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Jul212009

1966

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

By Katherine Anne Porter

Original Publisher: Harcourt, Brace
Current Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Mary Gaitskill writes:

The beauty of Katherine Anne Porter is modest. This is true even when her language is extreme and her imagery near-florid. Her writing is powerful in many ways, but if I have to name the most salient characteristic of that power, it would be her modesty, the natural, intelligent humility with which she approached life’s wordless enormity through art made of words. She looked at the smallest phenomena (cows who regard their milker with “smug female faces,” men chewing tobacco, children hunting rabbits) and the greatest (death, war, betrayal), looked with amazement at the endless palimpsest one makes for the other and vice-versa.

Porter’s gaze seems amazed, even stunned, but not right away. First she looks as an ordinary woman at ordinary things, for example in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a small-town newspaper reporter with irritated opinions on everything from the World War in progress to the lousy play she must review. Porter’s style is plain-spoken, nearly banal at times, borrowing from the conventions and even the clichés of her era. It is also original and fantastic.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider begins with its heroine (Miranda) asleep in her bed “but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since,” with “her heart a stone lying upon her breast outside of her.” She is wondering what horse she will ride, and also at how many people have died in this bed, at the bones propped up on the mantelpiece. The real oscillates with the hyper-real and she picks Graylie, the horse that is not afraid of bridges—a wise choice as by the end of the story she will have crossed the greatest bridge of all, and crossed it twice. The cliché is in the title and the heroine is pursued by “the stranger,” death, at whom she shouts on page three, “I’m not going with you this time—ride on!” Lesser clichés appear throughout the story, in the banter between Miranda and her boyfriend Adam, and in Miranda’s thinking about him, which is repetitive and rather trite. And which is also true to the limits of the human voice, its vulnerability, touching guises and mannerisms.

In another writer, depiction of such ‘limits’ would be indicative of her own uninteresting limits as an artist. But Porter moves out of this category—truly, out of any category—with several subtle feints and then one profound change of depth, into a place of limitlessness, a pit of raw, formless knowledge for which Miranda’s poor human mind tries to find form in a furious torrent of earthly images and archetypal shapes. In this place she and her lover are in “an angry dangerous wood full of inhuman concealed voices singing sharply like the whine of arrows,” where he is killed again and again by arrows, where she is pierced with him and pinned alive to his corpse, while “the wood whistled and sang and shouted, every branch and leaf and blade of grass [with] its own terrible accusing voice.” In groping to describe this to Adam, she says she dreamed about “an old-fashioned valentine...two hearts carved on a tree pierced by the same arrow.” To which he responds, “Yes I know honey...one of those lace paper things.”

The violent mystery of bodily love and death is for a moment glimpsed, then transformed into and concealed by symbols, the first deep and earthen, the second light and fragile as paper, sentimental as a song. And that is just the beginning of the story’s most powerful dramatic arc, which will reach its peak with the heroine sitting on the lip of eternity, at which she will also look with the helpless, brave gaze of an ordinary woman.

There are writers I might call greater or more brilliant. But it is in this ordinary, modest gaze brought to bear on the extraordinary that Porter was able to glimpse and very nearly to describe the unknowable in herself and her world. In doing so she achieved a poignancy and power that is its own rare form of greatness.

Mary Gaitskill was a National Book Award Finalist in Fiction in 2005 for Veronica.


H.L. Hix writes:

What makes Katherine Anne Porter’s stories so elegant and captivating? Many elements, surely, but one, I believe, is her preference for “moments” of heightened awareness over dramatic events. The “moment” is sometimes simply a perfect word, as when, describing Juan’s breathing in “María Concepción,” she says the sound “vapored from the low doorway.” The moment might be a sentence, as when in “Rope” the speaker reports that “He heard her high-heeled bedroom slippers clattering and stumbling on the stairs.” It might be a metaphor: “Cornelia’s voice,” the speaker in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” says, “staggered and bumped like a cart on a bad road.” The moment might be a list, as of the objects the girls in “Old Mortality” examine but do not find impressive: “Such dowdy little wreaths and necklaces, some of them made of pearly shells; such moth-eaten bunches of pink ostrich feathers for the hair; such clumsy big breast pins and bracelets of gold and colored enamel; such silly-looking combs, standing up on tall teeth capped with seed pearls and French paste.” For those of us more interested in heightened awareness than in events, the “moments” that make up Katherine Anne Porter’s stories offer rich rewards.

H.L. Hix was a National Book Award Finalist in Poetry in 2006 for Chromatic.

 

ISBN: 9780156188760

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Jesse Hill Ford for The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones
  • Peter Matthiessen for At Play in the Fields of the Lord
  • James Merrill for The (Diblos) Notebook
  • Flannery O'Connor for Everything that Rises Must Converge
  • Harry Petrakis for Pericles on 31st Street

Fiction Judges that Year: Paul Horgan, J.F. Powers, Glenway Wescott

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Shmuel Agnon and Nelly Sachs won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • Katherine Anne Porter was the first woman to win the National Book Award for Fiction.
  • In her acceptance speech for the award, Porter said, “It’s impossible to explain why anyone ever has this vocation to write, and I can’t explain why I was mad enough to follow it, except that I had no choice, apparently. I’ve sworn a thousand times that I would never write another line, but I was always writing—even that. I realized there was no escape, and then I settled down to it.”

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