Tillie Olsen's Tender Portrait of a Marriage

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Scott Turow
Greg Martin

Scott Turow, is an attorney and an author. His first book, One L, about his experience as a first-year student at Harvard Law School, was published in 1977. He went on to write novels including Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof and Pleading Guilty. His latest book is the 2003 release Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty. Turow continues to work as an attorney and lives outside Chicago with his wife and three children.

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.

Excerpt: 'Tell Me a Riddle'

For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say — but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown.

Why now, why now? wailed Hannah.

As if when we grew up weren't enough, said Paul.

Poor Ma. Poor Dad. It hurts so for both of them, said Vivi. They never had very much; at least in old age they should be happy.

Knock their heads together, insisted Sammy; tell 'em: you're too old for this kind of thing; no reason not to get along now.

Lennie wrote to Clara: They've lived over so much together; what could possibly tear them apart?

Something tangible enough.

Arthritic hands, and such work as he got, occasional. Poverty all his life, and there was little breath left for running. He could not, could not turn away from this desire: to have the troubling of responsibility, the fretting with money, over and done with; to be free, to be carefree where success was not measured by accumulation, and there was use for the vitality still in him. There was a way. They could sell the house, and with the money join his lodge's Haven, cooperative for the aged. Happy communal life, and was he not already an official; had he not helped organize it, raise funds, served as a trustee?

But she — would not consider it.

"What do we need all this for?" he would ask loudly, for her hearing aid was turned down and the vacuum was shrilling. "Five rooms" (pushing the sofa so she could get into the corner) "furniture" (smoothing down the rug) "floors and surfaces to make work. Tell me, why do we need it?" And he was glad he could ask in a scream.

"Because I'm use't."

"Because you're use't. This is a reason, Mrs. Word Miser? Used to can get unused!"

"Enough unused I have to get used to already…. Not enough words?" turning off the vacuum a moment to hear herself answer. "Because soon enough we'll need only a little closet, no windows, no furniture, nothing to make work, but for worms. Because now I want room…. Screech and blow like you're doing, you'll need that closet even sooner…. Ha, again!" for the vacuum bag wailed, puffed half up, hung stubbornly limp. "This time fix it so it stays; quick before the phone rings and you get too important-busy."

But while he struggled with the motor, it seethed in him. Why fix it? Why have to bother? And if it can't be fixed, have to wring the mind with how to pay the repair? At the Haven they come in with their own machines to clean your room or your cottage; you fish, or play cards, or make jokes in the sun, not with knotty fingers fight to mend vacuums.

Over the dishes, coaxingly: "For once in your life, to be free, to have everything done for you, like a queen."

"I never liked queens."

"No dishes, no garbage, no towel to sop, no worry what to buy, what to eat."

"And what else would I do with my empty hands? Better to eat at my own table when I want, and to cook and eat how I want."

"In the cottages they buy what you ask, and cook it how you like. You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomachs than always to worry for money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean."

"How cleverly you hid that you heard. I said it then because eighteen hours a day I ran. And you never scraped a carrot or knew a dish towel sops. Now — for you and me — who cares? A herring out of a jar is enough. But when I want, and nobody to bother." And she turned off her ear button, so she would not have to hear.

But as he had no peace, juggling and rejuggling the money to figure: how will I pay for this now?; prying out the storm windows (there they take are of this); jolting in the streetcar on errands (there I would not have to ride to take care of this or that); fending the patronizing relatives just back from Florida (at the Haven it matters what one is, not what one can afford), he gave her no peace.

"Look! In their bulletin. A reading circle. Twice a week it meets."

"Haumm," her answer of not listening.

"A reading circle, Chekhov they read that you would like, and Peretz [Isaac Loeb Peretz, turn-of-the-century Russian writer of fiction in Yiddish]. Cultured people at the Haven that you would enjoy."

"Enjoy!" She tasted the word. "Now, when it pleases you, you find a reading circle for me. And forty years ago when the children were morsels and there was a Circle, did you stay home with them once so I could go? Even once? You trained me well. I do not need others to enjoy. Others!" Her voice trembled. "Because you want to be there with others. Already it makes me sick to think of you always around others. Clown, grimacer, floormat, yesman, entertainer, whatever they want of you."

And now it was he who turned the television loud so he need not hear.

Old scar tissue ruptured and the wounds festered anew. Chekhov indeed. She thought without the softness of that young wife, you in the deep night hours while she nursed the current baby, and perhaps held another in her lap, would try to stay awake for the only time there was to read. She would feel again the weather of the outside on his cheek when, coming late from a meeting, he would find her so, and stimulated and ardent, sniffing her skin, coax: "I'll put the baby to bed, and you — put the book away, don't read, don't read."

That had been the most beguiling of all the "don't read, put your book away" her life had been. Chekhov indeed!

"Money?" She shrugged him off. "Could we get poorer than once we were? And in America, who starves?"

But as still he pressed:

"Let me alone about money. Was there ever enough? Seven little ones — for every penny I had to ask — and sometimes, remember, there was nothing. But always I had to manage. Now you manage. rub your nose in it good."

But from those years she had had to manage, old humiliations and terrors rose up, lived again, and forced her to relive them. The children's needings; that grocer's face or this merchant's wife she had had to beg credit from when credit was a disgrace; the scenery of the long blocks walked around when she could not pay; school coming, and the desperate going over the old to see what could yet be remade; the soups of meat bones begged "for-the-dog" one winter….

Enough. Now they had no children. Let him wrack his head for how they would live. She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.

Excerpted with permission from Rutgers University Press.

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