The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  There was in all something so typical, so classical in his way of life, his history, some phases of his career, so grand in the old manner of English men of letters, I think a reading of his books and a little meditation on his life and death might serve at once as guiding sign and a finger of warning to all eager people who thoughtlessly, perhaps, “want to write.” You will learn from him what the effort really is; what the pains, and what the rewards, of a real writer; and if that is not enough to frighten you off, you may proceed with new confidence in yourself.




  From the Notebooks

  Boulder, Colorado. July, 1942. The death of James Joyce distressed me more than any other since the death of Yeats. How the tall old towers are falling: these were the men I most admired in my youth: I discovered Yeats for myself; he was the first contemporary poet I read, and the first poem was in a magazine in 1915:

  There is a Queen in China, or maybe ’tis in Spain

  And birthdays and holidays such praises can be heard

  Of her unblemished loveliness, a whiteness without stain

  You might think her that sprightly girl

  Was trodden by a bird.*

  If this is not quite exact, it is the way I remembered it for years and years before I saw it again in a collection. But beginning there, and with his Celtic Twilight, a book which seems to have disappeared, I followed Yeats with the most faithful adoring love, and discovered a new shining world. Joyce came a little later, but not much. I read Dubliners in 1917, and that was another revelation, this time of what a short story might be, even though I had believed that Chekov had written the last one worth reading, until then.

  As between these two great artists, I should say that Yeats was the greater imagination; Joyce did not have greatness in the grand manner, as Yeats did: Joyce had a dryness of heart, and very limited perceptions of human nature. Yeats grew great, the only kind of greatness, really: as if all his life he was fulfilling some promise to himself to use every cell of his genius to its fullest power. Yesterday’s newspaper was just sent over to me with an account of Joyce which reminded me of the day I first heard of his death. He died in his second war exile, two variations of his perpetual exile. He was a homeless man, the most life-alienated artist of our time. Yet more than anybody, he gave fresh breath and meaning to language, and new heart, new courage, new hope to all serious writers who came after him. Rest his soul in peace.

  I saw him only once. When I first went to Paris, in February, 1932, he was already world-famous, half-blind, surrounded by friends all faithful to him, apparently, but jealous of each other, watching him for signs of favor, each claiming to be first, trying to prevent anyone new from coming near him: and on the outer rim of this group was a massed ring of eager followers trying to get into the sacred circle: it was pretty grim to witness even from a safe distance: but he had reached that point of near defenselessness against the peculiar race of people who live in reflected glory: I did not wish to see him, or speak to him—what was there to say? And it was no doubt true that no new acquaintance could do more than disturb or bore him. But I never went near him, and this idea of him was presented to me as the true state of affairs by Sylvia Beach, Eugene and Maria Jolas, by Ford Madox Ford, by all of the many persons I knew there who had known Joyce, and befriended him for years. I think, too, that most of them had quarreled more or less among themselves about Joyce, and in a way, with Joyce himself. Sylvia most certainly had good cause for her belated resentment of his callous use of her life; but no one I knew was really easy in regard to him: he seems to have been a preposterously difficult man to get along with. His blindness was like the physical sign of his mind turning inward to its own darkness: after all, if the accounts now given are true, it seems not to have been the optic nerves but his teeth: and at last his intestines killed him.

  One evening a crowd gathered in Sylvia’s bookshop to hear T. S. Eliot read some of his own poems. Joyce sat near Eliot, his eyes concealed under his dark glasses, silent, motionless, head bowed a little, eyes closed most of the time, as I could plainly see from my chair a few feet away in the same row, as far removed from human reach as if he were already dead. Eliot, in a dry but strong voice, read some of his early poems, turning the pages now and again with a look very near to distaste, as if he did not like the sound of what he was reading. I had been misled by that too-often published photograph showing him as the young Harvard undergraduate, hair sleekly parted in the middle over a juvenile, harmless face. The poet before us had a face as severe as Dante’s, the eyes fiercely defensive, the mouth bitter, the nose grander and much higher bridged than his photographs then showed; the whole profile looked like a bird of prey of some sort. He might have been alone, reading to himself aloud, not once did he glance at his listeners.

  Joyce sat as still as if he were asleep, except for his attentive expression. His head was fine and handsome, the beard and hair very becoming to the bony thrust of his skull and face, the face of “a too pained whitelwit,” as he said it, in the bodily affliction and prolonged cureless suffering of the mind. . . .

  To those of my own generation and after, I can only say, what would we have done without him? He had courage for all of us, and patience beyond belief, and the total intensity of absorption in his gift, and the will to live in it and for it in spite of hell: and more often than not, it was hell: but as bad and worse things have happened to many quite good men who suffered quite as much, who had no gift, no toy, no special mystery of their own, to console them.




  A Little Incident in the Rue de l’Odéon

  Last summer in Paris I went back to the place where Sylvia Beach had lived, to the empty bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, and the flat above, where she brought together for sociable evenings the most miscellaneous lot of people I saw; persons you were surprised to find on the same planet together, much less under the same roof.

  The bookshop at 12 rue de l’Odéon has been closed ever since the German occupation, but her rooms have been kept piously intact by a faithful friend, more or less as she left them, except for a filmlike cobweb on the objects, a grayness in the air, for Sylvia is gone, and has taken her ghost with her. All sorts of things were there, her walls of books in every room, the bushels of papers, hundreds of photographs, portraits, odd bits of funny toys, even her flimsy scraps of underwear and stockings left to dry near the kitchen window; a coffee cup and a small coffeepot as she left them on the table; in her bedroom, her looking glass, her modest entirely incidental vanities, face powder, beauty cream, lipstick. . . .

  Oh, no. She was not there. And someone had taken away the tiger skin from her bed—narrow as an army cot. If it was not a tiger, then some large savage cat with good markings; real fur.

  I remember, spotted or streaked, a wild woodland touch shining out in the midst of the pure, spontaneous, persevering austerity of Sylvia’s life; maybe a humorous hint of some hidden streak in Sylvia, this preacher’s daughter of a Baltimore family, brought up in unexampled high-mindedness, gentle company and polite learning; this nervous, witty girl whose only expressed ambition in life was to have a bookshop of her own. Anywhere would do, but Paris for choice. God knows modesty could hardly take denser cover, and this she did at incredible expense of hard work and spare living and yet with the help of quite dozens of devoted souls one after the other; the financial and personal help of her two delightful sisters and the lifetime savings of her mother, a phoenix of a mother who consumed herself to ashes time and again in aid of her wild daughter.

  For she was wild—a wild, free spirit if ever I saw one, fearless, untamed to the last, which is not the same as being reckless or prodigal, or wicked, or suicidal. She was not really afraid of anything human, a most awe-inspiring form of courage. She trusted her own tastes and instincts and went her own way; and almost everyone who came near her trusted her to
o. She laid her hands gently, irresistibly on hundreds of lives, and changed them for the better; she had second sight about what each person really needed.

  James Joyce, his wife, his children, his fortunes, his diet, his eyesight, and his book Ulysses turned out to be the major project of her life; he was her unique darling, all his concerns were hers. One could want a rest cure after merely reading an account of her labors to get that book written in the first place, then printed and paid for and distributed even partially. Yet it was only one, if the most laborious and exhausting, of all her pastimes, concerned as she was solely with bringing artists together—writers preferred, any person with a degree of talent practicing or connected with the art of Literature, and in getting their work published and set before the eyes of the world. Painters and composers were a marginal interest. There was nothing diffused or shapeless in Sylvia’s purpose; that bizarre assortment of creatures shared a common center—they were artists or were trying to be. Otherwise many of them had only Sylvia in common. She had introduced many of them to each other.

  We know now from many published memoirs what Ford Madox Ford thought of Hemingway, what Hemingway thought of Ford and F. Scott Fitzgerald, how William Carlos Williams felt about Paris Literary Life, how Bryher felt herself a stranger to everyone but Sylvia. They seemed to be agreed about her, she was a touchstone.

  She was a thin, twiggy sort of woman, quick-tongued, quick-minded and light on her feet. Her nerves were as tight as a tuned-up fiddle string and she had now and then attacks of migraine that stopped her in her tracks before she spun herself to death, just in the usual run of her days.

  When I first saw her, in the early spring of 1932, her hair was still the color of roasted chestnut shells, her light golden brown eyes with greenish glints in them were marvelously benign, acutely attentive, and they sparkled upon one rather than beamed, as gentle eyes are supposed to do. She was not pretty, never had been, never had tried to be; she was attractive, a center of interest, a delightful presence not accountable to any of the familiar attributes of charm. Her power was in the unconscious, natural radiation of her intense energy and concentration upon those beings and arts she loved.

  Sylvia loved her hundreds of friends, and they all loved her—many of whom loved almost no one else except perhaps himself—apparently without jealousy, each one sure of his special cell in the vast honeycomb of her heart; sure of his welcome in her shop with its exhilarating air of something pretty wonderful going on at top speed. Her genius was for friendship; her besetting virtue, generosity, an all-covering charity in its true sense; and courage that reassured even Hemingway, the distrustful, the wary, the unloving, who sized people up on sight, who couldn’t be easy until he had somehow got the upper hand. Half an hour after he was first in her shop, Hemingway was sitting there with a sock and shoe laid aside, showing Sylvia the still-painful scars of his war wounds got in Italy. He told her the doctors thought he would die and he was baptized there in the hospital. Sylvia wrote in her memoirs, “Baptized or not—and I am going to say this whether Hemingway shoots me or not—l have always felt he was a deeply religious man.”

  Hemingway tried to educate her in boxing, wrestling, any kind of manly sport, but it seemed to remain to Sylvia mere reeling and writhing and fainting in coils; but Hemingway and Hadley his wife, and Bumby the Baby, and Sylvia and Adrienne Monnier, her good friend, all together at a boxing match must have been one of the sights of Paris. Sylvia tells it with her special sense of comedy, very acute, and with tenderness. Hemingway rather turns out to be the hero of her book, helping to bootleg copies of Ulysses into the United States, shooting German snipers off her roof on the day the American army entered Paris; being shown in fact as the man he wished and tried to be. . . .

  As I say, Sylvia’s friends did not always love each other even for her sake, nor could anyone but Sylvia expect them to, yet it is plain that she did. At parties especially, or in her shop, she had a way, figuratively, of taking two of her friends, strangers to each other, by the napes of their necks and cracking their heads together, saying in effect always, and at times in so many words, “My dears, you must love one another,” and she could cite the best of reasons for this hope, compounding her error by describing them in turn as being of the highest rank and quality each in his own field.

  Usually the strangers would give each other a straight, skeptical stare, exchange a few mumbling words under her expectant, fostering eyes; and the instant she went on to other greetings and exchanges, they faced about from each other and drifted away. There may have been some later friendships growing from this method, but I don’t know of any; it never made one for me, nor, I may say, the other way about.

  It was in Sylvia’s shop that I saw Ernest Hemingway for the first and last time. If this sounds portentous now, it is only because of all that has happened since to make of him a tragic figure. Then he was still the beau garçon who loved blood sports, the dark-haired, sunburned muscle boy of American literature; the war hero with scars to show for it; the unalloyed male who had licked Style to a standstill. He had exactly the right attitude toward words like “glory” and so on. It was not particularly impressive: I preferred Joyce and Yeats and Henry James, and I had seen all the bullfights and done all the hunting I wanted in Mexico before I ever came to Paris. He seemed to me then to be the walking exemplar of the stylish literary attitudes of his time; he may have been, but I see now how very good he was; he paid heavily, as such men do, for their right to live on beyond the fashion they helped to make, to play out to the end not the role wished on them by their public, but the destiny they cannot escape because there was a moment in their lives when they chose that destiny.

  It was such a little incident, and so random and rather comic at the time, and Sylvia and I laughed over it again years later, the last time I saw her in New York.

  I had dropped into Sylvia’s shop looking for something to read, just at early dark on a cold, rainy winter evening, maybe in 1934, I am not sure. We were standing under the light at the big round table piled up with books, talking; and I was just saying good-bye when the door burst open, and Hemingway unmistakably Ernest stood before us, looking just like the snapshots of him then being everywhere published—tall, bulky, broadfaced (his season of boyish slenderness was short), cropped black moustache, watchful eyes, all reassuringly there.

  He wore a streaming old raincoat and a drenched floppy rain hat pulled over his eyebrows. Sylvia ran to him calling like a bird, both arms out; they embraced in a manly sort of way (quite a feat, sizes and sexes considered), then Sylvia turned to me with that ominous apostolic sweetness in her eyes.

  Still holding one of Hemingway’s hands, she reached at arm’s length for mine. “Katherine Anne Porter,” she said, pronouncing the names in full, “this is Ernest Hemingway. . . Ernest, this is Katherine Anne, and I want the two best modern American writers to know each other!”

  Our hands were not joined.

  “Modern” was a talismanic word then, but this time the magic failed. At that instant the telephone rang in the back room, Sylvia flew to answer, calling back to us merrily, merrily, “Now you two just get acquainted, and I’ll be right back.” Hemingway and I stood and gazed unwinkingly at each other with poker faces for all of ten seconds, in silence. Hemingway then turned in one wide swing and hurled himself into the rainy darkness as he had hurled himself out of it, and that was all. I am sorry if you are disappointed. All personal lack of sympathy and attraction aside, and they were real in us both, it must have been galling to this most famous young man to have his name pronounced in the same breath as writer with someone he had never heard of, and a woman at that. I nearly felt sorry for him.

  Sylvia seemed mystified that her hero had vanished. “Where did he go?” “I don’t know.” “What did he say?” she asked, still wondering, I had to tell her: “Nothing, not a word. Not even good-bye.” She continued to think this very strange; I didn’t, and don’t.




  I saw our lovely and gifted Flannery O’Connor only three times over a period, I think, of three years or more, but each meeting was spontaneously an occasion and I want to write about her just as she impressed me.

  I want to tell what she looked like and how she carried herself and how she sounded standing balanced lightly on her aluminum crutches, whistling to her peacocks who came floating and rustling to her, calling in their rusty voices.

  I do not want to speak of her work because we all know what it was and we don’t need to say what we think about it but to read and understand what she was trying to tell us.

  Now and again there hovers on the margin of the future a presence that one feels as imminent—if I may use stylish vocabulary. She came up among us like a presence, a carrier of a gift not to be disputed but welcomed. She lived among us like a presence and went away early, leaving her harvest perhaps not yet all together gathered, though, like so many geniuses who have small time in this world, I think she had her warning and accepted it and did her work even if we all would like to have had her stay on forever and do more.

  It is all very well for those who are left to console themselves. She said what she had to say. I’m pretty certain that her work was finished. We shouldn’t mourn for her but for ourselves and our loves.

  After all, I saw her just twice—memory has counted it three—for the second time was a day-long affair at a Conference and a party given by Flannery’s mother in the evening. And I want to tell you something I think is amusing because Flannery lived in such an old-fashioned Southern village very celebrated in Southern history on account of what took place during the War. But in the lovely, old, aerie, tall country house and the life of a young girl living with her mother in a country town so that there was almost no way for her knowing the difficulties of human beings and her general knowledge of this was really very impressive because she was so very young and you wondered where—how—she had learned all that. But this is a question that everybody always asks himself about genius. I want to just tell something to illustrate the Southern custom.

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