The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  He re-tells from her own autobiographical writings, and with more reserve than she, the highlights of that long, difficult, complicated life of hers, much more absorbing, much deeper and more truthful, than any of her fictions. He relates this life, headlong, willful, full of gaiety and suffering, “almost scandalous,” as he says, yet strangely disciplined and austere in sum, to her work; in the end she could absorb, survive, re-see and re-make almost everything. To an astonishing degree she could use her experience as an artist and yet not lose her memory of what it cost her as a living, growing human being; so that her later writings, especially about her disastrous, perverse first marriage, have a strange daylight, morning freshness on them that her earlier work did not have.

  It was hardly fair to American readers to have kept Colette from them for so long; nor fair to Colette, either, who should have been the fashion here at least twenty-five years ago—when we think how her lessers were being brought in all that time with fanfares, from every direction. In France she has been known and loved and read from the beginning, and though one always heard of her as “a light writer,” that was no term of disrespect—quite the contrary. The French above all know how much strength and discipline and even sheer genius it takes to write lightly of serious things; they never called her frivolous, far from it.

  Yet there was always that tone of particular indulgence, reserved for gifted women who make no pretentions and know how to keep their place in the arts: a modest second-best, no matter how good, to the next ranking male. Wescott, mentioning that both Proust and Gide wrote her letters of praise, says, flatly: “For, now that the inditers are both dead and gone, Colette is the greatest living French fiction writer.”

  I agree to this extent: that she is the greatest living French writer of fiction; and that she was while Gide and Proust still lived; that these two preposterously afflicted self-adoring, frankly career-geniuses certainly got in Colette’s light; they certainly diminished her standing, though not her own kind of genius. She lived in the same world, more or less in the same time—without their money or their leisure. Where they could choose their occasions, she lived on a treadmill of sheer labor. Compared to their easy road of acknowledged great literary figures, her life path was a granite cliff sown with cactus and barbed wire.

  But she had the immense daylight sense of reality they both lacked and, beyond that, something that Gide tried all his life to have, or to appear to have, and which he lacked to the end: a genuine moral sense founded on a genuine capacity for human feeling. She never attempts to haul God into criminal collusion with the spiritual deformities of her characters. Being a generous woman born to be exploited by men, she has for some of them the abject tenderness and indulgence which is so terribly womanly. Yet she knows this; she does not deceive herself. And her women, if possible less attractive even than the men, are still women, which Proust’s never were.

  The beings who people these six short novels are all of the race of the half-born, the incomplete, turning each one in his narrow space. They have no minds to speak of, they are in a limbo of physical indulgences, and they live and die their desolate lives in the longest waking dream. In the end, it is middle-classness, incapacity for tragedy—or comedy either—for faith, for any steadfastness except in delusion and obsession. It is stupidity—which the introduction once charitably tries to interpret as innocence.

  The two must not be confounded, ever; innocence is a not-knowing of childhood, or inexperience. Stupidity is the inability to learn in spite of experience. Innocence can lead the innocent into evil; stupidity is itself an evil. Colette is the wisest kind of artist; the light of her quick intelligence plays over this Limbo, in her warmth of emotion she cannot reject or condemn them, and here is the strangest thing—the stories are full of light, and air, and greenery and freshness, the gayest sparkle of laughter, all in a way misleading, if you like; for there is a satire of the sharpest kind in this contrast between the sordidness, the obstinate dreariness, of human conduct and motive, and the disregarded, the ignored, the unused possibilities for human happiness.

  Colette conceals her aim, her end, in her method. Without setting her up in rivalry with her great jealous, dubious male colleagues and contemporaries, let us just be glad of such a good, sound, honest artist, a hard-working one; we could really do nicely with more “light writers” like her. The really light-weight ones weigh a ton beside her.

  Orpheus in Purgatory

  Rilke and Benvenuta: A Book of Thanks, by Magda von Hattingberg,

  translated from the German by Cyrus Brooks.

  New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1949.

  ON his fiftieth birthday, “What a bore, what futility!” Rilke wrote to a friend about all the flowers and messages and visitors. “. . . Naturally, if one looks at it justly, there was something dear in it, but where is the love that does not make more trouble?”

  It is hardly possible to exaggerate the lovelessness in which most people live, men or women: wanting love, unable to give it, or inspire it, unable to keep it if they get it, not knowing how to treat it, lacking the humility, or the very love itself that could teach them how to love: it is the painfullest thing in human life, and, since love is purely a creation of the human imagination, it is merely perhaps the most important of all the examples of how the imagination continually outruns the creature it inhabits. . . . Having imagined love, we are condemned to its perpetual disappointment; or so it seems.

  “You know Rilke. . . you know how he is and how much he means to me. . . . You have never asked how it will end. . . . I. . . have not asked that question either, and perhaps that was wrong of me, I have been happy with him in the present. . . because of his noble and lofty spirit. . . because of his inexhaustible kindness. Every time I saw him was a gift of God to me. And I thought that if some day he had to withdraw, and be quite alone with his work, then I should be alone again. . . far away from him, not hearing from him any more but guarding his holy image in my heart. I should almost forbid myself to think of him.”

  This is Magda von Hattingberg, Rilke’s Benvenuta (The Welcome One), writing to her sister when her curious association, whatever its real nature, with Rainer Maria Rilke was drawing to its close in 1914. It had been brief: two months of letters, three of living together; and strange: for by this account, the obvious conditions of such a relationship seem never to have existed. They traveled openly together for those three months, to Paris, to Berlin, Munich, Venice, besides visits to houses and castles of his friends. Yet Benvenuta says plainly (and she does wrap some plain things in the sustained fanatic rapture of her style) that when they parted forever they kissed for the first and last time. This statement comes as rather an anticlimax after the heroic if fevered effort of an apparently healthy, all-too-feminine young woman to grow wings for her god, devoted as he was to angels.

  One hardly knows where to place Rilke and Benvenuta in the clutter of letters, memoirs, critical studies, and biographies so steadily accumulating around Rilke’s name. As much hysterical nonsense has been written about him as about D. H. Lawrence, if that is possible. Like Lawrence, his personal attractiveness drew to him the parasitic kind of adorers who insist on feeding on the artist himself instead of on his work: who make mystification of the mysterious, and scandals instead of legends. But Rilke was luckier than Lawrence in this: that he also had many faithful good friends who anxiously and constantly for long years succeeded in defending and helping him, almost in spite of himself. For he demanded, and would have, and would content himself with nothing less than, the humanly impossible in all human relationships. As relatives, friends, publishers now dole out mangled fragments of his literary estate, the secret of their long enchantment with him seems lost, for a temperament rather less than enchanting is being revealed little by little. His afterlife of fame is very similar to his former life in his restless, painful flesh: the perpetual unsatisfied guest, the helpless dependent, the alienated genius seeking silence and solitude to work out his destiny??
?Paul Valéry was shocked at the inhumanity of an “existence so separated. . . in such an abuse of the intimacy with silence, so much license given to one’s dreams. . .”—the continuing stranger who claimed the veneration due to the poet, that is to say, prophet, priest, seer, one set apart by his tremendous mission. In the meantime: “One lives so badly one always comes into the present unready, unfit, and distraught for everything. . . only the ten days after Ruth’s (his daughter’s) birth, I think, did I live without the smallest waste; finding reality as indescribable, even to the smallest detail, as it doubtless always is.” This to his wife in 1907.

  By 1914 he had not yet discovered the truths of reality, indeed, it was not his goal; but after seven years of search and flight, of homelessness and poverty, added to his double sense of failure as human being and as poet—for the two warring beings were never to be reconciled in him—he was ready, or hoped he was ready, for “a more human and natural footing in life,” and Magda von Hattingberg seemed to be the one who could provide it for him. She wrote him first, as women so often did, an adoring letter; he hastened to answer it, and thirty-five long years later, she publishes some of his letters—very interesting letters, too—some of hers, passages from her diary, some very valuable transcriptions of conversations they had, and for the rest, a rhapsodical, high-flung, farfetched romance which for style is an extraordinary blend of Marianna Alcoforado and The Duchess. . . .

  In the best German Romantic tradition of the 1840’s, not only all nature, and all society, but heaven itself, are tender accomplices in this transcendent episode. Nature especially assists with manifestations symbolically appropriate: the rains, the snows, the fogs, the sunshine, flowers of spring, arrive punctually; the moon is always obligingly full to witness a high encounter. They travel through enchanted landscapes like spirits in a dream, they even sit up all night outdoors somewhere at a crisis, she sleeps on his shoulder and the dawn finds them there, weary, a little stiff in their bones, but with exaltation undiminished. It is absurd, no other word for it. For the heroine was a young, beautiful, professional concert pianist, and too often, especially in the castles and drawing rooms, it is as if she played out her dream-romance on a grand piano, her costume always perfect, the moment perfect, the high-born spectators always on hand and attentive, the cultural ambience of the purest edelweiss.

  But the fact that she has made herself so easy a target does not mean that she can be dismissed so easily. E. M. Butler, in her Rilke, tells her story in a few lines, and does not mention her name but quotes a letter from Rilke about her, written shortly after he had broken with her, broken with a decision and finality which shows plainly how dangerous to his future he considered her. For he was incapable of the kind of love she gave, and humanly wished to have from him; he could not endure the burden of her adoring warmth and energy and naturalness. After admitting that for years he had tried to flatter himself that his failures in love and in friendship had been the fault of others, that each in turn had violated, injured, wronged him, he writes: “I have entirely altered my opinion now after these last months of suffering. This time I have been obliged to recognize the fact that no one can help me, no one at all. And even if he (she) should come with the best and most loving of hearts, and should prove his worth to the very stars. . . keeping his regard for me pure and untroubled, however often I broke the ray of his spirit with the cloudiness and density of my submarine world I would yet (I know it now) find the means to strip him of the fulness of his ever-renewed assistance, and to enclose him in a loveless vacuum, so that his useless succor would rot and wither and die a terrible death.”

  It is pleasant to know that none of this happened to his tenderly nicknamed Benvenuta; she had to a triumphant degree the womanly knack of starving gracefully on the thinnest ration of love, and yet at last spreads her own feast—a strange feast, but her food—out of that famine.

  Only once had he succeeded in almost frightening her off. He was admiring some fantastic doll figure, and she protested that the virtue of a toy was in its effect on a child, and she could not imagine an innocent, healthy little girl not being repelled by this monster. Rilke proceeded to rip to shreds her notions of childish innocence, and to explain to her at length the innate corruptness of toys—and quoted also at length from his fierce essay against dolls, published shortly afterwards. She had unknowingly touched him on the quick: his mother had dressed him as a girl, and had given him dolls to play with.

  The faithful and patient Princess Marie of Thurn and Taxis witnessed not only this love affair at one point, but many others with many other women. She was disconcerted, she wrote in her journal, at the attraction women had for Rilke. Rilke was equally disconcerted many times at the attraction he had for them: it seemed to him that what a man did only for God, a woman did always for a man. For a while he could impersonate a man, imitate his functions passably—provided the woman was infatuated enough, and most often she was, for women, of all sorts, and for all sorts of reasons, are flattered by the attentions of genius—even he could deceive himself into a plausible enough feeling, or a belief that he felt, or was capable of feeling, a natural, spontaneous sexual desire. But nothing of this could last: in no time at all he was faced with the terrible alternative: to go on with a eunuchlike sniffing and fumbling, or flight—flight in almost any direction, to any goal, even into another trap of womanly tenderness and incomprehension.

  He depended in all faith, and with good reason too, on the tenderness and sympathy of women: all of them high-minded, romantic, some of them very gifted, many nobly born and rich: but alas, seekers after a man-god rather than the God in man. By the simplest means, and without any method except that provided by the natural duplicity of his need to be adored and taken care of, Rilke wove his web about them for good. This web was the Word—the Word multiplied, an endless spinning of high, poetic, noble words, flowing easily as a melody carrying with it painless didactic counsel, and if they had not been so flattered, they might have read as we do now the warning between the lines: This is what I have to give, ask for nothing more.

  He flattered the soul, or the intellect, or the heart, or all three at once; whatever the individual woman craved that words could supply, he gave her generously. There were more than enough words to go around. Not one of them had any real right to complain, for he was faithful to them all, and he paid them the highest compliment of never confusing one of them with another. . . . And he asked of them all the same thing—that they would save him for himself and from them.

  In Memoriam



  SEVERAL years ago Ford Madox Ford remarked to me, at Olivet—and to how many others? I don’t know—with a real pride and satisfaction, that he had a book to show for every year of his life. Now he knew as well as anyone that no man can write sixty good books, he said himself there were books on that list he was willing to have out of print forever. But at the time of writing them, he had believed firmly each book was going to be good; in any case, each book was as good as he was capable of making it at that moment, that given circumstance; and in any case he could not have stopped himself from the enterprise, because he was a man of letters, born and bred. His life work and his vocation happened to be one and the same thing. A lucky man, in spite of what seems, sometimes, to the onlooker, as unlucky a life as was ever lived.

  His labors were constant, his complicated seeking mind was never for one moment diverted from its speculations on the enduring topic of literature, the problems of creation, the fascinating pitfalls of technique, the moral, psychic, aesthetic aspects of art, all art, any one of the arts. He loved to live the life of the artist, he loved to discover, foster, encourage young beginners in what another admirer of his, Glenway Wescott, has described as “this severe and fantastic way of life.” Toward the end, when he was at Olivet, Ford described himself as “an old man mad about writing.” He was not really an old man—think of Hardy, think of Tolstoy, think of Yeats—and his
madness was an illuminated sanity; but he had, when he wrote this, intimations of mortality in him, and he had always practiced, tongue in cheek, that “pride which apes humility.” It pleased him to think of himself in that way; and indeed, when you consider his history, the tragic mischances of his life, his times of glory and success alternating with painful bouts with poverty and neglect, you might think, unless you were an artist, that he was a little mad to have run all the risks and to have taken all the punishment he did take at the hands of fortune—and for what? I don’t think he ever asked himself that question. I doubt greatly he ever seriously considered for one moment any other mode of life than the life he lived. I knew him for twelve years, in a great many places and situations, and I can testify that he led an existence of marvelous discomfort, of insecurity, of deep and pressing anxiety as to his daily bread; but no matter where he was, what his sufferings were, he sat down daily and wrote, in his crabbed fine hand, with pen, the book he was working on at the moment; and I never knew him when he was not working on a book. It is not the moment to estimate those books, time may reverse his own severe judgment on some of them, but any of you who have read the Tietjens cycle, or The Good Soldier, must have taken a long step forward in your knowledge of craftsmanship, or just what it takes to write a fine novel. His influence is deeper than we are able to measure, for he has influenced writers who never read his books, which is the fate of all masters.

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