Wangling

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.

Plenty of writers take a lifetime to turn their past into art. Plenty of writers – especially those from the American South – return in their fiction to a community deeply rooted in its past, even though in life they want to escape it. Porter was not a great admirer of Faulkner, but she was very sympathetic to Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Like them she paid close attention to children’s and women’s lives, to the private worlds of vulnerable figures in a strongly familial, traditional, religious and intrusive society. It would be possible to pigeonhole Porter as a typical Southern woman writer, with her evocations of post-Civil War rural communities, her cast of powerful matriarchs and weak, bullying fathers, quarrelling husbands and wives, wandering misfits and resentful, adventuring daughters. But in her long life (from 1890 to 1980) there was a peculiar combination of rapid, quickly abandoned adventures (though she always said she preferred ‘experience’ to ‘adventures’) – countries, houses, affairs, marriages, friendships – and a slow, uncertain, laborious piecing together of those experiences into fiction.

An awful lot of ‘wangling’ went on in Porter’s writing-up of her past. The facts were ugly. Her mother died when she was nearly two, soon after the birth of a fifth child. Porter’s depressive father never recovered from the loss, and struggled incompetently and unhappily to bring up his four surviving children on small Texan farms and in rented rooms. The children were taken over by his mother, a fierce Methodist who died when Porter was 11 and whose strong faith and repressive puritanism left their mark.

This bleak background tended to be softened in autobiographical pieces full of flowery writing about ‘the native land of my heart’ and the ‘summer-country of my childhood’. Porter could do gone-with-the-windiness for pages on end: ‘the smells and flavours of roses and melons, and peach bloom and ripe peaches, of cape jessamine in hedges blooming like popcorn, and the sickly sweetness of chinaberry florets … the delicious milky green corn, savoury hot corn bread eaten with still-warm sweet milk’ etc etc. Her versions of her family history included more verandahs, distinguished libraries, Civil War heroes, slave-holding Daniel Boone-descended ancestors, old linen and old porcelain, than really existed. In an evasive 1956 essay on the sources of ‘Noon Wine’, which was based on a visit to her aunt’s home in Buda, Texas when she was 13, she took great pains to play down her connection to the story’s poor white family. But the closeness of ‘Noon Wine’ to the realities of her childhood is what gives it its power. Porter wrote of ‘my horror and pain here and now from that old terrible time’ – but it was the making of her as a writer.

Porter ran away from home at 16 to get married. Her young husband, who knocked her about and was unfaithful, was the first of five, all temporary and unsatisfactory. Some of them tended to fall out of her accounts of her life: ‘I have no hidden marriages,’ she told an interviewer in 1965, ‘they just sort of slip my mind.’ She was beautiful and adventurous, always in search of companionship but unable to sustain long relationships. Until her seventies, she was invariably involved in one affair or another, though without much sexual satisfaction, and paid the price in miscarriages, an abortion, a stillborn child and an attack of gonorrhoea that led to a hysterectomy. She lacked caution and confidence, describing herself in 1928 as neurotic, undisciplined, self-doubting and corruptible. Her life was one of endless uprooting and moving on, incompetence with money, lost friendships and lovers, family quarrels. But her restlessness meant that she plunged into some of the dramatic moments of her time. In her later life, much in demand on lecture tours or as a writer-in-residence, a grand recipient of prizes and honours, she liked to tell stories of such occasions. This is her mid-1960s version of a reading, 30 years before, at Sylvia Beach’s Left Bank bookshop, Shakespeare & Company:

One evening a crowd gathered in Sylvia’s bookshop to hear T.S. Eliot read some of his own poems. Joyce sat near Eliot, his eyes concealed under his dark glasses, silent, motionless, head bowed a little, eyes closed most of the time, as I could plainly see from my chair a few feet away in the same row, as far removed from human reach as if he were already dead. Eliot, in a dry but strong voice, read some of his early poems, turning the pages now and again with a look very near to distaste, as if he did not like the sound of what he was reading … The whole profile looked like a bird of prey of some sort. He might have been alone, reading to himself aloud, not once did he glance at his listeners. Joyce sat as still as if he were asleep, except for his attentive expression.

Such vivid reconstructions are the hallmark of Porter’s work. From 1920 to 1923 she worked as a journalist in Mexico City, intensely involved with the group of politicians, fighters and diplomats around President Obregón, and with the cultural world surrounding her hero Diego Rivera. This exciting time produced some strong stories and articles, but the novel she meant to write about Mexico never appeared, and the strongest of her Mexican stories, ‘Flowering Judas’, a dreamy, alarming mood-picture of erotic threat and fear, took about eight years to come together. On the other hand, ‘Hacienda’, a surreal account of observing Eisenstein directing ¡Qué Viva Mexico! in Hacienda Tetlapayac in 1931, was written relatively quickly – within three years.

In 1927, Porter was one of those who protested against the politically motivated arrest, trial and execution for murder of the Boston anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Participation in this protest was almost compulsory for liberals in America between the wars. Porter had strong political convictions, but had as little faith in political movements as she did in organised religion. Her involvement with Communism in the 1920s was temporary and lukewarm. Her attraction to Catholicism – to which she converted at 20, and kept returning to, particularly in old age, though with more longing than conviction – was uncertain. Catholicism had an aesthetic appeal, but she thought the history of institutional religion was ‘calamitous’ and ‘savage’. For most of her life she was a pacifist, strong in her stories on cruelty and violence against the weak and helpless, and an enemy to tyrannical movements, whether Communist, Fascist or Christian fundamentalist.

It took her 50 years to turn the events of 1927, on which she took copious and passionate notes, into a jumbled, emotional piece, ‘The Never-Ending Wrong’, published in 1977, and as much about memory’s slipperiness as about what had actually happened: ‘After more than half a long lifetime, I find that any recollection, however vivid and lasting, must unavoidably be mixed with many afterthoughts. It is hard to remember anything perfectly straight, accurate, no matter whether it was painful or pleasant at that time.’

It took her ten years to turn her experience of Berlin in 1931 into a sinister and evocative story, ‘The Leaning Tower’; she had spent an evening with Goering (much exaggerated in the retelling), who told her that ‘the Jews must learn to be good Germans or they must go.’ The most extreme example of her procrastination was her ‘great American novel’, Ship of Fools, inspired by a journey made in 1931 and finally published in 1962, after going through many titles, more than one publisher (she moved from Horace Liveright to Donald Brace to Atlantic and Little, Brown) and many published extracts.

Of this long, intense, drifting allegorical fable, set on a sea voyage from Vera Cruz to Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and consisting of episodic, repetitive treatments of various unsatisfactory or claustrophobic relationships on board, Porter wrote to Josephine Herbst in 1946: ‘My book is about the constant endless collusion between good and evil; I believe that human beings are capable of total evil, but no one has ever been totally good: and this gives the edge to evil. I don’t offer any solution, I just want to show the principle at work.’ There was no plot, but a gallery of more than 40 characters whose moral apathy, betrayal, prejudice and cruelty symbolised the human race’s weakness for coercion and totalitarianism. This culmination of her life’s attempt to be more than a short-story writer turned out to be an occasionally interesting, long-winded treatment of 20th-century civilisation, sinking under the weight of revision and expectation. It did well commercially, however, and was made into a film in 1965. This was a great help to Porter, who had extravagant habits and was tormented by money troubles throughout her life. She lived off advances (often for unfulfilled contracts), journalism, friends, debt, unemployment benefit, a brief stint as a Hollywood scriptwriter, fellowships and teaching posts. She made very little from her stories until the success of Flowering Judas in 1930. She never saved, could not deal with her taxes, and loved giving expensive presents – to herself and others.

But although Ship of Fools made some money, it was criticised for its outdated concerns, its anti-semitism, its unrelenting tone and episodic structure. Despite such assessments, Porter’s Collected Stories won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1966. Her stories were anthologised and taught, and feminist critics in the 1970s gave her a new lease of life. But despite their enthusiasm, her reputation had dwindled by the time of her death in 1980. Joan Givner’s biography, published two years later, took a defensive tone: ‘The present decline in her popularity is an error of judgment.’ Now the Library of America edition presents her collected stories and non-fiction (omitting Ship of Fools) as an American classic. Does she deserve it?

The stories are patchy. There is a lot of overwriting, as in this praise of Hellenism over Puritanism in the whimsical ‘A Defence of Circe’: ‘In this sunny high comedy there are profound meanings, some lovely truth almost lost to us but that still hovers glimmering at the farthest edge of consciousness, a nearly remembered dream of glory; and it is our fault and our utter loss if we tarnish the bright vision with our guilt-laden breath, our nightmare phantasies.’ She often runs on, and says too much; as, apparently, she did in old age, when ‘a typical KAP evening’ consisted of everyone ‘sitting around and listening to her talk about herself’. In her essays on other writers, she often talks about the importance of craft, revealingly in relation to Katherine Mansfield: ‘I judge her work to have been to a great degree a matter of intelligent use of her faculties, a conscious practice of a hard-won craftsmanship, a triumph of discipline over the unruly circumstances and confusions of her personal life and over certain destructive elements in her own nature.’ But she talks too about the ‘instinctive knowledge’ of a writer, about having ‘blood-knowledge’ and ‘blood-bonds’ with one’s subject. Like Lawrence, whom she read with critical attention, she seems not always to have known whether what she was doing was good or not, but to have written because she felt she had to. There are strong, richly textured evocations of places, especially in the Mexico stories. There are terrific stories of family and marital cruelty. There are sinister, powerful characters and some alarming dream-states. There are dazzlingly controlled passages of apparently simple dialogue, as in the savage story of marital cruelty and disappointment ‘A Day’s Work’:

‘There’s the telephone,’ said Mr Halloran, sitting in the armchair again and taking his pipe out of his shirt pocket.

‘I heard it as well,’ said Mrs Halloran, sliding the iron up and down over the salmon-coloured chiffon.

‘It’s for you, I’ve no further business in this world,’ said Mr Halloran. His little greenish eyes glittered; he exposed his two sharp dogteeth in a grin.

‘You could answer it. It could be the wrong number again or for somebody downstairs,’ said Mrs Halloran, her flat voice going flatter, even.

‘Let it go in any case,’ decided Mr Halloran.

‘It might be Maggie again,’ said Mrs Halloran.

‘Let her ring, then,’ said Mr Halloran, settling back and crossing his legs.

  ‘God help a man who won’t answer the telephone when his own daughter calls up for a word,’ commented Mrs Halloran to the ceiling.

But what makes Porter most worth returning to is her intensity, her originality, her painful urgency. In her best stories, there is a narrative voice which is not like anyone else’s: it talks intimately and feelingly through its characters, in vivid, rushing sentences. It’s in ‘Noon Wine’ in the depression of Mr Thompson’s invalid wife: ‘Life was all one dread, the faces of her neighbours, of her boys, of her husband, the face of the whole world, the shape of her own house in the darkness, the very smell of the grass and the trees were horrible to her. There was no place to go.’ It’s in ‘The Leaning Tower’ in the voice of the horror-struck young man in Berlin, aware of ‘something perishable but threatening, uneasy, hanging over his head or stirring angrily, dangerously, at his back’. It’s in the delirium of Miranda in ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’, when she is almost at death’s door:

All ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live … Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said. Trust me. I stay.