Two new books bring Lucia Berlin back to life

The author Lucia Berlin. (Buddy Berlin copyright Literary Estate or Lucia Berlin)

During her life, Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, published 76 short stories. But it was not until 2015 that her posthumously published collection "A Guide for Cleaners" was released in 2015, that her work earned the widespread excitement and acclaim it deserves.

Since her fiction has been recognized too late, readers are attracted to Berlin's lyrical, almost staccato prose and the revealing, intimate sense of her stories. Berlin's writing is blunt, syncopated – almost casually offering small, arresting details and toned images.

Readers who discovered (or rediscovered) Berlin's work in 2015 welcome the release of a second posthumous story collection Evening in Paradise, as well as an accompanying book of non-fiction, & # 39; Welcome Home & # 39 ; In these two books we can see the way Berlin's fiction and non-fiction come together and reflect each other. Long before the literary world was incorporated with the complex ways in which Rachel Cusk's work merged the facts of her life with the cadences of a novel, Berlin biographically changed alchemically into moving art.

The stories in & # 39; Evening in Paradise & # 39; have that familiar Berlin effect – the perfect prose, the surprising details, the one-liners with a signal or repeated words that nestle in you. The prose of Berlin reads like poetry and feels like a memory. Deliberate moments are shifted into sparse, suggestive exchanges that appeal directly to the senses: "The brothers stood up, hugged each other and then the three sat quietly. The fire. Rain against the windows. Blur of yellow aromo at the lake. "Berlin's harsh sense of humor makes her economic language bends:" He had a face from the Civil War, a kind of hilly and skinny, sunken, shrewd eyes, a grumpy mouth, bad teeth. "

In combination with the newly published stories, & # 39; Welcome Home & # 39; an unfinished memoir in which the many places that Berlin has cataloged together with letters to poet Ed Dorn and painter and sculptor Helene Dorn. Family photos are displayed across the width.

Just like in her stories, in her non-fiction Berlin does not worry about preamble or extensive scene setting; instead, she quietly accommodates elliptical, frightened moments:

"Foals running in meadows, a small town that wakes up, a woman in a farmyard hanging sheets on the line She opened a clothespin with her teeth and waved to the train.

The Pullman bed folds even brighter than a Murphy bed and has two beds on the inside, an upper and lower bed. The upper sleeping place is good when you really want to sit in a train and you want to concentrate on all its sounds or when you want to feel alone. You sleep more because you do not look out the window. "

The non-fiction of Berlin makes her genius clear to take personal, idiosyncratic scenes from her memory and make them fiction that appeals to us all. We come through & # 39; Welcome Home & # 39; to the insight that Berlin's fiction has catalyzed its memories into pointed, surprising short stories. Berlin converts memory into fiction and uses fiction to re-view and revise memory.

In the story "The Adobe House with a Tin Roof," Berlin shows a naive new woman: "She was determined to have a good marriage, to be a good woman." Only nineteen, she had no idea what a good She did things like holding the hot part of the cup when she gave him coffee and offered him the handle. "We meet a similarly fictional character in the story" Lead Street, Albuquerque ":" He even saved her. She was sweet and fresh, lovely, with curly brown hair and blue eyes, with jeans and a pink T-shirt, but after she had been pulled into her hair, she was dyed black and straightened, wearing black make-up and only black and white clothes … He let her sleep on her stomach, the nose flat against the pillow, her nose was a slight imperfection. "These moments become more charged as soon as" Welcome Home "reveals that they are almost straight from the page & # 39; s come from the life of Berlin: "I heel d the hot part of the cup and gave it the handle. I smoothed his jockey shorts so they would be warm. I always tell these things and everyone laughs, but well, they are true. I dressed as he told me: always in black or white. My long hair was dyed black, straightened every morning. I wore heavy eye makeup and no lipstick. He let me sleep with his face down on the pillow, hoping to correct my biggest mistake, an upward-facing nose. & # 39;

Not only does Berlin use her life to create fiction, she also takes real scenes and fictionalises them in the course of stories from different angles, so that we begin to recognize important moments as versatile. Her fictitious project seems to be about how we can look and then look at ordinary life again. Although & # 39; Evening in Paradise & # 39; is inspired by the life of Berlin, the narrators are not always the stand-in of the author, but rather a viewer who looks at that character. Two stories that seem to be closest to Berlin's own life are actually expressed in the less direct third person. In & # 39; Lead Street, Albuquerque & # 39; the subtlety of Berlin's biography becomes all the more compelling when viewed in the flat, almost clinical voice of the omniscient narrator: "She had been in motion all her life. Her father was a mine engineer; her mother had been sick or crazy. . . You got the feeling that no one had ever told her or showed her that she was growing up, part of a family or a woman. The reason she was so quiet was that she looked, to see how it all ended. & # 39;

By seeing the lens of what we know of her life through non-fiction, we can view Berlin from perspectives. She returns to over-determined scenes in a number of stories, revealing something unexpectedly.

The work of Berlin asks us to reconsider the many ways in which a life can be conceived, remembered, re-formed, re-examined. Her non-fiction gives us access to her process as her letters puzzle about questions of craft. "Welcome Home" reveals how much of her life has been strung by her fiction and the reticence and power of the stories become clearer. These two new parts show how fiction deals with facts and let us marvel at how Berlin transforms memories and nostalgia into art.

Maggie Trappis a writer who lives in New Zealand.

Welcome home

From Lucia Berlin

FSG. 176 pp. $ 25.

Evening in paradise

More stories

From Lucia Berlin

FSG. 256 pp. $ 26.