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The Lonely Voice: 'The Infinite Passion of Expectation' By Gina Berriault

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Peter Orner has said that the work of Gina Berriault is “chronically underread.” For him, her 1982 short story collection, The Infinite Passion of Expectation has always been a touchstone. Orner has written that he has several copies of that book, calling his “affection” for it “unabashed.”

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Peter Orner

The title story of that collection features a young waitress who lives in a depressed neighborhood in San Francisco and who goes weekly to the home of a well to do psychologist who is almost 80 years old.

The doctor would like to possess what the girl represents by seducing her, using, as Peter Orner reminds us, “his eminence, his erudition, at the first opportune moment to manipulate her into bed with him.”

The girl would like to get closer to the things she reveres about him — mostly, it seems, his “wisdom,” for whatever that could mean for her — a nice house or the knowledge that comes with a long life.

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The doctor can never be young or beautiful again — not in the way the girl is for him.

The waitress cannot have what she yearns for — not right away, and not if she cannot understand that there are other means to her particular goals. But her time is not running out as it is for him. Her sense of the “infinite” is different from his.

Berriault, Orner says, “finds a way to redeem those who deserve it least.” The lowly waitress with her life stretching out in front of her might not have the wealth and sophistication of her therapist, but she still has an upper hand of a kind and “gives him back the nobility he so flippantly squandered.”

In the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, experience is an après-coup, a later revelation.

About this transaction, Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia once said that there are only “two or three moments of life in which passion defines temporality and fixes its enduring sign upon the present.”

Passion is always present, but if you return to it in remembering, you live through it again as something present and luminous as the sun.

Writes Peter Orner, “That shiny promise ahead is out there, just beyond the grasp. (Berriault’s) people can almost see it on the horizon, they can feel its heat, but they can’t quite reach it.”

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.