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Knowing and Inventing New York: The Neighborhood in Grace Paley’s Fiction

Nathalie Cochoy
p. 85-96


Si les nouvelles de Grace Paley se déroulent à New York, la ville demeure néanmoins invisible dans les récits. New York, dans l’œuvre de Paley, est avant tout le quartier, lieu commun bruissant de conversations et de rumeurs. Dans leur évocation du voisinage, les narrateurs et les personnages de Paley réinventent la valeur de la vie ordinaire. Loin de toute autorité morale, ils recréent une expérience de la communauté. Ainsi, une nouvelle cartographie se met en place – celle de la rue, des parcs et des bancs publics. Une nouvelle temporalité, fondée sur la récurrence des rites quotidiens, rassemble aussi les voisins dans une même volonté de surmonter les souffrances de l’exil. La mémoire qui s’infiltre dans les conversations à la fois banales et intimes ne donne alors lieu à aucune lamentation nostalgique, mais exprime au contraire la nécessité d’une ouverture aux autres. Au cœur des descriptions, les moments poétiques qui naissent du prosaïque révèlent la manière dont la fiction dépeint moins le quartier qu’elle ne l’habite.

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Studied authors :

Grace Paley

Texte intégral

That woman lives across the street. She’s my knowledge and my invention.
I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying.
(Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity).
Grace Paley (“A Conversation with My Father,” Changes 167)

  • 1 Paley here uses the definite article “the,” instead of the possessive adjective “my” in the title o (...)

1In “A Conversation with My Father,” Grace Paley exposes the principles of her art in which imitation and invention, realism and fantasy are closely intertwined. Quite significantly, in her foreword to the collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, she asserts that “[e]veryone in this book is imagined into life except the father” (my emphasis). Far from merely emphasizing the authenticity of the father figure in the collection,1 she thus indirectly claims and recalls that fiction is not so much an imitation of life as a performative means of giving life. Indeed, in Paley’s short stories, the metatextual comments on the art of writing do not alienate fiction from reality but on the contrary contribute to a revelation of the way in which words relate to the world—or even inhabit the world.

  • 2 In “The Long-Distance Runner,” Faith recalls that, just like the father in “A Conversation with my (...)

2Although the backdrop of Paley’s fiction is undoubtedly New York, the city as a whole remains invisible in her stories. For Paley’s New York is actually the neighborhood, barely recognizable as the Bronx, Greenwich Village, Port Authority or Coney Island. As a microcosm, the neighborhood is not so much a place as a common place, ceaselessly recreated by a community of mothers and children who meet, move and mingle and above all “converse” with one another in various intermediary places (stoops or staircases, parks or piers, subways or sidewalks…). As a writer, as a mother, as a citizen, Paley thus intimates that her “knowledge” and her “invention” of her neighbors, in their daily existence (Changes 166),2 are means of approaching the truth about urban life and of revealing the value of the trite and the transient in the community.

3In Paley’s short stories, a sense of place paradoxically emerges from an interplay of voices “talking senselessly”—“voices from who knows where” (Changes 162, my emphasis). Indeed, Paley’s narrators recreate the experience of city life by elaborating on a network of echoes, embedded stories, recurrent anecdotes and vibrant ellipses. In this respect, they seem to redefine the art of storytelling. In his wellgknown slyacrenslan="separlown slyacrenslan="separlown slyacrenson/rs Benjanve bemoth ae,”isoolbamoiresient ins wellgknown slyacr, Paleyuth abouer iny newhinedirpln.
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