Counterpoint: 296 pp., $15.95 paper
No one else ends a story like Gina Berriault. It’s her signature, the focus to her fiction: that edge of, yes, epiphany. In “A Dream of Fair Women,” a restaurant worker, newly single, remains oddly disengaged as her boss falls dead in the dining room of a heart attack. Later, she awakens in the middle of the night, stirred not by loss but by “gratefulness that her love, no longer there, was taken from her only by the dream, only by that.” In “The Mistress,” a woman at a party reveals herself to the son of a former lover, who remembers not her but the torment she caused his mother; in the wake of their encounter, she discovers that “her indifference, then, struck her now as a failing.”
These are not Joycean epiphanies but more the quiet revelations of Chekhov, or even Isaac Babel, to whom she dedicates the understated “The Tea Ceremony.” I get wary when writers invoke other writers, especially one as iconic as Babel, who, it has been said, was executed by Stalin “because he was excellent.” For Berriault, however, such a reference is more a way to stake out her turf, for she has much in common with these Russians, not least because of her Russian Jewish roots. Like them, she is a chronicler of small moments, for whom the best life has to offer is often not enough. Read her spare fictions — most set in the Bay Area, where she spent much of her adult life — and you begin to see a world in which joy is fleeting, and even the most engaged of us are guilty, if only of “the guilt of sight.”
Berriault died in 1999 at 73, and her work, while honored during her lifetime by many awards, is largely out of print. As a remedy, her longtime partner Leonard Gardner has put together “Stolen Pleasures,” a collection of 21 stories spanning her career.
It’s a strange book to review because it is, on a certain level, redundant; of the pieces here, 20 appeared in her 1996 collection “Women in Their Beds.” (The exception is “The Tea Ceremony,” the story dedicated to Babel, “one of the last works of fiction she completed before her death,” notes Jane Vandenburgh in her introduction. And yet, “Stolen Pleasures” begs a bigger question: How does one re-introduce a writer who has been forgotten, if not through the filter of her most defining work? Berriault wrote novels and nonfiction too, but it is in these shorter efforts, which Vandenburgh characterizes as “novels in miniature,” that her legacy, such as it is, resides.
That legacy involves both a piercing sense of observation and a recognition of the whims of fate. In “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?” an elderly librarian gets to know a homeless man who haunts the library, moving from distance to understanding as the younger man sickens and dies. “Kneeling by the body,” Berriault writes, “Perera took a closer look at the face, closer than when they sat in his office, discoursing on the animal kingdom. The young man was no one, as he’d feared he already was when alive. The absolute unwanted, that’s who the dead become.”
“The Stone Boy” begins with an 8-year-old accidentally killing his older brother, then not reporting the death for more than an hour. When asked, he explains that they had gone to pick peas, and "[i]t’s better to pick peas while they’re cold” — but what Berriault is really saying is that, as the boy intuitively recognizes, there is no way to undo even the most grievous tragedy. This air of acceptance, or perhaps resignation, echoes throughout the collection, which is less about stolen pleasures, it turns out, than how mortality renders all such solace insignificant. “It makes no difference, your name,” reflects the narrator of “The Diary of K.W.,” an older woman infatuated with a younger man. “Who knows who you were?”
“The Diary of K.W.” also highlights another concern of Berriault’s fiction: the hidden lives of women, often disregarded by the world. In “Women in Their Beds,” a young actress works the mental ward at a San Francisco hospital. “From her very first hours in the ward, she had tried to picture them when they were young, wanting to come to their rescue by reviving them as girls again.” Rescue, though, is no longer possible, and the story ends with the protagonist being redirected by an older nurse, whose light gestures — “a touch at Angela’s elbow and a touch at her back” — seem less about assistance than complicity.
“Myra” describes a young woman navigating pregnancy without help from her disconnected husband; the title story, meanwhile, evokes a character, Delia, who has no choice but to run from her family to establish her identity. “I had to leave,” she says without speaking to her sleeping sister, “I had to find my own life, but it was never and may not ever be the life you thought I was enjoying.” The implication is that the world is full of compromise or worse, a place in which more often than not, a woman, a person, can get lost.
And yet, for all this, Berriault never loses sight of the power of imagination, which, even if only for a moment, can transform our lives. "[T]he world was wider,” Delia thinks, “and she could imagine whatever she wished.” There’s a kernel of revelation to such a statement, especially given the fatalism from which it comes. This is the abiding wonder of these stories, their insistence that “you could save yourself from a world awry by calling up something beautiful” — even (or especially) if that beauty cannot last.