Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Yiddish Stein

I'm reading some short stories by the American mid-century short story writer (my wheelhouse, if you haven't noticed) Grace Paley. Her first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man came out in 1959 and she's still alive (but I'm not sure if she's still producing). Anyway, she's kind of fallen between the cracks of American lit, even though Roth, Barthelme, Sontag and Angela Carter all sing her praises. I'm only a couple stories in, but I'm already enamored. Unlike O'Connor, Paley isn't interested in the grotesque. She's more like Eudora Welty, interested in generations and in women and a slightly subversive understanding of domesticity. But, like both of them, dialogue is key.

Paley, perhaps because she grew up in the Bronx with Yiddish-speaking parents, versus the Southern twangs of Welty and O'Connor, feels the more modern of the two. Though all share an orality in their story-style, Paley feels closer to the modernist moment of Dos Passos, Henry Roth and perhaps even someone like Jean Toomer because of the focus on the polyglot city and what it sounds like to be immersed in every type of voice. The Southern stories are more about how the homogeneous react to the new or react to the old same. Urban stories are about listening to a new heterogeneous.

Paley's stories gain their force in the Yiddish twinged dialogue which made me think a lot of Stein. Of course we all know she was Jewish, and I've done little to no secondary reading on Jewish, but Stein so often becomes grouped with the holy grail of Eliot and Pound as the PURE CORE OF MODERNISM and disassociated from an ethnic past. Reading Paley, who grew up speaking Yiddish and English (but with parents with a Russian background), I wondered whether Yiddish could have an affect on the way Stein put words together. I know Stein's family was German well off and I have no idea if her parents or any of her family spoke Yiddish, but this is the opening of a Paley story (told in the voice of the protagonist's Jewish immigrant Aunt):

"I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn't no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don't be surprised--change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don't notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary's ear for thirty years. Who's listening? Papa's in the shop. You and Seymour, thinking about yourself. So she waits in a spotless kitchen for a kind and word and thinks--poor Rosie..."
"Poor Rosie! If there was more life in my little sister, she would know my heart is a regular college of feelings and there is such information between my corset and me that her whole married life is a kindergarten."

See what I mean, kind of? The slightly off word placement. I guess not so much the repetition. But something...Maybe Paley read Stein and that's that. But got me thinking. See how I can't think at the level of the word? Thank god for you poetry people.