Tillie Olsen's Tender Portrait of a Marriage The title novella in Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle, says Scott Turow, "achieves the shocking brevity and power of the best poems." Turow, the author of Presumed Innocent and other novels, talks about why Olsen's story about an aged couple has become one of his favorite texts.
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Tillie Olsen's Tender Portrait of a Marriage

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Tillie Olsen's Tender Portrait of a Marriage

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Tillie Olsen's Tender Portrait of a Marriage

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Author and lawyer Scott Turow hit the big time with his legal thriller Presumed Innocent. It was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford. Since then he's published six more novels - all legal thrillers, all set in the Chicago area. For our series You Must Read This, Turow recommends a work that some call a short story, others a novella.

SCOTT TUROW: When I was a senior at Amherst College in 1969, the writer Tillie Olsen came there to teach. This thrilled me. For one thing, it was a personal triumph. Many members of the English department regarded creative writing as an academic discipline on the level of woodshop. More important, 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. Since I was already trying my hand at writing stories, 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 means a work that can be read in one sitting. Tell Me a Riddle is really a novella of more than 50 pages.

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 to find her only comforts in solitude, he by the struggle to support that teeming family so that he yearns to sell their house and buy into the Haven, where he will at last live care free 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 the years 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 resembles what I had heard for years from my maternal grandparents. With their heavy accents and frequent detours into Yiddish, my grandparents had always struck me as foreign and strange. Even while I knew they had endured hardships almost unimaginable to me as a comfortable second generation American. 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 familiar subject could be elevated to great art.

Tillie had left school at the age of 16. She was an autodidact and thus had invented a literary tradition of her own. 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 I have essentially memorized it. And 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.

One critic said that Tell Me a Riddle will live as long as the American language. You must read it.

NORRIS: Scott Turow is a lawyer and the author of Presumed Innocent and five other books. His latest is called Limitations.

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