Hermione Lee

It is 1912, and Miranda Gay, one of Katherine Anne Porter’s versions of her younger self, is travelling to a family reunion in South Texas, in the country between Austin and San Antonio. She has made a rash early marriage and alienated herself from her family. She talks to an elderly woman cousin on the train, who bursts out: ‘Ah, the family … the whole hideous institution should be wiped from the face of the earth.’ Miranda, who is on her way home to an unfriendly widowed father and a houseful of siblings and cousins, violently longs to create her own, separate future:

Her blood rebelled against the ties of blood. She was sick to death of cousins. She did not want any more ties with this house, she was going to leave it, and she was not going back to her husband’s family either. She would have no more bonds that smothered her in love and hatred … Her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past but the legend of the past, other people’s memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic lantern show. Ah, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond.

In the next ‘Miranda’ story, set in 1918 during the flu epidemic (in which Porter herself nearly died), home still haunts her dreams: ‘Too many people have been born here, and have wept too much here, and have laughed too much … There are far too many ancestral bones propped up on the mantelpieces, there have been too damned many antimacassars in this house, she said loudly, and oh, what accumulation of storied dust never allowed to settle in peace for one moment.’

These two stories, ‘Old Mortality’ and ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’, were written in Paris in the mid-1930s, when Porter was in her forties. They capture her gifts, her obsessions and her predicament. The young woman who wants to get free of her roots and her childhood, but who will never, in fact, let go of them; the short-story writer who takes years and years to shape her material; the restless traveller who keeps on returning to and re-creating her early years in a small patch of the South; the narrator dedicated to acts of remembering, who is always altering what actually happened: these are not unique contradictions in a writing life, but they are particularly intense in Porter’s case.

She makes us hear the sound of a mind helplessly going over its past, more in a spirit of self-deception or self-justification than of growing awareness. One of her best stories, ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall’, gives us the virtuoso deathbed stream-of-consciousness of an old woman, ‘rummaging around’ tenaciously through her life’s disappointments and hardships and endeavours, as she ‘lay curled down within herself, amazed and watchful’. Another fine story, ‘Noon Wine’, tracks the mental rat-run of a desperate poor white farmer going over and over the moment when he killed a man without meaning to: ‘Try as he might, Mr Thompson’s mind would not go anywhere that it had not already been, he could not see anything but what he had seen once, and he knew that was not right.’

The way memory ambushes us is of acute interest to Porter. In 1936 she observed in her notebook that ‘all my experience seems to be simply memory.’ She tries to create distance between the memory and the writing; the trick, she told her friend the novelist Caroline Gordon, was to write about yourself as if you were writing about someone else. But much of her fiction grew out of memories: ‘Without warning, plain and clear in its true colours as if she looked through a frame upon a scene that had not stirred nor changed since the moment it happened, the episode of that far-off day leaped from its burial place before her mind’s eye.’ She knows the rewards, and the risks, of manipulating memories:

My own habit of writing fiction has provided a wholesome exercise to my natural, incurable tendency to try to wangle the sprawling mess of our existence in this bloody world into some kind of shape … what utter confusion shall prevail if you cannot take hold firmly, and draw the exact line between what really happened, and what you have since imagined about it.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in