Katherine Anne Porter's fictional output was not huge - only one novel and three volumes of short stories - but she made sure that every word counted. Quality reigns supreme over quantity. Stories were written and rewritten. Some were left incubating for years before she could look at them again with a fresh eye. All of her tales, though thematically and culturally diverse, are linked by the painstaking artistry that went into their creation. Each has been buffed to perfection. Together they gleam in pristine unity. With those which took that bit longer to complete there is never any sign of strain in the writing. Porter's sleight of hand ensured that each narrative, short and long, read like a master-class in efficiency and clarity. Her extra trick was in making reading her feel so effortless. But we know she was a genius because the best of her stories deceive us with their apparent simplicity. We devour them but can't fully walk away from them. Lurking within is a cache of hidden meanings and tangles of ambiguity that merits closer attention, a second reading. And so we return to her gladly.
Penguin has finally elevated her to Modern Classic status. The only gripe with this edition is that we don't get all Porter's stories. It surely wouldn't have been a stretch to publish all twenty-six under the title Collected rather than Selected. Thankfully, Porter's most famous are all present and correct, making it read like a best-of. No bad thing. Although not divided as such, there are some Texas stories, some Mexico stories, and some stories set in New York or New England.
Place was always important for Porter, not least because she travelled far after leaving Texas and her first husband in 1914. In Porter's novel, Ship of Fools (1962), we find the most itinerants, namely passengers sailing to Europe who in turn feel, appropriately, lost at sea, literally and figuratively. Her stories are full of other likeminded nomads. There is Laura the disenchanted 'gringita' in 'Flowering Judas', who is trying to contribute to the Mexican revolutionary cause whilst at the same time resisting the mysterious Braggioni's warning that she, like him, will soon know disappointment - 'You are born for it.' We have the unnamed protagonist of 'Holiday' running away from her 'troubles' and shacking up with a family of German immigrants in 'deep blackland Texas farm country'. And over in 'the blue silent deep world of Europe' we accompany the American abroad, Charles Upton in 'The Leaning Tower', as he negotiates his way through the streets of 1930s Berlin, and share his creeping alienation and sense of foreboding about the future.
When her characters aren't on the move they are revealing fascinating truths about their home turf. 'The Old Order' sequence of stories has Texas as a setting and recalls a halcyon past seen through rosy soft focus. All the characters reminisce about happier, easier times, from the Grandmother at the centre of the family (modelled in part on Porter's own Aunt Cat who brought her up after her feckless father proved incapable) to the ex-slave Old Nannie. We learn that the world has changed for them, almost beyond recognition, 'but by the mysterious logic of hope they insisted that each change might bring them, blessedly, back full-circle to the old ways they had known.' Porter subtly ridicules their nostalgia trips and questions the Southern values that are supposedly in decline - the emphasis placed on the role of family, gender and class. But when we are informed of the horrors of slavery in 'The Witness' ('Dey used to take 'em out and tie 'em down and whup 'em') and hear of the 'deeply grounded contempt' shown towards absent and shiftless men in 'The Journey' ('She despised them and was ruled by them') we are left wondering if the past genuinely was a better place.
Shorter, more isolated stories still report on the backdrops that surround them but have more to say on other, more personal matters such as character flaws and emotions. 'The Jilting of Granny Weatherall' presents us with another matriarch, but this time one on her deathbed and so with waning authority. The dying woman does not so much actively reminisce as passively have the events of her life flashed before her, in particular her regrets. Porter offers a similar meditation in 'Theft' when a woman who falsely accuses a janitress of stealing her purse has first her guilt to contend with, and then a cascade of memories relating to all she has lost over the years, from physical keepsakes to friendships and love. Such memories die hard and are now especially painful for being recollected: 'all that she had had, and all that she had missed, were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses.' And in 'María Concepción' the eponymous character takes what law there is in revolutionary Mexico into her own hands and, consumed by 'deadly baffled anger', kills her husband's mistress. Instead of wrestling with guilt she acquires peace of mind, going on to earn her redemption through the most unlikely means.
But it is the three long stories/short novels (Porter loathed the term 'novella') which truly dazzle. 'Noon Wine', like the earlier story 'He', tells a tale of poor Southern sharecroppers fighting to make ends meet. When Mr Thompson takes on an outsider, a strange Swede ('a meeching sort of fellow') as hired help on his dairy farm, he learns vital lessons in loyalty, forbearance and, after despatching a threat made to his livelihood, justice. 'Old Mortality' follows on from 'The Old Order' stories in chronicling the adolescence of Miranda, Porter's autobiographical alter-ego. It is a tale of the glories of the Old South and the subsequent New Order, with the past as romanticised as in
Scott's novel of the same name. Miranda grows up regaled with tales of manners and chivalry and the daring exploits of the long-dead Aunt Amy. Miranda and her sister are educated, 'immured' in a cloister and eventually enter the adult world, but are forced to live in the shade of Amy's shadow - they 'don't come up to Amy', they are told, a fact their father corroborates when describing them as 'only half-baked'. But while Miranda can't inherit Amy's looks, she does accrue her rebellious streak and craving for independence. At the end Miranda turns her back on the 'hideous institution' that is family, deciding that home and husband will prevent her 'making her own discoveries'.
When we meet her again, older and wiser in 'Pale Horse, Pale Rider', she is working as a journalist in Denver while the First World War rages and the influenza epidemic spreads. If Laura in 'Flowering Judas' was 'born' for disappointment then this new Miranda is cut from the same cloth, being 'past praying for'. She yearns for the warmth of the South but it is doubtful she will make it. Equally and tragically improbable is the prospect of her finding fulfilment with Adam, a called-up soldier, and making the 'lovely miracle' of their combined existence last. But Porter keeps her heroine afloat. Though buffeted by hardship and loss, Miranda, like her creator, retains her unquenchable Texan spirit.
Porter had a wonderful talent for bringing her characters alive. Physical qualities are rendered with rich originality and variations of the same description reverberate throughout her work. María Concepción has 'black eyes, shaped like almonds, set far apart, and tilted a bit endwise.' A boy in 'Holiday' has 'narrow, long, tip-tilted eyes'. Similarly a character in 'Holiday' has 'taffy-coloured hair', and another in 'Noon Wine' possesses 'tow-coloured hair'. Such gentle calibrations could irk but instead there is a warm familiarity to be gleaned from their resemblance. When Porter illustrates a vista it is with bold, vigorous strokes, either to ram home the hand-to-mouth struggle on Southern farms or to showcase the lushness of the neighbouring landscape. That she can deftly flit between both in stories such as 'Noon Wine' and 'Holiday', repelling and attracting the reader in equal measure, is a testament to her skills as a writer.
But she is at her most daring and thus most remarkable when she takes a new tack and channels into her characters' heads. Granny Weatherall's flashback is not a series of disjointed memories, rather a controlled interior monologue that flows lithely across the page. Porter ingeniously juxtaposes this steady inner voice with her character's faltering ability to hear - the assembled family's voices amounting to mere stubby interjections which 'staggered and bumped like a cart in a bad road' and which 'rounded corners and turned back again and arrived nowhere.' Miranda's drugged, delirious thoughts in the closing pages of Pale Horse comprise a more chaotic stream of consciousness, with images of death and oblivion crystallising in a 'pallid white fog',
a fog in which was concealed all terror and all weariness, all the wrung faces and twisted backs and broken feet of abused, outraged living things, all the shapes of their confused pain and their estranged hearts; the fog might part at any moment and loose the horde of human torrents. She put up her hands and said, Not yet, not yet, but it was too late.
But it isn't. Miranda wakes and 'enchanted, altogether believing, looked upon a deep clear landscape of sea and sand, of soft meadow and sky, freshly washed and glistening with transparencies of blue.' Porter is expert at balancing her contrasts - darkness and light, dream and nightmare - with regard to both her characters' outward actions and inner thinking. Neither becomes top-heavy or overly-exuberant; each is carefully weighted and immaculately presented.
Simply stated, Katherine Anne Porter produced some of the greatest short stories of the twentieth-century. Her induction to the Penguin Classics range is long overdue but we should be grateful that she can now reach a wider audience. This selection won't entice Porter aficionados but it is sure to captivate a whole new generation of admirers.