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.
She has an exciting time doing this. When, for instance, she first visits her tawny-faced race, which consists entirely of women inhabiting a land of perpetual “hard snow,” she is greeted with the complaint, “We worship you, great Physician, in the way appointed, but we are still very, very, cold.” Miss Banquett immediately decides to provide them with warm husbands. “In a few moments, Miss Banquett returned with a certain number of polar bears….” But these animals have a will of their own, and eventually Miss Banquett herself is carried off by the best bear. The episode concludes sententiously:
It is always well to include even the most frigid friends in one’s sphere of intimacies, for otherwise they turn into dumb, unanswerable challengers and make one’s most glowing experiences seem all rather affected. Thus do the polar regions have a peculiar psychological value for the rest of the world.
After completing her universe, which perfectly establishes her beauty, Miss Banquett feels that there is only one thing still missing from her life: being simply what she is. She realizes that, for her at least, being simply what she is means being alone. But there we are, staring at her…. So she leaves us and withdraws into solitude. As far as we are concerned, she vanishes. She continues to exist, we are told, but invisibly, alone within herself: she both “is and is not.” We are left reading a story from which the only character has disappeared and in which nothing more can happen. A great deal does happen, however: as we look into this disconcerting void, Laura begins pressing us to think for ourselves—like Miss Banquett. After that the story, to which no ending is now possible, ends.
By now the world of realism is far behind us. We are deep into fantasy—more accurately, into fairy tale. (One of the Nearly True Stories is in fact “A Fairy Tale for Older People,” and the meditative essay is called “A Crown for Hans Andersen,” in tribute to the Danish fabulist.) Hard noses needn’t turn up at the news: the last four stories leave no one out. No one can be left out of them because, with no less wit or liveliness than the earlier stories, these address the basics of universal consciousness.
That is a forbidding way of putting it—perhaps the subject itself is forbidding, but weren’t fairy tales invented to turn such subjects into enchantment? There is certainly nothing forbidding about “The Story-Pig,” the first of the tales. The pig of the title is a hollow silver one set over the mantelpiece in a fine country hotel. Guests gather in the evening to tell stories around it, as if they would drop them through the slit in its back. Hans (Andersen?), the door-man, has the only key to the pig. He also watches constantly over the guests—he is the only visible member of the hotel staff, except for Rose, the chambermaid, with whom he is in love. When the guests have gone to bed, he turns Rose into a queen, she makes him a king, and a magical world springs up around them.
The story is deliberately, lovingly sweet. In it we learn how “the other one” is created in our lives; the procedure, strangely enough, requires a willingness to die. At the end, queen and king once more become Rose and Hans—except they don’t, things are not quite as they had been, it’s a little dismaying: “Perhaps Rose would marry the chef after all.”
The subject of “The Playground” is dreams. Two boys are sent by their mother to a secret, out-of-bounds playground. They meet Lady Thinking-hard, a heretofore imaginary woman their mother has mentioned, who supplies them with special dream-buying money. That night they dream about the primal playground, where nothing is, and which a game called Life and Death is invented to fill. Next morning they discover that their father has dreamed about their secret world and are terrified that he will give it away. Their mother tries to notice as little as possible. Before this story, parents have only been glimpsed lowering in the wings of other lives. Here they step into the light to form a visionary original family that emerges, appropriately, from the vision of creation in the boys’ dreams.
“A Fairy Tale for Older People” is about the transformation of Frances Cat, a creature perhaps woman perhaps cat, into her very self—ex-cat, present woman. She is abetted by the Indescribable Witch, along with her cat, who may or may not be Frances. Like Miss Banquett, Frances knows how to disappear, although she emerges from disappearance; unlike Miss Banquett, she invents not a new world but the one she left behind, with the same old parents and chocolates, although these now look very different to her: she no longer depends on them, as she did before, for signs of appreciation and sympathy, which she now knows can only come from herself if they are to mean anything. She then gives up her new-old world to become utterly poor and alone, and in this state is at last restored to herself in a final series of transformations that are fascinating and also quite baffling. We would like to know more; but we learn that there is “nothing—nothing more.”
The fourth fairy tale, “A Last Lesson in Geography,” is very last—a complete topography of being. Laura here gathers up many of the questions raised in preceding stories—questions of selfhood and otherness, of dream and transformation, of life and death—and packs them into one stupendous metaphor. The metaphor is humanity conceived as the human body in its various parts. It is as if she had chosen to take literally the “body” present in anybody, everybody, or nobody. The protagonist of the story is Tooth. Led by him, we set off on the last of the many journeys in Progress. It takes us from the first nowhere to the final nowhere, through all the somewheres of actuality. The guiding spirit of the journey and its goal are an absolute, also indescribable “she.” She is not a woman and not an idea; if she is a mystery, she is an inescapable one. She might be described as what-happens-next and what-lets-things-happen. Others follow Tooth:
He saw that their number was the parts of the body. Each of them was a body, but also a part of the body. And the parts also had parts. He was a part, a Tooth. But Tooth, instead of having parts, had other teeth, each almost the same as himself. It might seem that this was also true of Nails; but a Nail was not so independent, so numerical a part of the body as a Tooth. Nails were the Teeth of Hands, but their identity was largely lost in Fingers, which in themselves were only theatrical creatures. He was a Tooth, and that is why he was the First One. It was his fate to be a Tooth; it could not similarly be said of any Nail that it was its fate to be a Nail. There was really greater likeness between Hair and himself, though his sympathy was with Nails. But Hair was almost too independent and numerical; antipathy rather than sympathy existed between Hair and himself. Hair was the Last One.
(Bone and Flesh also play crucial roles.) This band of somebodies travels across the world—the real world, where the earth is flat and only a stretch of time in any case, not true space. They wonder, “How long would [the journey] last? No, the question was rather: How long was it lasting?” Only the present journeying matters—forget beginnings and endings. Endings are for stories only. Even this story must end. And what comes after the end of stories? Why, more stories.
There are more stories—four lovely ones, given us for dessert after the hardcheese course of “A Crown for Hans Andersen.” (Its hardness consoles us for the ending of “Geography.”) But instead of looking at them, I think we should glance back over the main ground of Progress. Even a first time round, it is useful in reading the work to know how varied a progress it truly is, how pertinently the book is ordered. What connects its parts is a number of topics, recurrent although evoked in very different, sometimes well-hidden, ways. These topics can be apparently prosaic, like travel, or more obviously significant, like the definition of self-hood and otherness. I mention these particular themes because, brought together, they suggest an image of Progress that may be helpful. The book, beginning with Fanny’s solitary trip through life in “Socialist Pleasures” and ending with the universal trek of “Geography,” can be read as the story of travel between different conceptions and experiences of self. It is as if we were accompanying Laura on a succession of journeys, each taking us farther (or nearer) than the last—with, at the halfway point, a long seaside rest at Port Huntlady.
It is there that we become aware of the first peculiarities of a topic that has been treated thus far in seemingly normal fashion. The narrator is considering the character of Lady Port-Huntlady herself. It is a frustratingly elusive one. We know that Lady Port-Huntlady is perfect and always right. She gives the impression of a grand and worldly schoolmistress—Port Huntlady does sometimes sound like a superior night school. Even the narrator, after telling what Lady Port-Huntlady does, hesitates to say what she is:
As for herself, one might say, simply, that she had a virginal soul. Is this a crime? Perhaps. But against what? Against life, perhaps. But are there not other things besides life? Surely it can be no crime against death to have a virginal soul. But then, how many of us have patience with such distinctions?
Now what, I wondered, forgetting Lady Port-Huntlady, can this possibly mean? Is Laura playing with words? With me? A crime against death: what sort of death do these words imply?
Death is explicitly present in almost all the stories, from “The Friendly One” on. But what the word “death” means changes as we move through the book. In “The Friendly One,” as in the other Stories of Lives, death is appropriately literal. (The Friendly One accidentally causes the girl he has rather insanely decided to marry to blow herself up.) Even on a first reading, one can’t help noticing that death is commonplace in the first stories, that it occurs very matter-of-factly, and that what is remarkable about it is, all pathos aside, its usefulness. The girl’s death demolishes the Friendly One’s insane illusions (or one set of them). In “Schoolgirls,” the death of Judith’s husband—the one who broke her nose—consolidates the choices she has made. Emile’s suicide, in “The Incurable Virtue,” appropriately terminates a life of complete delusion. “Three Times Round” tells the elaborate story of Lotus who, after the most extraordinary adventures in her three trips around the world, stays home and at last finds a certain pleasure in herself: “…soon she would really begin to live. She felt, indeed, that she had begun to live already. She did not notice that she was dying.”
While still taking its toll, literal death in “Reality as Port Huntlady” seems to have become both more important (more useful) and less serious. The “No Hurry” tea shop, located by the cemetery, is “a sort of afternoon suicide club where it was taken for granted that people would sooner or later kill themselves, although on this or this afternoon there was no particular hurry.” Mabick, who has supplied the proprietor with this notion, “himself always promised himself every night on going to bed to open a vein the next morning after shaving; but after shaving he looked so smooth and fresh that it seemed a pity, while before shaving he could never think in an organized way.” And then there is the extravagant Miss Man, who is not impressed by Port Huntlady—it is she who dies twice. (Perhaps.) Death is no longer literal.
Next to go is Miss Banquett: in the world she creates for herself on Cosmania, she suffers various interesting forms of extermination, all of which she exuberantly survives. But it is in “The Story-Pig” that we are first provided with direct insight into the nature of this other, original death. As Rose and Hans enter their magical night world, attendants follow them: these are ordinary objects that have been brought to life, as by enchantment. The attendants call this enchantment death (“Death had rapped them on the head….”); and by death they mean a relinquishing of separateness and independence, a surrendering of themselves to the Queen—who then gives them life. A little later, Hans gives a fuller indication of what such death may be. He is walking with the Queen.
The moon was singing—singing the death of passions and numbers: it was all one here…. Walking beside the Queen was like a large loss of strength by which all was achieved that strength could not achieve…. By the death of this strength in long self-combat—the death of the troublesome memory of self—he made himself Hans, and Hans made him a king.
In “A Fairy Tale,” Frances Cat elaborates one of Hans’s reflections. Now reduced to absolute poverty, she is wondering where she really belongs:
The question was, which was the original world, her original world, the right world, the real world? She had certainly lived in that world ever since she could remember, but was she any the less alive now, and what was memory? Memory was fear. Yes, it was quite true: in that world she had been afraid of something—death. That is why she had lived. Was she dead now? In a way she was. What was death? It was being what one really was. What was life? It was running away from oneself. It was being not quite oneself—merely humouring certain whims.
When, in “A Last Lesson in Geography,” Tooth and his fellows acquire a sixth sense, which is the sense of speech, they acquire death with it: the source of their words is the all-embracing Word of the ineffable She, the guiding spirit of their journey, and it is only by abandoning their identities—by “dying”—that they can participate in her speech. And in the final meditation, “A Crown for Hans Andersen,” addressing us perhaps herself, Laura writes:
For the true worry is not what you shall be in the end; you can be nothing different from what you have been, what you are. The true worry is to learn to die, to make child’s play of your immortal souls, to enter gracefully into death in spite of being unalterably what you are.
Laura might remind us that, quoted in such a way, this is only “prattle”—the attendants in “The Story-Pig” observe that “the moment a thing was said, no matter how true, it becomes prattle.” But, coming at the end of Progress, Laura’s words here reflect a meaning of the word “death” that she has revealed little by little in the course of the book.
Death is only one of many topics in Progress of Stories, and not the main one. What then is the animating theme that makes sense of the whole? One answer—not clever, not false—would be: What is the animating theme that makes sense of the whole? For the characters in Progress, certainly, asking such questions seems essential to their progress. Tooth and Co. prove their strength by questioning. When Frances Cat, “impatient to learn,” turns to the book the Witch has given her, she is “surprised to find that instead of having a lot to learn she had a lot of questions to answer…questions about herself.” In fact, from Lotus in “Three Times Round” to the pioneers of “Geography,” everyone asks questions—even, at the end of “A Fairy Tale,” the reader. And the question the reader gets to ask is a very relevant one (especially as Frances, the Witch, and the Witch’s cat have just been bewilderingly confounded with one another): What happens in the end? The author replies: “You can’t get it into your heads that in the end nothing happens—nothing more.”
This answer is not, as it might seem, an evasion. Nothing is not merely an absence of things, but a useful void: where knowledge is concerned, it is a state of complete ignorance—a state in which we have to ask questions. The answer “Nothing” doesn’t mean that everything is pointless but that we can now ask: What is nothing? What is a something? What is reality—is it somethingness or nothingness (or something, or nothing, else)? What is meaning? What do we mean?
“Reality” can mean a number of things; but most of us, most of the time, take reality to be what we think about it. We are content to accept our version of the thing for the thing itself. Sometimes we feel our thoughts could stand a little improvement, and we then rent a house in Port Huntlady and have tea with Lady Port-Huntlady, that virginal soul—the Goddess of Ideas. Put otherwise: next week I will read Wittgenstein…. Perhaps we should first read “Miss Banquett” and follow her example: for she finds out what thinking can be. After escaping from the enterprising polar bear, she comes to feel that her new life in Cosmania is like a book she has written to please herself.
We might say that she had read her previous life out of a book. But that was a book written by everybody, not by herself…. She might read of [her beauty] there in her own familiar name; but she had to guess that her name meant herself, since it was only a name in that book, not herself. Here all was different. For, although she read out of a book, it was a book of her own making. She knew that her name meant herself. Or, we might say, in the one book her beauty was factual—that is, of others’ making, and therefore false; while in the other it was fictional—that is, of her own making, and therefore true.
It may seem boorish to gloss a statement so precise, but it feels worthwhile to point to a particular precision: the word “guess” in the seventh line. If facts are what other people agree on—can we all agree on that fact?—the individual relying on them commits himself to guesswork, for what is more uncertain than what others will agree on? The individual is a victim of their view—even when it is right. Miss Banquett, after all, was beautiful and was thought beautiful. But being thought beautiful gave her no self-satisfaction. It meant that she was what others said she was. So one day she declared, “I am beautiful,” and made up her own story in consequence. This of course didn’t make her right; but it left her free to take responsibility for what she was. She makes it all look very easy, but it should be remembered that her story is only one of ideas (a story about thinking). Later, Frances Cat, who also “makes up her story as it goes along,” will show us how scary, how death-inviting such a choice can be.
But to return from these enticing figures to the less visible question of reality in Progress: the book can be read as a demonstration of the consequences of thinking about reality in different ways. It reveals what happens when we choose to believe what we hear, when we concoct schematic versions of reality that are at least safely manageable, or, finally, when we go for broke by claiming the very truth of reality for ourselves.
Progress of Stories shows how these various options work, starting with that of accepting what we hear and ending with that of going for broke. This is perhaps the central progress of the book. In substance, it produces a shift that becomes explicit halfway through—it has already been described in connection with Miss Banquett as a shift from fact to fiction. But the shift is also inscribed in the actual narrative method of the successive stories, and it is there that it can perhaps most easily be grasped.
In Stories of Lives, the narrator describes people in the terms they use to define themselves: and these are terms supplied by others. Lotus, in “Three Times Round,” for instance, agrees to be exactly what is expected of her, and this is how she is presented to us: in turn, as an “Unseen Presence,” a case history, a “symbolic statue,” and finally, not realizing it, as her dying self. The world of the first stories is one of facts, of what everyone can agree on. It’s as if Laura had thought, “If you respect facts, here is nothing else.” The stories tell what is seen to happen, no more, no less. The procedure isn’t cold-blooded or satirical; it isn’t a stylistic device to elicit pathos through under-statement: it is merely factual. Of course it soon becomes blindingly clear that facts are the most absolute of illusions. We emerge from these stories fascinated, but with part of our minds murmuring, “Naturally there’s more to it than that.” In fact, there is “every-thing” more.
We next come to Port Huntlady. That town of glamorous phantasms is where the bright people go—the ones who won’t settle for the terms ordinarily supplied by others. They are the ones who know better, who want the best terms for themselves, the best views—the best ideas. They have tea with Lady Port-Huntlady, so perfect and all-knowing that she seems “their other self.” And that other self is what she remains. Her visitors all eventually leave town because they realize that, while they may glean ideas from her, they can never be what she is. Even if otherness in her seems exceptionally significant, they depend on it no less than the characters in Stories of Lives. Lady Port-Huntlady suggests the lure of the mediating intellect, of life turned into a justification of life—another illusion.
We might say in other words that together with Stories of Lives, “Reality as Port Huntlady” describes what happens to those who conceive reality as being what we think about it. It then becomes appropriate, in the second Story of Ideas, for Miss Banquett to instruct us in better ways of thinking about it. After that, we enter the fairy-tale world of the Nearly True Stories. Here we find that the factual realism of the first Lives, undermined in “Port Huntlady” and set on its head in “Miss Banquett,” has disappeared for good. Furthermore, Miss Banquett’s orderly if novel thought process is also abandoned. Reason has gone, and consistency with it. We have already seen, in discussing “The Story-Pig,” that the world of the last stories is one where death reigns, but that this death brings life even to inanimate things. There is no point in making sense of such matters: they are not meant to be anything but merely so. This is not absurdity, which depends on reasonable expectations, quite lacking here. This is a world of purest nonsense.
Why, in the Nearly True Stories, does nonsense prevail? Why, attempting to approach the truth of reality, does Laura abandon reasonable methods? A useful answer is suggested by Miss Banquett when she realizes that only in the book of her own making does her name mean herself. In the book written by others (as books ordinarily are), what “Miss Banquett” means is only guess-work—the idea people have of her. This is the problem of all written language: if the names and ideas of things were the same as those things, the truth could be simply and reasonably told. But this is impossible. (At the end of one story, Laura gracefully evokes the problem in speaking of her “certainty…that mere nakedness never advanced the course of truth as never the course of love.”) Names and ideas are other things—butterfly nets and not butterflies. The discrepancy is of course a very obvious one, but to a writer, it is crucial. There are other ways of resolving it, but for Laura, if the truth is to be told, it can only be through means that transcend mere naming and conceptualizing—the illusions of fact and idea that the first stories expose.
Clearly it is not enough to be familiar with such abstractions as these if one is setting out with the butterfly net of language in pursuit of the truth. The task requires mastery—a mastery that in my opinion can only be achieved through tough-mindedness ruthlessly directed against the comforts with which writing forever tempts its practitioners (such as impressing the reader with desirable presences). This sparkling freshet of a book seems to me the work of such a master. Talent alone, no matter how fine, could never have produced it. Once upon a time Laura must have had talent; but she consigned it to her inner incinerator before undertaking Progress. Talent is the ability to manipulate the recognizable attractions of an art; but to reveal what cannot be said, one has to look outside one’s art: one has to master not only one’s art but its use.
How does one go about this? Laura seems to have assigned herself four tasks: first, of purifying language to the point where it could never feign to be more than it is; second, of practicing storytelling not as an act of self-expression but of collaboration with the reader; third, of treating the entire objective world as a metaphor of human experience; finally, of banishing definition by turning this metaphor involving everything into a metaphor of what cannot be believed or understood—a metaphor of what, conceptually speaking, amounts to nothing.
The first two methods are really one. Laura seems to have governed her use of language in Progress by consciously treating writing as a form of speech. She has referred to writing stories as “speaking to the page” and “speaking recorded for silent apprehending.” Since she elsewhere remarks that “writing reading” isn’t very different from “reading writing,” the choice of this speaking part no doubt brought with it both a sense of responsibility for words that were felt as living acts and the awareness of an imagined reader participating in those acts as he made them his. In such a context, inaccuracy and self-indulgence would be tantamount to betraying one’s humanity. The discipline is of course a subjective one, but the results “speak” for themselves. Laura’s words are scrupulous, and they are also plain as the pebbles on any public beach, even when they carry novel meanings:
And she, too, moved from room to room, but according to her kindness, not according to her need. And she had thirty-two kindnesses, according to the number of kinds.
There is no preening in this scrupulous redefinition. Such language, on the contrary, gives us a sense of being taken not only into an author’s confidence but into that of Laura herself.
What she is confiding—to move on to her use of metaphor—is her own answer to a question that, as we have seen, runs through the entire book: How should one think about reality? Laura, needless to say, wants more than the illusions of fact and idea: she wants reality as it truly is. She proposes that the truth can be known, and that this is possible because the secret of reality lies not someplace outside us but in the very process of knowing. The act of knowing is the truth, although “act,” in suggesting a finite event, may be a misleading word: knowing is a process both momentary and open-ended, without any particular substance or form.
This may sound like prattle of the vaguest kind, but only a statement such as this can suggest the function of Laura’s metaphorical treatment of her material. First of all, if one can accept the idea that apprehending the truth exists in the process of knowing and not in any particular object of knowledge (a significant “content”), then it can be grasped that any object, any thing, can be the pretext of knowing. In Progress, that is what things—anythings—are for: they supply the characters with substance through which their awareness can prove itself, while becoming for the reader metaphors of that awareness.
In these circumstances it would be strange if inanimate objects didn’t burst into eloquent life. And so, in “The Story-Pig,” slippers and fans walk with Rose in the moonlight, talking accurate nonsense; in “Geography,” Tooth and Nail lead humanity clear out of history. The really extraordinary thing is that they aren’t telling us something or taking us someplace. There is nothing to know and no place to go. There is nothing permanent or important for us to hang on to. There is only the continuous experience of knowing, which never arrives at a final destination.
This is why the sum of Laura’s metaphors is a metaphor of nothing, rather than a representation (an image, an allegory, and explanation) of something. Knowing something is not the same as knowing the truth: “The truth can only be proved by forgetting it,” and going on to whatever is next. Does this make sense? No. The truth doesn’t make sense; and even this partial summary of a near-impossible attempt to evoke it produces a kind of nonsense. That is what, deliberately, the stories set out to do.
A few brass tacks to nail this prattle down. I said earlier that “Reality as Port Huntlady” was about the illusion of the mediating intellect; and it is possible to calculate an allegorical reading of the story in which (for instance) the houses in Port Huntlady stand for points of view, boats for books, Cards for language, and so forth. This interpretation is not only tedious; it is rendered ludicrous by a major subversion of the central character, Lady Port-Huntlady herself. The story at the beginning is told by an anonymous narrator who keeps well out of the picture, using expressions such as “It has been explained…,” “It is necessary to tell…,” never saying “I.” But at the end of the second section, the narrator starts using “we” and then “I”; and she proceeds as this first person singular to become, briefly, either Lady Port-Huntlady herself or “someone equally the same.” At this point we ask ourselves: Huntlady? Riding? But the “I” soon vanishes, the impersonal expressions once again replace it, and the narrative continues as though nothing had happened to the narrator. But the damage has been done. There is no way of identifying with certainty who that “I” was, and as for Lady Port-Huntlady, she is now beyond recovery. Her fixity, her interpretability have been destroyed; her world dissolves along with her into ambiguity.
Similar dislocations occur in all of the later stories. At the end of each one, we cannot be sure of what has finally happened; and yet, while it is happening, there is no doubt about it. Each story is perfectly clear and perfectly inconclusive. The only thing we know of it is the process of its telling. Afterward, we are left with “nothing—nothing more.” The substance of the stories is their telling, not some definable subject matter that can be taken out of them. Just as in the knowing of truth, their content is their process. A final example may clarify the point. When Miss Banquett feels a need for something more evidently solid than this—for real “content”—she decides to have a child with a member of the fire-people she has created. The child turns cannibalistic and eats up the entire race, including Miss Banquett. As she is being swallowed, she suddenly says, “‘What a pig I am!’ For she had swallowed herself. She felt herself solidly inside herself.” We are, it seems, our own (and our only) content; where these stories are concerned, we can only know about them by involving ourselves in the fugitive act of reading.
The central progress of Progress of Stories is a kind of atheological initiation. Like candidates for some great mystery, we are step by step divested of successive illusions until illusion is (nearly) gone and we are left with nothing but ourselves. The stuff of this initiation—after all, we are only reading a book—is reading-writing and writing-reading. That is the particular dark wood through which we are led. (That is why “story” is as frequent a topic in these stories as death or secrecy.) As to where we are being led, Laura says in her new preface:
[These stories] neither will nor can do you any good but (if you let them do what good they can) that of stirring you to feel hungrily the void that all stories leave, which can be filled only by the story of us all, the compacted story of everything.
And that is another story. How it may be told is, in fact, something that was addressed by Laura thirty years later in The Telling, where her purification of language leads her into a wholly new style of written speech; but the stories in Progress leave us to fill the void they create by ourselves. At the end of such a feast, we can hardly complain about that.
If this discussion of Progress of Stories has taken somewhat abstract questions into consideration, this has been for a simple purpose: to put the book in a context where it can be justly read. The attractiveness of Progress as entertainment, the pleasures one takes in its observation, its fancy, and its wit, can easily distract us from a less evident quality: Progress is not only a very complex but a very modern work. It could not have been written before Flaubert and Mallarmé, because what it tells us is communicated not as things said but as a way of saying things. The wisdom and mastery of its author work through the concatenation of effects produced in us as we read her words; we will not find them by trying to look through or past her words. Of course it is always reassuring when we extract from a book great bones of conclusion that we can then bury deep in our private gardens; but that is not the way of the best work of modern literature, and it is not Laura’s way. Only by being aware of what we are reading as we read it can we discover her secret. So that, really, there is no secret: it is all there on the page, waiting to gather you in.
Is the time now right for Progress of Stories to be read at last and given the special glory it deserves? There are grounds for hoping so. A stance as radical as Laura’s will no longer seem as eccentric as it once did. The nonrealist writing of recent years has perhaps expanded readers’ expectations and made original uses of fiction more accessible. The interest many Americans have shown since the Forties in exotic modes of access to experience should have made them ripe for Progress: certainly few writers have ever spoken to them so pertinently and poignantly as Laura does here.
But in fact that is the way she speaks to all of us. Although this is a book of uncommon knowledge, no one has to know anything to read it. There is only one condition for that: you must read every word of it; that is, you must read. If you read and do nothing but read you will encounter no obstacle, except that of yourself reading. It will be what you are reading that is allowing this to happen—allowing you to come into the presence of yourself doing something not very important, but not less important than anything else. As you read, you will become alone with yourself; with yourself and, possibly, with Miss Banquett, who as yet is not; and with Laura, who is—perhaps—elsewhere.
Progress of Stories August 12, 1982