Berriault, Gina (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
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."
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
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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...
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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 here issued in book form for the first time. In "Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?" the dapper Alberto Perera, "a librarian who did not look like one," fears that the young drifter who has befriended him, wishing to discuss the Spanish poetry he carries in his pockets, is out to kill him; but the drifter is only trying to understand how—both literally and philosophically—to live. A 79-year-old psychologist woos a young, pragmatic waitress in "The Infinite Passion of Expectation." When she meets his ex-wife and witnesses the selfishness spawned by a life spent in deferment, she flees. In the clever "The Search for J. Kruper," an extremely famous and narcissistic novelist, noted for writing grand, poorly disguised autobiographical...
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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 brother. Although most of these 35 stories have been previously published in magazines like Esquire, Paris Review, and Ploughshares, they are not all successful; some are merely vignettes, lacking conflict and full character development. Recommended for larger fiction collections.
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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 about poetry with a homeless man in "Who is it Can Tell Me Who I Am?" and a magazine writer attempts to interview a recalcitrant physicist in "God and the Article Writer." Outsiders intrigue Berriault; her insights intrigue us.
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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: "She heard his breath take over for him and, in that secretive way the sleeper knows nothing about, carry on his life." Ms. Berriault is nothing if not consistent. 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. These are complex characters, and although many stories run only a few pages Ms. Berriault never falls back on clichés: an aging male librarian, for example, is no shrinking violet; instead, he sports "a Borsalino fedora" and "English boots John Major...
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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 least someone who can shed light on the enigma of himself. He locks his gaze on a librarian, Alberto Perera, who is peppered with affectation, but full of book-learned philosophy.
Perera, standing at the dawn of retirement—without much self-confrontation—is tidying up his already tidy life. "If you can't, halloo the sun, if you can't go chirpity chirp to the moon … what're you doing around here anyway?" demands the homeless man, younger but standing at the twilight of his life.
There is the lonely existence of an anonymous 63-year-old woman, of "The Diary of K. W.," who makes her bed beneath the shared ceiling and floor of the young man with whom she's grown mortally obsessed. Instead of filling a...
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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 U.S. literature, but, I'm happy to say, it's over: A collection of new and selected stories by Gina Berriault (serious readers in the late fifties and early sixties will know this name—she wrote three novels and a volume of stories by 1966, another novel and collection after that—but most will not) is good enough not only to be read enthusiastically, reviewed widely and cheered wildly but to inspire as well, and to be as broadly influential as, perhaps, Ray Carver was (the one guy who could do what he did; and I don't mean to imply that Carverism—Raymond as Jesus with Tobias Wolff the Pope presiding over a bureaucracy of celibate workshop directors—is the only thing wrong with short fiction). If she does get the wide notice she...
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