Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Simple Story: Grace Paley's "A Conversation with My Father"

(Crossposted at A Curious Singularity.)

I've been mulling over Grace Paley's "A Conversation with My Father" for weeks now. It's a very short story but there's a great deal going on in it: not just the contrast and conflict between the narrator and her father within the confines of the story but also, on a broader level, competing ideas about what constitutes a story, and about the relationship between real life and fiction.

The story begins with a request from the narrator’s father who is 86-years-old, ill, and confined to bed:

"I would like you to write a simple story just once more," he says, "the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next."

And this is the narrator's response:

I say, "Yes, why not? That's possible." I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: "There was a woman..." followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

Now, I'm not very well acquainted with de Maupassant's stories, but I'm an avid reader of Chekhov and it seems a wilful misrepresentation to suggest that his name denotes that sort of starkly plot-driven fare. Indeed, the narrator’s father says as much after he's read her first attempt which she describes as "an unadorned and miserable tale:"

"But that's not what I mean," my father said. "You misunderstood me on purpose. You know there's a lot more to it. You know that. You left everything out. Turgenev wouldn't do that. Chekhov wouldn't do that. There are in fact Russian writers you never heard of, you don't have an inkling of, as good as anyone, who can write a plain ordinary story, who would not leave out what you have left out..."

If the narrator does indeed want to please her father, why does she deliberately misunderstand his request, transforming it into one that she cannot satisfy? Is this an extension of an ongoing battle between them, or is she playing out an internal struggle of her own here?

Ultimately, the dispute between father-reader and daughter-writer boils down, at least in his view, as they quibble over whether the end of her revised story is truly the end, to her unwillingness to recognize tragedy. She wants to believe that the fortunes of her character could still change; he thinks that she’s deluding herself. In his post about the story, John perceptively notes that this is not simply a matter of differing literary aesthetics. The tragedy that the narrator’s father wants her to face is not just that of her character, but also that of his own looming death.

I agree, but I think that the narrator is also struggling with something more here, as a writer and as a human being. Throughout her attempts to write "a simple story," she appears to be in conflict not just with her father but also within herself, particularly when it comes to the relationship between fiction and real life.

Initially, she expresses no distinction between fiction and real life as far as her philosophy goes: "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." And she grounds her first attempt at a simple story in real life: "I thought of a story that had been happening for a couple of years right across the street." But when her father takes issue with the unmarried status of the mother at the centre of her tale, she insists on a distinction between her stories and real life, purporting to exert control over such details in fiction:

     "For Godsakes, doesn't anyone in your stories get married? Doesn't anyone have the time to run down to City Hall before they jump into bed?"
     "No," I said. "In real life, yes. But in my stories, no."

Before long, though, she's stepping back from this, speaking of characters that outwit writers, and of the need for negotiation between writer and character:

     "Actually that's the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic, you think they're extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they're just average with a good education. Sometimes the other way around, the person's a kind of dumb innocent, but he outwits you and you can't even think of an ending good enough."
     "What do you do then?" he asked. He had been a doctor for a couple of decades and then an artist for a couple of decades and he's still interested in details, craft, technique.
     "Well, you just have to let the story lie around till some agreement can be reached between you and the stubborn hero."

In the end, the narrator insists not simply that her character's destiny could change, but that it is her responsibility to make it change, in part because of the connection between the story and real life: this case I had a different responsibility. That woman lives across the street. She's my knowledge and my invention. I'm sorry for her. I'm not going to leave her there in that house crying...

The narrator's father is not convinced by the alternate ending. But, perhaps paradoxically, this is precisely because he has been so utterly convinced by the story that she has written, a story of the sort that he previously concluded she is incapable of writing.

The narrator is at this point, I believe, thinking not only of her character's destiny, or of her father's destiny, but also of her own. We don't know much about her life, but I think she's struggling here with her capacity to change it. How much control does a writer have over his or her story, and how much control does a person have over his or her own destiny? "A Conversation with My Father" raises these questions and leaves them swirling in the air.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think what you have written and summarized is a great idea of the story. I am in a college English Literature class right now, and we've just read this story, and our conclusions and insights are pretty similar. But its always nice to hear and read someone else's perspective on it.
Thank you. :)