The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Of late I find my interest diverted somewhat from her achievement as artist to the enigma of her personal history. Actually there is little in her work to justify this, since the work itself can stand alone without clues or notes as to its origins in her experience; a paper chase for autobiographical data in these stories may be interesting in itself, but it adds nothing to the value of the stories. They exist in their own right. Yet I find it impossible to make these few notes without a certain preoccupation with her personal life of constant flight and search with her perpetual longing for certainties and repose; her beginnings in New Zealand; going to London to find the kind of place and the kind of people she wanted; her life there first as musician and then as writer; the many influences upon her mind and emotions of her friends and enemies—who in effect seem to have been interchangeable; her prolonged struggle with tuberculosis; her insoluble religious dilemma; her mysterious loss of faith in her own gifts and faculties; the disastrous failure of her forces at thirty-three, and the slowly engulfing despair that brought her finally to die at Fontainebleau.

  These things are of first importance in a study which is yet to be done of the causes of Katherine Mansfield’s own sense of failure in her work and in her life, but they do little to explain the work itself, which is superb. This misplaced emphasis of my attention I owe perhaps to her literary executor,* who has edited and published her letters and journals with a kind of merciless insistence, a professional anxiety for her fame on what seems to be the wrong grounds, and from which in any case his personal relation to her might have excused him for a time. Katherine Mansfield’s work is the important fact about her, and she is in danger of the worst fate that an artist can suffer—to be overwhelmed by her own legend, to have her work neglected for an interest in her “personality.”

  There are eighty-eight stories in the collected edition, fifteen of which, her last, were left unfinished. The matter for regret is in these fifteen stories. Some of her best work is in them. She had been developing steadily, along a straight and fairly narrow path, working faithfully toward depth and concentration. Her handling of her material was firmer, her style had reached the flexibility of high tension and control, she had all her prime virtues and was shedding her faults, but her work had improved strictly in kind and not in difference. It is the same quick, ironic, perceptive mind, the same (very sensual) emotional nature, at work here from beginning to end.

  In her the homely humility of the good craftsman toward his medium deepened slowly into a fatal self-distrust, and she set up for herself a standard of impossible perfection. It seems to have been on the grounds of the morality of art and not aesthetics that she began to desire a change in her own nature, who would have had quite literally to be born again to change. But the point is, she believed (or was persuaded that she believed) she could achieve a spiritual and mental rebirth by the practice of certain disciplines and the study of esoteric doctrines. She was innately religious, but she had no point of reference, theologically speaking; she was unable to accept her traditional religion, and she did finally, by what appears to have been an act of the will against all her grain, adopt means to make her fatal experiment in purification. As her health failed, her fears grew, her religious impulse wasted itself in an anxious straining toward some unknown infinite source of strength, of energy-renewing power, from which she might at the cost of single-hearted invocation find some fulfillment of true being beyond her flawed mortal nature. Now for her help and counsel in this weighty matter she had all about her, at different periods, the advice and influence of John Middleton Murry, A. R. Orage, D. H. Lawrence, and, through Orage, Gurdjieff.

  Katherine Mansfield has been called a mystic, and perhaps she was, but in the severe hierarchy of mysticism her rank cannot be very high. André Maurois only yesterday wrote of her “pure feminine mysticism.” Such as it was, her mysticism was not particularly feminine, nor any purer than the mysticism of D. H. Lawrence; and that was very impure matter indeed. The secret of her powers did not lie in this domain of her mind, and that is the puzzle: that such a good artist could so have misjudged herself, her own capacities and directions. In that rather loosely defined and changing “group” of variously gifted persons with whom Katherine Mansfield was associated through nearly all her working years, Lawrence was the prophet, and the idol of John Middleton Murry. They all were nervously irritable, self-conscious, and groping, each bent on painting his own portrait (The Young Man as Genius), and Katherine Mansfield’s nerves suffered too from the teaching and the preaching and the quarreling and the strange vocabulary of perverted ecstasy that threw a pall over any true joy of living.

  She possessed, for it is in her work, a real gaiety and a natural sense of comedy; there were many sides to her that made her able to perceive and convey in her stories a sense of human beings living on many planes at once, with all the elements justly ordered and in right proportion. This is a great gift, and she was the only one among them who had it, or at least the only one able to express it. Lawrence, whose disciple she was not, was unjust to her as he was to no one else, and that is saying a good deal. He did his part to undermine her, and to his shame, for personal rather than other reasons. His long maudlin relationship with John Middleton Murry was the source of his malignance toward her.

  Mr. Murry’s words in praise of her are too characteristic of the time and the special point of view to be ignored. Even today he can write that “her art was of a peculiarly instinctive kind.” I confess I cannot understand the use of this word. That she was born with the potentialities of an artist, perhaps? I judge her work to have been to a great degree a matter of intelligent use of her faculties, a conscious practice of a hard-won craftsmanship, a triumph of discipline over the unruly circumstances and confusions of her personal life and over certain destructive elements in her own nature. She was deliberate in her choice of material and in her methods of using it, her technical resources grew continually, she cleared away all easy effects and tricky turns of phrase; and such mastership is not gained by letting the instincts have it all their own way.

  Again Mr. Murry, in his preface to the stories: “She accepted life. . . she gave herself. . . to life, to love. . . she loved life, with all its beauty and pain. . . she responded to life more completely than any writer I have known except D. H. Lawrence. . . .”

  Life, love, beauty, pain, acceptance, response, these are great words and they should mean something, and their meaning depends upon their exact application and reference. Whose life? What kind of love? What sort of beauty? Pain from what cause? And so on. It was this kind of explicitness that Katherine Mansfield possessed and was able to use, when she was at her best and strongest. She was magnificent in her objective view of things, her real sensitiveness to climate, mental or physical, her genuinely first-rate equipment in the matter of the five senses, and my guess, based on the evidence of her stories, is that she by no means accepted everything, either abstractly or in detail, and that whatever her vague love of something called Life may have been, there was as much to hate as to love in her individual living. Mistakenly she fought in herself those very elements that combined to form her main virtue: a certain grim, quiet ruthlessness of judgment, an unsparing and sometimes cruel eye, a natural malicious wit, an intelligent humor; and beyond all she had a burning, indignant heart that was capable of great compassion. Read “The Woman at the Store,” or “A Birthday,” and “The Child-Who-Was-Tired,” one of the most terrible of stories; read “The Fly,” and then read “Millie,” or “The Life of Ma Parker.” With fine objectivity she bares a moment of experience, real experience, in the life of some one human being; she states no belief, gives no motives, airs no theories, but simply presents to the reader a situation, a place, and a character, and there it is; and the emotional content is present as implicitly as the germ is in the grain of wheat.

  Katherine Mansfield has a reputation for an almost finicking delicacy. She was delicate as a surgeon’s scalpel is delicate. Her choice of
words was sure, a matter of good judgment and a good ear. Delicate? Read, in “A Married Man’s Story,” the passage describing the prostitute who has been beaten, coming into the shop of the evil little chemist for his famous “pick-me-up.” Or such a scene as the fat man spitting over the balcony in “Violet”; or the seduction of Miss Moss in “Pictures.” “An Indiscreet Journey” is a story of a young pair of lovers, set with the delicacy of sober knowledge against the desolate and brutalized scene of, not war, but a small village where there has been fighting, and the soldiers in the place are young Frenchmen, and the inn is “really a barn, set out with dilapidated tables and chairs.” There are a few stories which she fails to bring off, quite, and these because she falls dangerously near to triviality or a sentimental wistfulness, of which she had more than a streak in certain moments and which she feared and fought in herself. But these are few, and far outweighed by her best stories, which are many. Her celebrated “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” “The Doll’s House,” “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” keep their freshness and curious timelessness. Here is not her view of life but her many views of many kinds of lives, and there is no sign of even a tacit acquiescence in these sufferings, these conflicts, these evils deep-rooted in human nature. Mr. Murry writes of her adjusting herself to life as a flower, etc.; there is an elegiac poesy in this thought, but—and remember I am judging by her pages here under my eye—I see no sign that she ever adjusted herself to anything or anybody, except at an angle where she could get exactly the slant and the light she needed for the spectacle.

  She had, then, all her clues; she had won her knowledge honestly, and she turned away from what she knew to pursue some untenable theory of personal salvation under a most dubious teacher. “I fail in my personal life,” she wrote in her journal, and this sense of failure infected her life as artist, which is also personal. Her decision to go to Fontainebleau was no whim, no accident. She had long been under the influence of Orage, her first publisher and her devoted friend, and he was the chief disciple of Gurdjieff in England. In her last finished story, “The Canary,” a deep parable of her confusion and despair, occurs the hopeless phrase: “Perhaps it does not so much matter what one loves in this world. But love something one must.” It seems to me that St. Augustine knew the real truth of the matter: “It doth make a difference whence cometh a man’s joy.”

  “The Canary” was finished in July, 1922. “In the October following she deliberately abandoned writing for a time and went into retirement at Fontainebleau, where she died suddenly and unexpectedly on the night of January 9, 1923.” And so joined that ghostly company of unfulfilled, unhappy English artists who died and are buried in strange lands.

  The Hundredth Role

  The Book of Catherine Wells,

  with an Introduction by Her Husband, H. G. Wells.

  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928.

  PROBABLY the best that a married pair have to offer each other at the end of a long life together is a courteous mutual apology. But this should be privately spoken and the secret guarded. Husbands and wives do ill to explain each other in print, more especially if the one explained is dead.

  The preface written by Mr. H. G. Wells for the collected short stories of his wife is a singularly unfortunate example of the literature of marital bereavement. Catherine Wells was a noble wife, a happy mother and the maker of a free, kind and hospitable home. She was sweet and valiant, faithful, wise and self-forgetful. Pity and habitual helpfulness were very characteristic of her. She was stoical in suffering, shy and reserved in her real emotions and briskly impatient of nonsense in any form. She died with courage and dignity after months of suffering.

  All this, it seems to me, should have served fully for the enrichment of Mr. Wells’s life while she lived and for the present consolation of his memories. It is rather sadly beside the point in a preface written with the stated purpose of introducing Catherine Wells, not as the wife of her distinguished husband but as a talented writer of short stories.

  The literary judgment of Mr. Wells seems somewhat at fault, too, as well as his taste in other matters. The short stories in this book of Catherine Wells have qualities of delicacy, tender feeling and a restrained fancy, but the book as a whole belongs to her husband and will attract the reader because his name is conspicuous on the cover.

  This is sad and the end of a story full of irony. Amy Catherine Robbins meant to become a biologist; she married H. G. Wells while she was a member of his class in practical biology. This was about 1893. They had £50 between them and small expectations of a long life, for neither of them was in good health. Mrs. Wells developed at once the hundred-sided capacity necessary for successful wifehood to a driving, ambitious, vastly confused but completely self-centered literary man. The compromises, the adjustments of temperament to the common life were mainly hers: she furnished the faith and the attention to practical details of daily life; she was the charming companion and the good housekeeper; she acted as private secretary, literary agent and shock-absorber for her busy husband, and she had the legitimate satisfaction of seeing him famous and wealthy at an early age. The role of hostess to the many friends of fame now devolved upon her. She became a talented amateur actress and the inventive entertainer of her two children. Her gardens were works of art. Her husband and his friends even took the liberty of changing her name to fit their conception of her domestic character. They called her Jane and she answered to it cheerfully.

  In the classic role of woman her life was complete. Yet this indefatigable woman asked for one thing more. She asked for one fragment of her mind that might be her own to use as she liked. She resolutely set herself to write and took no one, not even her husband, into her confidence. Through agencies unconnected with her husband and under her right name of Catherine she attempted to market her stories, rejecting the easy use of her husband’s influence. Most of the stories remained unpublished.

  Jane had quite supplanted Catherine. When Mrs. Wells searched that part of her mind left for her own uses there remained only the heroically suppressed preoccupations with death, the terror fantasies of ghosts, of childish disappointments and griefs, the young maiden dreams of frustrated romantic love. All the adult experiences of her life since marriage refused to be transmuted into literature. She could not evoke the realities of Jane on paper.

  Within less than a year after her death the stories she could not publish by herself have been collected, chosen by her husband as final critic and introduced with his praise, his name joined to hers on the cover. Death served to force her withheld confidences and shatter her last reserves. The stories offer a strange contrast to the portrait her husband gives of a vivid, tireless, beautiful woman whose endless good sense and ground loyalty to the man of her choice make her a model for all good women and prove that she was a writer of very slender talents. An act of conscious cruelty could never have been so subtle.

  “She stuck to me so sturdily that in the end I stuck to myself,” says Mr. H. G. Wells. That is her epitaph.

  Dylan Thomas

  “A DEATH OF DAYS. . .”

  Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal,

  by John Malcolm Brinnin, with a foreword by Caitlin Thomas.

  Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown & Co., 1955.

  JOHN MALCOLM BRINNIN has described this personal memoir of his friend and fellow-poet, Dylan Thomas, as an act of exorcism, and the reader will easily understand why, as he reads on; but I take it also as a very honorable attempt to set his share of the record straight, at a time when the events he writes about are so near and bitter a memory to him. Dylan Thomas died two years ago [November 9th] in a New York hospital of brain lesions caused by alcoholism.

  Certain English newspaper critics were very quick to say that we, the Americans, had in our usual thoughtless way destroyed a great poet by tempting him with our easy money to work himself to death traveling about exhibiting himself. It was not easy money, to begin with, and
after he was here the poet confessed that he hated his public readings and suffered fearful anxieties on account of them. But he needed money desperately and this was something he could do well. It is perhaps true that he came here out of despair, in his poverty and distraction. This may have been the jumping-off place, but there was going to be one soon, anywhere at all—time was closing in on him; he was probably as well-off here as he would have been anywhere at that exact time, for the simple reason that he was not going to be well-off anywhere ever again.

  But obviously he did not know this, and Mr. Brinnin’s idea of bringing him to this country, to arrange for him a transcontinental poetry-reading tour, and to manage his financial affairs for the time being, resulted in one of those fateful events which leaves moral and emotional wreckage, an almost incurable sense of wrong and bitterness and frustration in all those concerned in it. Yet as so often happens, the thing began for such good reasons, in such charming high hopes on Brinnin’s part, at least good faith, good motives, and splendid practical prospects all around.

  There was quite simply nothing visibly wrong with the plan; Thomas confessed he had been longing for years to come to America, but nothing had happened to put him in the way of it. Brinnin, himself a fine poet, was in a position as director of programs for the Poetry Center to be positively helpful. Dylan Thomas was at the top of his fame, he had achieved what turned out to be his life work, and though his first youthful poetic fervor had passed, he appeared to be in a cycle of change for further development; yet, as all artists do at that time, he feared a waning of his powers. He needed a radical change by way of rest and refreshment; and he would make enough money to go back to Wales to his fishing village, his wife and three extraordinarily beautiful children and go on writing poetry.

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