Poet, seer, muse, and occasional Fury, Laura (Riding) Jackson is back among us, mercifully and pitilessly, as a writer of fictions. A new edition of her Progress of Stories, first published in 1935, reprints the original text unamended, together with twelve other early stories, one later one, and a new preface and commentary by the author. The book has long been unavailable, and its reappearance is to be welcomed; indeed, in a wiser world, its publication date would be declared a national holiday. There seems no point in trying to conceal my own enthusiasm.
Mrs. Jackson’s history deserves a few words, very few—“we must treat of it briefly, in order not to return to the matter again, if possible.” She was born in New York in 1901. She began publishing in 1923, using the names Laura Gottschalk and Laura Gottschalk Riding until 1927 and Laura Riding from then until 1939. After that she signed her work Laura Jackson or Laura (Riding) Jackson. Between 1926 and 1939 Mrs. Jackson produced a considerable body of poetry, criticism, and fiction (as well as an enthralling assemblage, Everybody’s Letters); she wrote almost nothing between 1939 and the mid-Sixties, when a series of contributions to the magazine Chelsea concluded with The Telling (published as a book in 1973), a prophetic work in prose of heartbreaking and astringent power. Since then she has chosen and prefaced Selected Poems in Five Sets (1973), and two years ago the Collected Poems of 1938 was reprinted.
Mrs. Jackson lived abroad from 1926 to 1939, first in England, then in Majorca, where Robert Graves was her companion and frequent collaborator. Two years after her return to America, she married Schuyler Jackson, with whom she lived and worked, until his death fourteen years ago, in what seems to have been a relationship of exceptional devotion and esteem.
Progress of Stories has two author’s names on its title page: Laura Riding for the stories themselves, Laura (Riding) Jackson for the new material. Her chronology explains this rare occurrence, as well as the name she finally chose. Her new surname denotes loyalty to her husband, the parenthetical Riding reminds older readers who she was. But in referring to the author of Progress, a reviewer has a problem: Mrs. Jackson did not write the book, and Miss Riding no longer exists. Her names fortunately have one element in common: Laura; and that is how I shall refer to her, for simplicity’s sake, and with anything but disrespect.
When Progress of Stories first appeared in 1935, several years before Laura’s renunciation of literary activity, she was a well-known and influential writer, and the book was widely reviewed and acclaimed. When one reads it now, it seems incredible that it should have been forgotten for so long. No doubt Laura’s lengthy withdrawal from the literary world partly explains this neglect. So may her occasional Furiousness: it hardly surfaces in Progress, but elsewhere Laura has been harsh with writers and readers who she feels are wrong. I have always read her uncompromising corrections of others and claims for herself as proof, on the one hand, of her dedication to an extremely demanding conception of what writing ought to be and, on the other, of a most human vulnerability; but she must have discouraged many with her scoldings. I think, however, that it is her unusual conception of literature itself that best explains the near oblivion to which, until the republication, Progress of Stories, has been condemned.
Laura’s aim in writing this carefully structured series of stories was to make articulate in the experience of her readers a knowledge of life that is both true and nonconceptual. It was as if she wanted to make the mechanisms of language, usually so approximate and reductive, accurate enough in the effect of their working to initiate the reader willynilly into an awareness of what she felt to be the pure, unmediated truth. Such an ambition has sometimes been given expression in the poetry of our language (Blake is a conspicuous example); but to readers of English prose, what might be called initiatory literature is the rarest of genres. It is somewhat less rare in modern Europe, which has produced works comparable to Progress, whatever their dissimilarities: Hofmannsthal’s Letter of Lord Chandos, René Daumal’s La grande beuverie, Raymond Roussel’s Locus solus.
Other European writers are also close to Laura in their methods or ideas: Kafka in his grandiose reading of the whole world as metaphor, Nietzsche in his longing to purify language to make it fit for truth-telling (and also, I would think, in his admiration for the pre-Socratic philosophers and the “original unity of truth and fiction in their aphoristic language”). In American fiction, however, I can think of no one since Poe so seriously committed to evoking a visionary world embracing the familiar one we think of as real; and even Poe needed, as he said, to look through “half-closed eyes” to find his world, whereas Laura’s eyes are always wide open.
Her interests are truly apart from those of our novelists and story writers. She is not concerned with the social destiny of the individual—or her, it is the self alone that creates society. She is not interested in what makes people different from one another, so the idea of character tends to disappear from her fiction and, along with character, plot: there is only storytelling. Where most fiction points to conclusions, hers leaves empty spaces that we are left to fill. In general, we expect fiction to prove itself by the power of its illusions—its “realism”; for Laura, such illusions are no better than distractions.
It hardly seems surprising in such circumstances that, after a first success often explained by their “charm,” these stories were quickly lost to us. Now, perhaps, thirty-seven years later, it is time to take a longer look at them and see what considerable riches their charming surface conceals.
Progress of Stories contains seventeen stories in all, as well as a meditative essay on storytelling. The first thirteen stories form the part of the book that is a progress: simple at the outset, they grow in complexity as the book advances. This sequence of stories is divided into three sets: Stories of Lives, Stories of Ideas, Nearly. True Stories. The first section presents characters ordinary and not so ordinary in deadpan summaries; they might be the work of a celestial parole officer with a genius for thrifty precision. They are essays in pure observation, remarkably satisfying.
In one story, “Schoolgirls,” we encounter Judith, a grown-uppish student in a Swiss private school, who halfway through the story has her nose broken by her math teacher. (She has been irritating him, and he throws a desk bell vaguely in her direction.) Judith, who has been depressed, is cheered up by the accident and insists that the teacher come with her to Paris “and be introduced as the man who broke my nose.” This is fine for Paris; but when they decide to visit England, his own country, the teacher insists that they marry. “He could not think of any other way of arranging things. They were not in love with each other and had no intention of keeping house together, but he could not introduce her in England as the girl whose nose he had broken.” This rings true; and it does so without cruelty or pity. It is simply the way things happen. Behavior is not analyzed, but left on the surface, just as it is seen; and yet, on their own terms, the portraits seem complete ones.
The second section, Stories of Ideas, has only two parts. The first is called “Reality as Port Huntlady.” It is about a seaside resort where people go, not for fun, but because they think it will do them good. Port Huntlady is virtually ruled by a very fascinating woman known as Lady Port-Huntlady who, albeit fascinating, and kind, and ever so intelligent, never really emerges from her mysterious aloofness. In spite of their attractions, not only Lady Port-Huntlady but Port Huntlady itself ultimately disappoints its semiresidents, who wonder at length what they are doing there, until at last they go away. The place and the problem tremble with vibrations of magnanimous hilarity:
The sudden decision of people to leave Port Huntlady always came as the climax of a gradually formulated question to themselves: what are they doing in Port Huntlady? Nowhere else could it be prettier than it was there—the flat, low, sea, as near as if they were in a boat upon it, when it was calm, and farther away than the sky when it stormed, foaming up immeasurable black clouds. And the town itself, a bright, self-conscious table of security and intelligence standing over the sea, ready for anything that might happen. Lady Port-Huntlady had just such a look in her eyes—unprejudiced as to the present, curious about the future, wondering what might happen next, yet not doing anything herself to make things happen. And the abrupt, challenging mountains behind—watching, watching: how brave they looked, how brave they made one feel. And the frantic, confused sunsets, so unlike the sedate Lady Port-Huntlady, who understood everything, and so unlike Cards, who let things go over his head for the fun of keeping calm no matter what might happen—the somehow dishonourable sunsets, lying postcards from lying heavens of prophecy. How beautiful! And the twilight before the honest moon came up—full of wicked temptations to do things of no importance whatever; when, indeed, they merely sat on verandas wholesomely alike, with green sun-flaps fluttering and cool cane rockers balancing a trifle in every direction—and laughed, and thought, “What could be prettier than Port Huntlady?” and tried hard not to ask themselves the question: what were they doing in Port Huntlady?
Before we leave the place, we witness (in addition to the innermost workings of local society) a marriage, a homicide, a suicide, a murder…. One of the characters actually dies twice. Or perhaps she does. Perhaps? By the end of “Port Huntlady” we have emerged from the observed familiarity of the first stories, where things may happen or not, into a world where things may happen and not. It is a world full of surprises, artifice, and—the mortality rate notwithstanding—delight.
The second Story of Ideas gives up plausibility altogether. “Miss Banquett, or the Populating of Cosmania” is about travel and discovery in territories that are on no map. Miss Banquett sets out on a trip, because she is beautiful and “beauty is a steady occupation.” She “had made her beauty known to everyone possible in her own country”; she now feels she must “make herself still better known.” After shipwreck, she finds herself a castaway on the island of Cosmania, where not only is there no one to acquaint with her beauty, there is “no anything.” In order “not fast to disappear” for want of witnesses, Miss Banquett, in a week of hard work, creates a complete world for herself. She creates the heavens, nature, and love; she populates Cosmania with seven races—black, yellow, cloudy, blue, white, tawny-faced, and fire-colored—each of which corresponds to an aspect of her own self.