Friday, March 06, 2015

Who Will Save the Stories of Lucia Berlin?

Lucia Berlin, So Long
Black Sparrow Press, 1993

When I was 23 years old this was my favorite book.  Then as now, I was peculiarly strict about what should be read when and where -- there were books for the morning or the afternoon, for dawn, sunset or midnight.  There were the books that were right when accompanied by two strong cups of coffee, by casual distraction or complete exhaustion.  There were books that were right for the toilet, for the cafe, or for the bus.  So Long was the only book I had that I felt I could be read anywhere, at any time.  Even when I read it in the nightmarish waiting room of Denver’s public health clinic, this book didn’t condescend to me, it always granted to me its kind, funny, sad, wise company.

I discovered the stories of Lucia Berlin in the classroom of the legendary Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who had been a friend of Lucia’s and said that her writing was a hidden American literary treasure.  For months I carried this book everywhere and read it all the time.  I adored it.  Almost twenty years later, I reread the stories and -- Bobbie spoke the truth.  These stories are a treasure.  Like Chekhov or Saramago, these stories are profound instructions in the practice of compassion.  Anyone who reads and reveres Grace Paley or Alice Munro has got to read these stories -- but how are they are going to be able to do that?  The Black Sparrow Press books were heroic undertakings but they are fragile books and increasingly hard to acquire.  These are brilliant stories -- how are people going to be able to find them?

When I started rereading this book, I could find no evidence of a rescue mission, a book in the works.  Lucia died more than ten years ago now.  The neglect of her work since then seems as universal as it is senseless and maddening.  Checking again a few weeks later, I am astonished.  I find rumors that Macmillan is going to publish a Selected Stories of Lucia Berlin titled A Manual for Cleaning Ladies with an introduction by none other than Lydia Davis.  If this is true, then it is magnificently good news.  If the project flounders, we will be guilty of allowing the stories of an unsung American master to disappear.  May the rumors be true!  I hope very much that the re-discovery of the stories of Lucia Berlin is, at last, about to commence.

1 comment:

poltroon said...

there are still copies of her second collection, Safe & Sound, available from the Poltroon Press website. post free in the USA.