Outside an old hotel in the Swiss Alps, an elderly writer fearing the end of his literary career watches two figures climb the steepest side of a distant mountain. Miles away, the climbers are visible as blackened specks against a glorious sheet of snow. They vanish then reemerge while the writer watches with a deepened wondering about this foreign couple braving the atmosphere. Suddenly the specks fall one after the other as if purposefully brushed off and the writer is left to process this casual ending of things. When he notifies the hotel manager of the climbers’ fate, he is assured that “No one is climbing and no one is falling”. Stunned, the writer returns to his room and writes down the first word he’s written all trip into his notebook on faint lines he “likened now to infinitely fine, blue veins”.
This lone writer is one of many broken souls that appear in Gina Berriault’s award winning collection of short stories Women in Their Beds. After a failed marriage, a daughter returns to her aging mother in the desert and reveals a devastating secret while a nearby wilderness fire lights the barren world around them. The neglected son of a sculptor travels the world to see the homes of his father’s famous works of art so he may make peace with loss and abandonment.
These are characters who brave the unknown. It is not from a sense of duty or romance that guide them from one difficult place to the next. With a direct and defenseless empathy, Berriault writes of humans on their way back into life, of characters returning after long departures from the self with old hearts racing close behind bursting with grief.
A recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the 1997 Rhea Award for the Short Story, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Pen/Faulkner award finalist, Berriault somehow remains, as Andre Dubus once said, “One of our best and most neglected of writers.” This is likely because Berriault was more concerned with writing as her contribution to the world than with the outward recognition that immortalized her contemporaries. Content with obscurity, of being as unknowable as the world itself, Berriault wrote to manifest the unseen.
Born in Long Beach, California to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Gina Berriault’s childhood was marked by an early love for literature. As a girl, she typed stories standing at her father’s typewriter with the meditative precision of her self-assigned mentors, Gogol and Chekhov, in mind. Those years at the typewriter would eventually lead to a fruitful literary career in adulthood affirming her belief that stories “seem to be blessing all children, even those who can’t read a word”.
It is no surprise that children are often the subject of Berriault’s work. The serious intimacy she brings to the private life of a child goes beyond careful observation. It’s as if, while writing, her eyes had rolled inward. Consequently, her characters remain children even when we meet them in the midst of their adult lives. They are children in their pressing desire to connect with the unloved, to lift the inadequate weight of the lost cause even when no one is climbing and no one is falling.
In “Sublime Child” Ruth is eighteen years old and coping with the recent loss of her mother Alice. Her grief distances her even further from passive relatives and the only way she can conceptualize survival is by hanging on to her mother’s married boyfriend Joe.
“Joe and Alice and herself,” Berriault writes, “they knew what love was because they had only one another.” When it becomes clear that the bond between Ruth and Joe cannot last, Ruth begs for her mother’s forgiveness and rains “her fists upon her own face.” Ruth’s new loss at the end rings louder and longer than the first. At the story’s end, we feel a completeness in the wake of disunion even when her characters, God help them, do not.
In many of Berriault’s stories, grief is a traveler’s companion. In “The Island of Ven” bereaved couple Noel and Eleanor venture to a Swedish island to visit an observatory of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. This is one stop of many on their “healing quest” to visit the homes of the world’s famous astronomers. There is something both poignant and harrowing about their journey, this mission to chase those who chased the stars. Perhaps it’s because of Nana, the daughter they lost long ago. Perhaps this is a quest for distraction and acceptance.
As with other stories throughout the collection, “The Island of Ven” is onto something. Maybe there is a patina of hope in the sky we can’t help but lift our faces to see. Above, there is a vastness that puts our sorrows into perspective. If only we could pass our sorrows onto the stars. After all, the farther the distance of things, the faster we are left behind. Eleanor briefly ponders the immeasurableness of grief in this gorgeous passage:
“She was thinking that there was an everywhere that Noel and the others could never measure, even with their perfect and indisputable instruments, even with the finest device of all which was their minds, and this everywhere, always beyond them, was grief and was what inconsolable meant. She was thinking that someone, somewhere in the world, goes out into that everywhere and never comes back. Noel touched her knee, bringing her back.
In Berriault’s stories there is company in the inconsolable, in this everywhere. The places her characters go are scary, but they’re also where we find the crux of Berriault’s fiction: a genuine attempt to understand the unresolved. Her characters, though on the cusp of self-pity, are never sensationalized in their brutal discoveries. This is what makes Berriault’s writing so powerful. She takes us into the depths of invisible strangers whether our faculties are capable of understanding them or not.
As of today much of Berriault’s work remains out of print. Lydia Davis recently wrote, “I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well-known as they should be.” With any luck, new generations of readers will discover Berriault again and again. Their grand circle of concern will widen at the mercy of her prose as they too embrace the tragic of the everyday-the climbs and the falls.