Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Literary Artist Gina Berriault

Writer's Note: We seem to live in a time when, for many though thankfully not all, art is an irrelevance at worst and an entertainment at best, rather than a necessity: a fundamental resource of beauty, inspiration, thought and truth. There are artists who remind us of the best that art can be and in her work Gina Berriault, now deceased, is one of them. I was first introduced to her work (The Infinite Passion of Expectation) many years ago (in the 1980s) by a new friend, a young woman who had lived in Boston and who was attending an "ivy league" school; and it was one of the best introductions anyone ever gave me...

Gina Berriault. The Tea Ceremony. Washington, D.C. Shoemaker & Hoard/Avalon. 2003. xiv + 200 pages. ISBN 1-59376-004-3.

A teacher who has enjoyed Japan returns to her American classroom full of memories and souvenirs, including a kimono; and one of her students, a boy, inquires about its price, in “The Tea Ceremony,” one of Gina Berriault’s well-observed, delicately written stories. “It’s not polite to ask those kinds of questions, she said, so we don’t answer them,” reports the narrator. (pg. 3) Money, like passion, is the fundamental stuff of social life—and literature. “The Tea Ceremony,” the story that gives its title to the book currently under review, a collection of fiction and nonfiction, is actually focused on the friendship of two girls, one outwardly beautiful and one more ordinary but in whom there are apprehensions of various kinds of beauty, the beauty of creativity and of human connections. It is also a story about how adult standards of value begin to be imposed on children even as adults fail to live up to those standards (a teacher shows a favoritism that might be wounding to others, though this is also a genuine affection that helps a particular child sustain a sense of self during a difficult time; and a status-discerning mother wants her lovely daughter to pick more obviously impressive friends, and this mother is publicly embarrassed by disclosure of her own sordid, adulterous affair). The injury and resentment one initially expects to occur between the girls does not occur, and instead one is made to see how strength in one area may be accompanied by vulnerability in another; and this personal meaning is shadowed by a great public event, the Japanese attack on the United States.

Berriault, born of Latvian and Lithuanian parents, lived in California, and was influenced by Chekhov, and appreciative of various writers—including Turgenev, Ivan Bunin, Nabokov, Primo Levi, Raymond Carver, and black and Hispanic writers. In an interview, “Don’t I Know You?,” near the end of the book The Tea Ceremony, Berriault remarks about her own work, “If there is a recurring theme, it’s an attempt at compassionate understanding. Judgement is the prevalent theme in our society, but it’s from fiction we learn compassion and comprehension.” (186)

In one of her stories, “The Vault,” Berriault deals with an obscure writer who receives an invitation to donate his manuscripts to a university collection, something that reveals his small lonely life, anticipation of death, pride, and a wry humor. Berriault is truthful. A proposed novel’s first chapter, “The Flood Again,” is here—and that, about a young actress’s affair with a powerful man, offers a mild but genuine intimacy. “The Naked Luncheon,” on the beginning of topless bars, is a piece of social history, while “The Last Firing Squad,” about executioners is, inevitably, about humanity’s darker corners, and “The Essential Rumi” is about the difficulty of picking a favorite book, three pieces of nonfiction that indicate the scope of this collection, which would seem random were it not for the unique consciousness and talent of the writer that pervade it.

(c) DG, 2004