Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin, 1963. © 2015, Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP (no copyright infringement intended)

Lucia Berlin, 1963. © 2015, Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP (no copyright infringement intended)

Lucia Berlin was a fan of Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford, she made her high school students read An American Way of Death. She named an upper-class Bostonian character ‘Decca’ in her short story The Wives, published in her book, Where I Live Now. I hope that has caught your attention…

During her lifetime Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) collected a modest but dedicated following, predominantly on the west coast of America. Her bibliography includes: A Manual for Cleaning Ladies; Angels Laundromat: Short Stories; Phantom Pain: Sixteen Stories; Safe & Sound; Homesick: New & Selected Stories; So Long: Stories; Where I Live Now: Stories, 1993-1998.

Her writing was autobiographical, ranging from a childhood in Alaska and El Paso, Texas, to her teenage years in Chile, and her adult life in Mexico, New Mexico, New York City, California and Colorado. Her writing is set in those sprawling landscapes: darkened alleyways strewn with drunks and druggies; a debutante amongst the communists in Chile; backstreet clinics; downtrodden apartments; the drudgery of commuting to work and the weekly visits to mundane laundromats. She writes about her abusive childhood at the hands of her alcoholic mother and grandfather, addiction, relationships, poverty, unemployment, cultural and class differences – Lucia herself could walk through those walls, like a phantom in a way, and the tapestry of her own life was made up of many backgrounds, many subplots. Her work is not a misery memoir, but an insight into human nature. Sometimes she is the victim without a victim’s mentality. Other times she is the onlooker, helpless and doing her best to help.

Lucia Berin’s posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson with a foreword by Lydia Davis, compromises over forty of her best stories. Sometimes I read them in chronicle order, or I revisit my favourites (Stars and Saints, Good and Bad, La Vie en Rose, So Long, A Love Affair, Mama). There is a link between many of the stories and the same character will appear throughout the book which makes the prose, more than ever, appear as an autobiography, or a memoir at the very least. They are a window to her life, and what a fascinating world she lived in.

The stories veer away from what I am used to but there is something about them that is hard to fathom. Lucia kept her finger on the pulse of life, and that is conveyed with startling realism in her prose. It is a pleasing conundrum. To look at, she was a magnificent beauty – a cross between Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, with a soft, sing-song voice. (Listen to her readings here) And yet, through the written word, she could portray such ugliness. My feelings are exactly that of the captain in Mama: ‘You’re breaking my heart, you dusky beauty!’

This is just the tip of he iceberg for Lucia Berlin. I hope publishers scramble to publish her additional work. I dream of a biography, Mitford-esque letters, a documentary…all good things!

Further reading:

A short biography of Lucia Berlin

Listen to Lucia Berlin’s creative writing workshop

Lucia Berlin on Vimeo

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