Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Katherine Anne Porter and the Luminosity of the Short Story

There are some writers who, although they construct novels, are just best at honing short stories.  Katherine Anne Porter is one of those writers.  Unfortunately, the mode of criticism most popular in the past decade—cultural/social/ideological—suitable for analyzing novels, has, with the exception of some studies of Ship of Fools, pretty much ignored Porter’s fiction. 

Consequently, to seek the assistance of good analysis of her work, we must go back to that much maligned mode of criticism that peaked in graduate programs in the mid-sixties—Formalism, sometimes called the New Criticism.  I was fortunate to have received my undergraduate and graduate education in literature between 1960 and 1966 and thus had the benefit of being influenced by such critics as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and others.  Unfortunately this mode of criticism, which focused on explicating individual poems, stories, and novels, began to fade with the advent of so-called “theory.”

Eudora Welty, in her usual perceptive acuity reminds us why Porter is best at writing short stories, noting that Porter’s stories all take place in the interior of our lives.  “Her use of the physical world is enough to meet her needs and no more; she is not wasteful with anything.”  Welty also notes that, like her own tales, Porter’s stories are about the mystery of love: “Her ardent conviction that we need to give and receive in loving kindness all the human warmth we can make—here is where her stories come from”

Robert Penn Warren also centers his comments on Porter’s special talent for the short story form, noting that the characteristic of her fiction is a “rich surface detail scattered with apparently casual profuseness and the close structure which makes such detail meaningful; the great compression and economy which one discovers upon analysis; the precision of psychology and the observation, the texture of the style.”  Warren concludes that Porter’s fiction is “a literally metaphysical poetry…The luminosity is from within.”

Although Porter’s “Flowering Judas has been singled out for discussion over the years, most of that discussion recently has been on feminist and social issues. In my own opinion, “Flowering Judas” has a more universal (hateful word for the current cultural critics) significance suggested by Porter’s careful use of metaphoric language--the tension between flesh and spirit.  Braggioni sits “heaped” and sings in a “furry” mournful voice,” ‘snarling a tune.” He “scratches” the guitar familiarly as though it were a pet animal, taking the high notes in a prolonged painful squeal. “The gluttonous bulk of him has become a symbol” of Laura’s many disillusions.

Laura withholds herself from others, her round white collar is “nunlike,” and she has renounced vanities.  Braggioni bulges marvelously in his clothes, swells over his ammunition belt, swells with ominous ripeness.  But nobody touches Laura.  All praise her gray eyes and the soft round underlip which promises gayety yet is always grave. She draws her strength from one talismanic word, “no.” “Denying everything she may walk anywhere in safety, covering her great round breasts with thick dark cloth and who hides long invaluably beautiful legs under a heavy skirt.”
This tension between body and denial of body culminates with the death of Eugenio.

My two favorite Porter stories, which I included in my textbook Fiction’s Many Worlds, are two of her shortest ones:  “The Grave” and “Theft.”

In 1964, Sister M. Joselyn, began her essay on Katherine Anne Porter’s story “The Grave” as a lyrical short story this way:

“To those who enjoy the short story and are inclined to take it seriously as an art form, it is a constant source of surprise to find that although the genre has been with us for several centuries, there is still a marked dearth of systematic criticism concerning it.” 

Sister Joselyn argued that the “time is ripe for a serious, empirical study of the forms of the short story” and that we might begin by recognizing two basic recurrent kinds of stories which she called the ‘mimetic’ and the ‘lyric.’”  A few years later, using her secular name, Eileen Baldeshwiler, she published an article entitled “The Lyric Short Story:  The Sketch of a History,” in which she identified the two strains of short fiction as “epical” and “lyrical.”  I included this essay in my collection Short Story Theories, 1977.

I, of course, agreed with Sister Joselyn that it was time for some systematic criticism of the short story, by which both she and I meant that the short story had both a history and an aesthetic that readers would do well to know and understand.  Sister Joselyn’s description of the “lyrical” short story included the following characteristics: “(1) marked deviation from chronological sequence, (2) exploitation of purely verbal resources such as tone and imagery, (3) a concentration upon increased awareness rather than upon a completed action, and (4) a high degree of suggestiveness, emotional intensity, achieved with a minimum of means.”

“The Grave”

What makes this story so irresistible is its distinctive use of several modern short-story conventions.  First of all, as Sister Joselyn points out in her article listed below, the story
is closer to a lyric poem than it is to traditional narrative; consequently, it communicates more by metaphor and symbol than by character and event.  Secondly, it is a story about a significant
moment, in this case a moment of realization or passage from one state of being to another. 
Finally, it is a paradigm of story in that it is a memory fashioned into meaning.

The story focuses on Miranda's reaction to the gold ring she found in the grave, which makes her long to put aside her childhood for the traditionally feminine world of her thinnest and most becoming dress, and the opened body of the pregnant rabbit, which introduces her to the mysterious nature of birth. When Miranda sees the unborn rabbits, it is as if she had known this all along; she now understands some of the secret formless intuitions in her mind and body which have been taking form so slowly and gradually that she had not realized she was learning what she had to know.  Both perceptions suggest a traditional initiation of the young girl into womanhood.

What is not so clear is the relationship between this memory, which has lain buried for twenty years, and the present situation of the adult Miranda, for whom the marketplace's smell of mingled sweetness and corruption is the same as the smell of the cemetery so many years ago at home.  Miranda's image of birth arrested by death evoked by her memory of the pregnant rabbit is transformed into metaphor by the memory of the discovery of treasure in the graves; what was horrifyingly real is thus displaced by the poetic image of her brother turning the silver dove over and over in his hands.  And what was a shocking encounter with the nature of birth and death has been transmuted into meaning by the creative power of memory. 


The basic problem in this story is how to determine the relationship between the protagonist's encounters with various young men before the theft of her purse and her encounters with the janitress after the theft.  What has to be understood is how both series of confrontations motivate or justify the extremity of her final feeling that she is the thief who will end up leaving herself nothing.  As usual in post-Chekhovian stories, there is no explicit exposition to provide the answer.  The only background exposition is indicated obliquely when she mentions she has received a letter "making up her mind" for her and when she recalls spreading the letter out to dry so she could reread it.

The contents of the letter constitute an appropriate metaphor for modern short fiction, for it is largely made up of blanks, gaps, ellipsis.  However, as usual in letters, we "read between the lines" to conclude that it signifies a broken relationship.  This is further suggested by her telling the janitress that the purse was a present from someone (someone the janitress takes to be a man; she earlier says that it is a birthday present) and that the loss of it makes her feel she has been robbed of enormous number of valuable things, all of which suggest this is not the only loss she has experienced recently.

Most of the story focuses on seemingly irrelevant encounters she recalls in the "immediate past": the polite ceremonies of Camilo trying to put on a good front and then hiding his hat under his coat to save it from the rain; her conversation with Roger in the taxi about his trying to make up his mind to do something definite about his relationship with a young woman; the dialogue with Bill who complains that his wife is ruining him with her extravagance and who cannot pay the protagonist what he owes her.  In the midst of these scenes, there are brief scenes "in passing," as it were:  the three boys who talk about getting married and the two girls, one of whom complains about the conflicts of her relationship.  What unites all these seemingly unrelated scenes is that all focus on broken, flawed, or faulty relationships in which people are posturing or putting on a false front.

Given this background, it seems inevitable that when the protagonist confronts the janitress to get her purse back, she will realize the justness of the janitress's rebuke that she has already let her chances pass her by.  The story thus very economically and indirectly conveys a life lived carelessly; as the janitress says, "you leave things around and don't seem to notice much."  As the protagonist realizes, life is a process of having things taken from you, but the worse kind of loss is that which is a result of your own neglect and failure to attend to things, for it is that kind of loss that ends by leaving one with nothing.

Messy Mountains vs. Luminous Diamonds

As much as I admire the criticism of William H. Gass, I am disappointed that he ended his essay on Porter in his newest book with a common slight to the short story as a form:

“Although O’Connor, Welty, and Porter obliged us by writing novels, it is for short stories they are generally remembered, in which more polish for small surfaces is routinely expected, whereas writers like Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Stein—well, they are moving mountains, and it doesn’t matter if they leave a small mess here and there like great chefs in the kitchen. Does it?”

Well, no.  Small messes do not matter when you are moving mountains.  But how many novels actually undertake and succeed in such monumental massive goals?  And what makes moving a mountain more important than crafting a diamond?  The first just takes brute force and big equipment; the second requires precision and skill. I’ll take Porter’s diamonds over Tolstoy’s mountain any day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All these stories read the same. You get to follow an unremarkable character through a boring day. Of course, nothing happens. Then you find the character brooding--until she discovers some pathetic truth about herself. Like 'my life is a waste' or 'my husband does not love me.' These little authors almost always need to plant the events in someone's mind as if that added substance. This planting is not even well managed technically because the brooding character usually ends brooding (strangely enough) like a fiction writer. It's awful that these frauds take in so many unsuspecting readers. Just read the above.