Why did it take me so long to read Katherine Anne Porter? She is a Texan and a great writer, and there aren’t that many of those, particularly women. I have only read three of her stories, contained in this book, but I have that wonderful feeling that she and I are going to get along well, and I will need to collect some more of her books.
So the three stories in this volume are “Old Mortality”, “Noon Wine” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”. I read them fairly quickly and while travelling for Christmas, so I will probably want to re-read. Each is really different in tone and subject matter, which immediately shows a diversity in her writing that is impressive. The subject matter is fairly racy for the time (it was originally published in 1939): some discussion of female morality, a murder and some anti-war sentiment (presumably WWI). I found her voice to be unique – there was a tempo or strength of writing that felt different from other writers. Her stories are strong, steady and appropriately pitched, told from the perspective of a variety of characters (third-person narration but focused on young women and old men at various points).
“Old Mortality” is about the stories we are told as children about our elders, and how we romanticise these fairy tales and take away lessons that are, in many cases, basically irrelevant. The story starts with this, which tells you basically the point of view and romanticisation that was going on:
“Their hearts and imaginations were captivated by their past, a past in which worldly considerations had played a very minor role. Their stories were almost always love stories against a bright blank heavenly blue sky.” (6)
By the end, the two young women come across “Cousin Eva”, who had always been a cautionary tale for them as children: she was ugly, and a feminist, and so she was an old maid. One shouldn’t end up like that, they were told. They meet her on the way to a funeral (the background to the funeral is also important but I don’t want to get too much into plot), and she tries to explain how silly and romantic their ideas are.
“‘It was just sex,’ [Cousin Eva] said in despair; ‘their minds dwealt on nothing else. They didn’t call it that, it was all smothered under pretty names, but that’s all it was, sex. … None of them had, and they didn’t want to have, anything else to think about, and they didn’t really know anything about that, so they simply fester inside–they festered–‘
Miranda found herself deliberately watching a long procession of living corpses, festering women stepping gaily towards the charnel house, their corruption concealed under laces and flowers, their dead faces lifted smiling, and thought quite coldly, ‘Of course it was not like that.'” (63)
And finally, there is a kind of epiphany at the end, but an ambiguous one:
“She resented, slowly and deeply and in profound silence, the presence of these aliens who lectured and admonished her, who loved her with bitterness and denied her the right to look at the world with her own eyes, who demanded that she accept their version of life and yet could not tell her the truth, not in the smallest thing.” (67-8)
It’s a powerful story for anyone who has been raised in a repressive, patriarchal society – in my case, the South.
The second story, “Noon Wine”, was probably my least favourite, so I won’t write much about that. It is still evocative and subtle but more ambiguous and I found the plot the least strong of the three.
The last story, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, is a powerful one about a young female newspaper reported who meets a man before he goes to war – she knows he will die and she hates the war. There is a lot of cynicism in this story about world politics – in a way that sort of surprised me (I think we tend to think that cynicism about wars is a new thing, but clearly not). But there is also a lot of hope and innocence in the story as well – this knowledge in youth that you will go through something important and world-changing in falling in love, and that it will leave you ravaged. In this case, influenza coincides with everything and almost literally kills her, which adds to the drama of the story. So there are a lot of layers, but it is beautiful, insightful and sad. A quote about her life so far, to give an idea:
“‘There’s nothing to tell, after all, if it ends now, for all this time I was getting ready for something that was going to happen later, when the time came. So now it’s nothing much.’
‘But it must have been worth having until now, wasn’t it?’ he asked seriously as if it were something important to know.
‘Not if this is all,’ she repeated obstinately.