by Katherine Anne Porter
Harcourt, Brace, & World, 495 pp., $5.95
It is good to have Miss Porter’s stories collected in one elegant volume. The new book contains all the stories in Flowering Judas, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and The Leaning Tower, with the addition of four not previously published in book form. (These are “Virgin Violeta,” “The Martyr,” “The Fig Tree,” and a remarkably beautiful story called “Holiday.”) With the stories in hand and the dust of Ship of Fools now settled, it is a good time to think of Miss Porter’s work in fiction and to reflect a little upon its direction. It is assumed, to begin with, that she is at least a minor writer of unusual distinction, a stylist, a craftsman.
Reading the fiction again, remembering some pieces almost in detail and others not at all, I find that the memorable stories declare themselves in a certain pattern. Miss Porter tends to write a story by sending the mind of a character to trouble the past, turning facts into myths and myths into mythologies; then to return, freighted and ready. In “Flowering Judas” Laura listens to Braggioni as he sings to her of the sea and his loneliness. Braggioni’s cadences play against her own, but not in harmony, because he is rehearsing cadences already made which he now prescribes as his own, while she is searching for new cadences made to the measure of her own feeling. Braggioni is locked in the cadences of a song his own because he sings it; he is a man of action in this as in other respects. But Laura is trying to find a song which will be her own measure only if she finds it. So in the pattern of the story Braggioni is fixed in his experience: Laura, caught in the frame of things, ranges abroad to discover herself. This pattern in Miss Porter’s stories is authoritative without being authoritarian; it allows other patterns as well to exist in the stories. Its most persistent form is the impression of memory. In “Old Mortality” John Jacob recalls the girls he had known in the family of his youth and, against heavy evidence, declares that “they had all been in every generation without exception, as slim as reeds and graceful as sylphs.” In “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” Granny is in bed, dying, but her mind is out in the past, knitting memories and desires. Coming back with this only half accomplished, she finds her death stealing upon her. “Granny lay curled down within herself, amazed and watchful, staring at the point of light that was herself; her body was now only a deeper mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around the light and swallow it up.” So the story swings between the gritty world of fact and the new world made by adding to the old a qualified memory. In “Old Mortality,” the little girls live in dull lessons, stiff shoes, and scratchy flannels, but there is another land …