Tillie Olsen's Tender Portrait of a Marriage
Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them -- and so do writers. All Things Considered talks with writers about their favorite buttonhole books.
When I was a senior at Amherst College in 1969-70, Tillie Olsen came to teach there for a year. This thrilled for me for a couple of reasons. First, it was a personal triumph. Many members of the English department regarded creative writing as an academic discipline on the level of woodshop, and it had required years of hectoring by a small coterie of students to get the faculty to agree to bring someone to campus who could teach us firsthand about the writer's craft. Second, although Tillie had published all of 127 pages (and those in pretty large print), I believed then -- and now -- that she was one of greatest authors alive.
I had discovered Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle when I was a sophomore, in a volume containing all the winners of the O'Henry Prize, which is awarded annually to the best story published in the United States. Since I was already trying my hand at writing stories of my own, I had read through that collection with far more interest than I gave my class assignments.
Tell Me a Riddle is not, properly speaking, a short story at all, which by common parlance means a story that can be read in one sitting. I believe I read it all at once -- but that was a committed, transported enterprise. Tell Me a Riddle is the title novella that occupies more than 50 pages in the slender volume of stories in which it originally appeared.
It is the tale of an aged husband and wife, Eva and David, immigrants and former revolutionaries, now confronting many disappointments at the ends of their lives, not the least of them with each other. Both are half broken by the burdens they have borne: she by the tireless tending for seven children that has led her by long habit to find her only comforts in solitude, he by the struggle to support that teeming family that has left him yearning now to sell their house and buy his way into the Haven, where he will at last live carefree among friends. After a long hard life together, life has driven them apart.
But Tell Me a Riddle is far more tender and affirmative than a grim picture of how life can slaughter love. It is about the dignity of values and the intense network of beliefs that ultimately connect humans to each other as they approach the end.
The by-play between Eva and David closely resembled what I had heard for years from my maternal grandparents, who were like the characters in many respects. With their heavy accents and frequent detours into Yiddish, my grandparents had been difficult for me to comprehend as a child. The hardships I knew they had endured were a million miles from the comforts I'd enjoyed as a second-generation American. I understood only that both of them loved me completely, but that was sufficient to make them figures of monumental importance to me. Thus Tell Me a Riddle was a revelation on two levels: because of its insight and evocation of lives I knew, and because it demonstrated to me how a subject near-at-hand could be elevated to great art.
Tillie had left school at the age of 16. She was an auto-didact and thus had invented a literary tradition of her own. Her narrative techniques were revolutionary. The words of Tell Me a Riddle sometimes leave their home at the margins of the page, or veer into italics. The authorial voice flies unrestricted, addressing the reader directly, and at other moments wholly disappearing. The lexicon shifts abruptly and the style is protean, varying from page to page. But every line is measured, compressed, resonant, stripped bare so that paragraph after paragraph achieves the shocking brevity and power of the best poems.
By now, I have read Tell Me a Riddle so often that it is essentially memorized. The younger man who was there each preceding time I took up the story haunts every line. I read also with my abiding gratitude to Tillie, who was the first person to tell me what I most wanted to hear: that I had the stuff to be a writer.
But the majesty of the work itself never fails to reach me. One critic aptly said that Tell Me a Riddle will live as long as the American language. You must read it.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this series.
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