Ambassador For the Fairytale: 

On Kate Bernheimer


          Ilya Kaminsky    


If you google Kate Bernheimer you will find a number of books and anthologies of (or about) fairytales that are passionately, uncompromisingly, in love with the fairytale, fairytale-as-form, form-as-content in a fairytale, and the influence of various forms on each other, through tradition as exemplified by fairytales, from the time immemorial to our day.

 Let’s start with her own work:  Kate Bernheimer’s recent trilogy of novels about the Gold sisters plays on a wide array of human emotions, from rage to bliss, and gives us a very different kind of an epic look at an American family—wicked, funny, melancholy, earnest in its innocence, fresh in the way it looks at the loneliness of the American hero.

When she tells us the tales of sisters Merry, Ketzia and Lucy, Bernheimer succeeds because she is well aware of Nabokov’s advice to the writers of fiction:  “You must first cast a spell on your reader and only then teach them a lesson.”

And, she also knows an important thing that all fairytale authors know: dark subjects are not forbidden, they are magical. They teach us endurance, they teach us to stand on our toes. And if her characters are not afraid of loneliness, perhaps this is because they know, as Marianne Moore and Dietrich Bonheoffer did, that the best cure for loneliness is solitude.

This is the sort of solitude that any reader or writer knows. It is the sort of solitude in which a company of books by others is the best company there is. This is the sort of a company you will find in Bernheimer’s first major anthology, which brought together our best known contemporary authors--from A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood to Fanny Howe and Carole Maso--and asked them to speak about their influences. (Now, if you are someone like me, this sort of a project is a pure paradise: I would pay you by the hour to have great contemporary writers speak about the stories that influenced them.)

Clearly, this book found a receptive audience, and so Bernheimer went on to produce a number of other compilations in recent years, and also opened a marvelous journal, The Fairy Tale Review.

Why such passion about the particular form?

Perhaps this is because Bernheimer knows, as Nabokov did, that all great novels are also great fairytales. She argues (in the introduction to one of her anthologies) that all great narratives are in fact great fairytales, despite their shape—novel novella, short story, poem.

She is also quite aware that “fairy-tales defy status quo: readers will easily recognize a version of “Little Red Riding Hood” that contains no cape, no woods, and no wolf.”

And she is quite right. What she found, in her love of the form, is the ability to cast a spell, to make her own passion for the subject contagious. Anyone who searches for her work on the internet will find—as I did—that Kate Bernheimer, the marvelous fiction writer of uncommon sensibility, also, in the course of the past decade became an institution: she became a one-woman-literary-world, with the journal, the anthologies, the children books, the novels, the short-short collection, the presentations on the form given all around the country. There is a danger, of course, to one’s being an “ambassador” for the form, but in Bernheimer’s case, it seems to me, the work is very well justified. Her passion for the subject is simply and graciously honest, is direct, and above all, spellbinding.

So, when I think of work such as Bernheimer’s, I am reminded of the spell that a tale casts on us, this trance, what is at times called fairytale, at other times, magic, at other times children’s literature, at other times, dream-time of human civilization, and at other times, simply “Let me tell you a story.”

 -- Ilya Kaminsky