‘Porter!’

Penelope Gilliatt

  • The Life of Katherine Anne Porter by Joan Givner
    Cape, 572 pp, £15.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 224 02093 5

By God, America is great, and so are its scholarly books. This one is 572 pages long and it took the author twenty years to write. Longer than Katherine Anne Porter found to write the whole of her resplendent work. Joan Givner’s book might be called light plane reading, except that it is heartlessly grave, gravid though fruitless, and would take the most receptive astronauts a moon-flight to try to sleep through, its dulled prose keeping them tossing and turning all the way.

Magazines over a certain size, as we know, are read from the back. This is not to suggest that Joan Givner’s Caxton’s Bible of a biography is a magazine: not in any way. But the patient reader will find himself at about page 300 starting on the next half of his task from the back of the book. The index is bracing. Among the terrific numbers of Porters (c. 23), the Katherine Anne Porter Joan Givner is writing about gets the most entries: ‘deadlines feared by’, ‘death of’, ‘deepest hour of’, ‘divorces of’, (11 items), ‘erroneous background information given by’ (ten scolded items), ‘garrulousness of’ (the heroine: an odd thing to pick on in such an endless flat-foot of a book), ‘pearls by’, ‘work abandoned for diversions by’, followed antithetically by ‘working to point of collapse as habit of’. A little later, there is her sister, Mary Alice: ‘bulldog owned by’. This is a thorough book.

The index is the only place where Katherine Anne Porter is given her due name. Everywhere else she is ‘Porter’. Was ‘Katherine Anne Porter’ too much to lug? It is the tone of the book. She becomes the burden of her biographer. ‘Porter!’ calls Joan Givner, summoning the serf who had all this onus of fun and talent and who cannily refuses to be a hireling by flitting off for disapproved diversions. Joan Givner is censorious in the extreme. Wanting in the lenitude of her subject, she writes as though it were to play hookey to enjoy Louisiana, and Mexico, and writing, and the giving of hospitality. Joan Givner’s career so far has been confined to a drab dance around her leafless groves of Academe. Born in Manchester, living in Saskatchewan with two daughters and her husband, with the University of London in between, and Radcliffe, raping libraries all over the Free West. She even rapes them for what does not exist. ‘Of the fact that he never read Porter’s magazine articles there is no record,’ she writes of Katherine Anne Porter’s first husband. Thus Gödel’s famous first theorem: she proves a formula that is not provable and whose negation is not provable either. Who would have expected the practice of biography so to have strayed?

There are three things especially odd about this book. First, the sentences are nearly always non-contiguous, though the paragraphing is perfectly sensible: ‘sensible’ as in ‘sensible shoes’ and ‘sensible pearls’. They read as though they had been taken straight off Joan Givner’s indubitably painstaking index-cards, embalmed a decade or two ago in sentence form. Second, there seems to be no relationship of sensibility between the biographer and ‘Porter!’. In the good and great literary biographers there will always be found, valuably, some entering into the temperament and so into the prose style of the person written about. No such things happen here. There seems to be no affinity. When something of Katherine Anne Porter’s is quoted, it jumps away from the page and begs to be read aloud – unlike Joan Givner’s words, which slog on in their card-index fashion. Third, there is no delight in or glint of passion for the English language anywhere in the book. This is so unlike Katherine Anne Porter’s writing that you wonder what drew the characters together, as people so often say of married couples. In the one corner, Academe muscle-power: in the other, small biceps strengthened by festivity and a haughty, febrile sense that ‘Porter!’ was Katherine Anne Porter for good and in her own right.

So solemn and undoubtedly genuine a book as Joan Givner’s demands to be read with her own assiduity. Unless you have rather a lot of time to spare on drab English – ‘Gloom should be painted in perspective,’ said the bulldog Times severely in a recent leading article – you will need patience. Joan Givner’s censoriousness extends even to upbraiding Katherine Anne Porter for remembering ‘almost nothing’ of the first two years of her life. She said that her earliest memory was of ‘a journey she took at the age of two’. The august hand of Sigmund is here, reaching out to Saskatchewan. Before 24 months, no divorces or diversions to put on the index cards. Professor Givner’s grim literalness, which must lend no end of wholesome cheer to the classroom, expresses naive wonder at Katherine Anne Porter’s sadness about her early life, for all that her mother died when she was a toddler, the remnants of the family moved from place to place, she was often ill, and poverty held her in a vice grip. Yet Joan Givner is a scold about Katherine Anne Porter’s longing to haul herself out of her nightmare of seeing only a void: ‘When she grew up nothing was more important to Porter than to be well-dressed.’ Straight up to bed and no bread and water for dinner. In any case, it seems questionable whether being well-dressed was the most important thing to this singular writer, who happened to be a great beauty. Work entered. It is permissible to work to a rare pitch in a feather boa.

This book that sets so much store by the methodical might well have found some slight alliance between its character and the character of Katherine Anne Porter in her loathing description of her father as ‘loving confusion, hatred and cross-purposes’. That opinion is there in plain view in all the short stories, and even in the over-stretched late novel Ship of Fools. But Joan Givner achieves no link between biographer and subject. She imparts no love of Katherine Anne Porter, and this is the major ethical misdemeanour of the book. She often seems to feel that her subject was not much more than a dishy madcap who dropped everything for a new love and wrote as arbitrarily as a peaky Victorian younger daughter might have, or like an unmarriageable young girl shoved into practising the harp because she had at least pretty and even possibly nubile elbows. But there are more than nubile elbows here. The precision of Katherine Anne Porter when she was writing, and her wrath and desperation with herself when she was not, elude her biographer. Even though these are touched upon with library-labour – censoriously, for ‘non-functioning’ – they seem not to be understood. She is said to have gravitated to homosexuals and the already married, though she loathed – loathed – lesbians, which in the eyes of the puritanical biographer appears to be some redemption.

Her first husband was named John Koontz. Joan Givner grapples gamely with the task of talking about plural Koontzes in the possessive and brings it off. Katherine Anne Porter was born in Texas. The family’s great friends were the Schlemmers. Their way of life is described as ‘very European’. As they had just arrived in America and the children spoke German, the fact that ‘even the son studied music’ – a note of surprise here – would not have sprung Wolfgang Amadeus out of his seat. Eventually worming her way out of Texas and the Koontz plural possessive problem, one that no writer could have faced on being called on to change her name to her husband’s, Katherine Anne Porter got herself to Chicago, where she played bit parts in a few movies. Joan Givner has no doubt that they affected her technique as a writer. What? Playing short parts affected her technique as a short-story writer? She was not only a short-story writer but also a short story writer. Joan Givner meticulously gives us her height. Five foot two.

Then Katherine Anne Porter became a reporter, writing stories (short) for a Chicago newspaper. A green eye-shade would not have suited this reporter and no doubt she was sufficiently her own woman to dress to suit the writer and not the story. Then, slowly, celebrity. Much is excoriatingly made of the celebrity and the time-taking frivolities – marriages, friendships, divorces, making up Mexican beds at what Joan Givner regards as a hectic pace for house-parties of people who stayed up until hours after midnight. It was not until the middle of her long life – Katherine Anne Porter lived until well into her eighties – that she went back to Texas: an attempt perhaps to come to terms at last with this huge and, to her, alien State, which is not Southern, certainly not Midwestern, yielder of Presidents fattened up on the hoof, pinned to the geography of the continent by oil-drills that provide fortunes beyond the dreams of avarice to some uninvigorating people. It was a misfortune that Katherine Anne Porter sprang from there, even though her fierce and very American sense of literary obligation to birthplace, and her dazzling ear, produced in her stories to do with Texas some of her best work.

Joan Givner reproaches her subject for making up many of the details of her genealogy: again, this censoriousness about a characteristic maddening merely to a biographer, especially one of this ilk. Her subject was, like Coriolanus, ‘the author of herself, and knew no other kin’. Katherine Anne Porter spent relentless energy in tracking down the history of any spectacular Porter or Boone, another family name, and in nailing their achievements onto her ancestral tree and axing the discards. She ransacked the old and new worlds for an invented history of her forebears. This is not so rare in authors. Joan Givner, ever the Special Branch investigator, is hot onto every remaking of the facts. In her acknowledgments, as readable as the index, she emerges triumphant from the waves of research to thank ‘Sister Marguerite Bron, formerly of the Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, who was responsible for the discovery of the circumstances of Porter’s conversion to Catholicism and her baptism’. Joan Givner is graceful in thoroughness.

How did this book and twenty years of a youngish woman’s life as a scholar come to be given to Katherine Anne Porter? Like climbing Everest, perhaps. And also because Katherine Anne Porter asked her to do it, when the beautiful writer was aged indeed. It appears from this book that she had vanity, though through the prism of Joan Givner’s plain-spun and honest mind it is difficult to tell vanity from the ferocity that was born of her talent. She was certainly most generous to other and younger writers. Vanity and generosity are not antithetical. Joan Givner is better when she comes to write of the work itself, though here even more than elsewhere it is strange that her style is so unresponsive to the author’s.

Katherine Anne Porter is often taken to be a Southern writer: that is, extravagant, exotic, bigoted, Gothic, unprim, at ease with the vernacular, full-blown, eccentric. In none of these senses except one – startling use of the vernacular – was she a Southerner at all. She was not even geographically a Southerner, though she was very much at ease with Mexicans. She disliked Faulkner, who of her generation – before Styron or Capote – is often now seen as the archetypal Southern writer. She seems to have more in common with Flannery O’Connor, if people are to be clamped in boxes. She was never part of any school. In her short stories, which are the best of her work, she fires off none of the quick-thud ironic or melodramatic shots and uses none of the swift falls into a receding landscape of dot-dot-dots that are the common tricks of the short story. Often she manages what is taken to be impossible in a short story: a subplot. She writes English with an exactness rare in American fiction of this century. Her best stories have an after-sting. The reader expects some counter-twist on the last pages, but no such trick. The end is a true end, and the truth of its acceleration comes when you read any of her finest stories a second time.

Her short stories show us the shifting cloud-movements in human affairs, and they show us where those shifts come from. There are no studied evasions in her work. Her characters speak to us without obfuscation. I suppose there are reasonably useful groupings to be made among her stories. There are the ones about family in working-class or middle-class life (collected in The Leaning Tree), where she miraculously accommodates the darkness of what she describes within the vivacity of her writing. Usually included in the same collection is a study of Germany between the wars. But she is most famous for her stories about women. Miranda is the centre figure of the three short novels that make up Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The first six stories of The Leaning Tree are about Miranda’s childhood and her family background – people from Louisiana living in southern Texas. In her stories, a value is being destroyed, and one finds the root of the spirit of whose undernourishment and violation she writes. The value is embodied in the moral grace of her prose, in its intelligence and attentiveness. She is aware that something crucial is in peril and her stories hold in their hand the compass of disquiet.