school I took over my father's job. Then after work I'd roam through the Los Angeles public library and pick out whatever names or titles intrigued me. Having no mentor to guide me through that libráry, I just found writers by myself.

Do you regret not having a mentor?

My father was mentor for my spirit, I can say, and there were others from whom I learned about the world. I regret not having a formal, organized education. I wish I'd studied world history, philosophy, comparative literature, and I wish I'd learned several languages. Really, there is no excuse for my lack of those attainments, of that intellectual exploring, except as it is with every unschooled person—the circumstances of each one's life.

You don't say you regret not having gone through a creative writing program. Suppose a young writer wrote to you and said, "I admire your work and I want to write, Should I get a degree in creative writing?" What would you say?

I'd tell that person to learn more about everything, to rove, to be curious, and to read great writers from everywhere. If there's a true compulsion to write, a deep need, that person will write against all odds. And if that person enters a creative writing program, it would be for the purpose of learning how to shape what's already known and felt. Sometimes, when I taught workshops, I was glad I hadn't subjected myself to the unkind criticism of strangers. There's so much competitiveness, concealed and overt, among those who want to be writers and those who are writers. In Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life he speaks about...

(The entire section is 4266 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 5 February 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Women in their Beds: New and Selected Stories, in Publishers Weekly, February 5, 1996, p. 77.

[The following review provides an evaluation of the collection Women in their Beds and short plot summaries of some of the stories.]

Whether focusing on yuppies or drifters, social workers or Indian restaurateurs, heroin addicts or teenage baby-sitters, Berriault (The Lights of Earth) writes with great psychological acuity and a compassion that comes always from observation, never from sentimentality. These 35 short stories have been published in magazines ranging from the Paris Review to Harper's Bazaar, 10 of them are...

(The entire section is 277 words.)

Janet Ruth Heller (review date 1 March 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Women in their Beds: New and Selected Stories, in Library Journal, March 1, 1996, pp. 107-08.

[In the following review, Heller provides a brief discussion of the collection Women in Their Beds.]

Despite the title, these stories are not about sex. Using primarily third-person narration, Berriault places her introspective characters in interesting situations to explore a range of themes: dealing with loss, gaining self-knowledge, overcoming mental illness, coping with poverty, and living alone. For instance, "The Stone Boy," which became the basis for a screenplay, concerns the emotional estrangement caused by a boy's accidental killing of his...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

Donna Seaman (review date 15 March 1996)

SOURCE: "The Glory of Stories," in Booklist, March 15, 1996, p. 1239.

[Below, Seaman favorably reviews Women in Their Beds.]

Berriault's title story contains all the key elements of her metaphysical, compassionate fiction. Angela is deeply affected by the women she works with in a city hospital. Their fates make her think not only about her own sorrows, but about all the complex consequences of what happens to women in beds, from dreaming to sex, childbirth, and death. This elevation from the particular to the universal is a hall-mark of Berriault's finely wrought stories. Another motif is a life-altering confrontation with a stranger, such as when a librarian talks...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

Tobin Harshaw (review date 5 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Short Takes," in New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1996, p. 22.

[Below, Harshaw gives a mixed review of Women in Their Beds. He praises the prose, but finds the characters too static.]

As an alternative to those trivial compendiums of literary opening passages sold near bookstore cash registers, how about a collection of last lines from Gina Berriault's very short stories, Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories. Consider this stand-alone triumph: "He lay facedown under the tree and bit off some grass near the roots, chewing to distract his smile, but it would not give in, and so he lay there the entire day, smiling into the earth." Or:...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

Lynell George (review date 26 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Secrets Accidentally Spilled," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 26, 1996, p. 7.

[In the following favorable review of Women in Their Beds, George praises the vivid precision of Berriault's work.]

In stories that are part trance, part cinema, Gina Berriault writes about the beds we make and are forced to lie in. She explores he choices we squeeze ourselves into, like shoes much too tight; the choices forced upon us by ill timing or unfortunate station.

The homeless "sidewalk sleeper" of "Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am" shuffling into a San Francisco library with scraps of poetry stuffed into his pockets, demands an explanation. At...

(The entire section is 869 words.)

Gary Amdahl (review date 24 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Making Literature," in The Nation, June 24, 1996, pp. 31-32.

[In the following review, Amdahl strongly praises Berriault's work and asserts that she is a powerful force against the mediocrity of modern fiction.]

In the absence of a certain peculiar force, the American short story declines swiftly toward the uniform. This may be true of all human endeavor, but in the case of our short fiction, the degenerate form has been made to seem the acme of the art. The teaching of it is liturgical, the writing pious and intolerant of deviation, the reading devotional, the publishing straight-faced. It has been one of the most relentlessly banal decades in the history of...

(The entire section is 1509 words.)