Women in Their Beds — Gina Berriault
To cap off #ShortStoryMonth, my rec this week revisits a collection by one of my favorite story writers, Gina Berriault. Her admirers span Richard Ford, Grace Paley, and Robert Stone, but American fiction writer Berriault may be one of most revered writers you’ve never heard of. Cynthia Ozick described Berriault as the quintessential writer’s writer—the recipient of professional admiration and “dim public recognition.” The Los Angeles Times described Berriault’s stories as “imbued with a haunting resonance…like a secret accidentally spilled.” A writer for anyone who loves precisely crafted, beautiful prose, Gina Berriault, despite the awards garnered over her career, was a diffident, private person who preferred to portray the imagined lives of her characters.
“I’m not used to this public life,” she once said. “It’s not my reality. I don’t like to be so evident because my work springs from the secret aspect of myself.”
Berriault, who died in 1999 at the age of seventy-three, was a prolific writer. The author of four novels, and three stories collections, including The Mistress and Other Stories (1965), The Infinite Passion of Expectation: 25 Stories (1982) and Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories (1996). Berriault, who was born In Long Beach, California, the daughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe, was a self-taught writer, who diligently worked on stories while raising her daughter, Julie, went on to teach at the University of Iowa and San Francisco State. Among her many awards, Berriault was a recipient of the 1997 Rea Award for the Short Story, selected by jurors Ozick, Tobias Wolff, and Andre Dubus. Berriault’s final book, the consummate Women in Their Beds, contains many of her best known short works, including “The Stone Boy” (adapted to film in 1984 starring Robert Duvall). Of the collection, the New York Times said, “In these 35 stories, one struggles to find a sentence that is anything less than jewel-box perfect.”
One of my favorites, “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?” (the title taken from King Lear, and the King’s existential cry), concerns Alberto Perrera, the effete librarian facing a financially precarious retirement. Because Berriault lived and worked in and around San Francisco, the setting is often present in her stories, a character in itself with its windblown streets, beaches, and cypress along the cliffs. But more than that, Berriault was an advocate for the outsider, and her characters are often caught between conventional society and existential crisis—like the controlled librarian Perrera, whose cloistered life among books is upended by the appearance of a homeless and possibly tubercular young man who wants to sleep in the library. Here is the bookish Perrera, heading home through San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, contemplating life, death, and the homeless, seen and unseen, he passes every day, which includes a line (“There is a certainty in degradation”) from Seven Pillars of Wisdom the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence, known more widely as Lawrence of Arabia:
Onward through this neon-colored rain, this headlight-glittering rain, every light no match for the dark, only a constant contesting. There is a certainty in degradation. You can puzzle over lines all your life never be satisfied with the meaning you get. Until, slushing onward, you’ve got at last one meaning for sure, because now its time had come, bringing proof by the thousands wherever they were this night in the concrete burrow an dens.
Berriault writes with great empathy about the outcast and the misunderstood—though never sentimentally—and in her gorgeous and often lyric prose, illuminates the tragic desires of characters who, whether literally or psychologically, inhabit the fringes.
Though Berriault’s quiet collection was not immediately discovered—Gary Amdahl notes the book went unreviewed for months—but we can be glad now that it was, as Berriault’s art is the kind that lasts. As she once said, “When we think about artists of the past and we’re still looking at their wonderful art. It’s like an immortality isn’t it?”