From A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
“Although people talk, as though it were a new thing, about the form of fiction known in France as auto-fiction (“self-fiction”),” writes Lydia Davis in the foreword to A Manual for Cleaning Women, “the narration of one’s own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told, Lucia Berlin has been doing this, or a version of this, as far as I can see, from the beginning, back in the 1960s.” If the popular interest in auto-fiction feels new to English-language readers, one can probably credit (or blame, depending on one’s disposition) Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose massive, six-volume series, My Struggle, has been alternately praised as one of the great fictional edifices of our time and condemned as unremittingly narcissistic and overblown. A case can be made that Knausgaard popularized the form but, as Davis points out, it has been practiced by various writers in various ways at least since Proust released his own massive, seven-volume cycle À la recherche du temps perdu.
Proust is an obvious influence for Berlin, who even goes so far as to title one of her stories “Temps Perdu.” Berlin returned repeatedly to her own experience – as a child in the U.S. and a teenager in Santiago, Chile; a hospital worker (in stories like “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977” and the aforementioned “Temps Perdu”); and, not incidentally, a woman who spent much of her adult life battling a severe addiction to alcohol. The extent to which Berlin mined these experiences in her fiction and the degree to which she adhered to the truth, as opposed to exaggerating and embellishing for fictional purposes, is murky and ultimately irrelevant. Like Eve Babitz, whose stylized novels about California in the 1970s are currently receiving a similar revival and reassessment, Berlin cleaved devotedly to that old writing school saw “write what you know.”
Of course, if that were all she did, her writing would count as memoir and would hold little interest as fiction. The fascination in her work results as much from the technical approaches she employed to render the stories into well-wrought fictional pieces as in the details of the narratives themselves. Note, for example, her opening gambit in “Stars and Saints,” an early story set in a Texas Catholic girls elementary school. Berlin begins with the cagey imprecation, “Wait. Let me explain.” The first-person narrator (one hesitates to make a direct correlation between the “I” in the story and Berlin herself) goes on to relate an anecdote about watching a group of songbirds eating seed off her lawn when they are set upon by two cats that proceed to kill and devour them.
This is a fascinating way to begin for a number of reasons. First, we encounter the narrator at the outset as an adult, though the balance of the story will focus on her experience as a Protestant third grader in a Catholic school. The transition from present to past is seamless and adept: the adult witnessing the bird massacre is herself noticed by the psychiatrist living next door, who is aghast at the smile on the woman’s face. The narrator explains that she wasn’t smiling at the scene of violence, but at the bucolic image of the birds in their innocence, an expression that remained when the man caught sight of her. The next paragraph begins with a cuttingly funny, self-deprecating observation: “As far back as I can remember I have made a very bad first impression.”
The other thing the opening scene does is put a reader on notice that the story to follow will eschew sentiment and will treat its subject matter in an unadorned fashion without recourse to a reader’s sensibilities. “I don’t want you to think I’m sappy,” the narrator comments at the outset, addressing the reader directly. This lack of sentimentality is further underscored when the narrator describes her interaction with her classmates at the new school: “I didn’t know how to say things like ‘Do you enjoy studying the Belgian Congo?’ or ‘What are your hobbies?’ I would lurch up to them and blurt out ‘My uncle has a glass eye.’ Or ‘I found a dead Kodiak bear with his face full of maggots.’”
This recourse to the grotesque extends to the narrator’s assessment of herself: she wears a large back brace to help counter a “curvature” that in her own words renders her “let’s face it, a hunchback.” (Berlin herself suffered from debilitating double scoliosis.) The narrator’s affliction contributes to her terror and feeling of exclusion from the tight-knit community of Catholic girls and their games of skipping rope and jacks. “Everywhere around me on the playground was symmetry, synchronicity.” When one nun passing in the hallway takes pity on the hunched little girl, Berlin beautifully integrates heavy dollops of character information about her young protagonist:
Months later, Sister Mercedes was hall monitor. She was the young sweet one who must have had a tragic love affair. He probably died in the war, a bombardier. As we filed past her, two in a row, she touched my hunchback and whispered, “Dear child, you have a cross to bear.” Now how was she to know that I had become a religious fanatic by that time, that those innocent words of hers would only convince me of my predestined link to Our Savior?
Such bravura technique is deployed throughout the narrative on the level of character, as above, and on the level of language. This is apparent in grammatical oddities like the avoidance of commas in lists, as when Berlin writes about “the trauma of grade school and other children, who are cruel arid ruthless.” In a footnote to his introduction, editor Stephen Emerson writes, “In Lucia’s prose, punctuation is often unorthodox and sometimes inconsistent. Speed is one of the reasons. She abhors the comma that results in a pause that would not be heard in speech, or that produces an undesired slowing of any kind.”
Elsewhere, Emerson comments, “But if her writing has a secret ingredient, it is suddenness. In the prose itself, shift and surprise produce a liveliness that is a mark of her art. Her prose syncopates and hops, changes cadences, changes the subject. That’s where a lot of its crackle is.” This seems like a perfect encapsulation of the force and effect contained in “Stars and Saints.” The speed, the surprise, the reversals: they are all there, on a sentence-by-sentence level as well as in the overarching narrative structure. How else to conceive of a story that begins “Let me explain” and ends with the words “It wasn’t like that at all”?