It might have been eight years since I passed quickly through a formative obsession with so-called Southern Gothic writing. (For those of you marking up your timelines, this came after the Steinbeck completionism phase and before the craze for the New York suburbs.) If you are at all familiar with the works of Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, you will know that they are apt to cast spells, and I was caught up completely. I even tried to ape the style once, in a story even I can’t read anymore called ‘You Must Be Tired’. I wrote that back when I thought that all it took to emulate an author was to share their crippled esteem for human happiness. I was yet to learn that awful things were not simply to be strewn through stories like root-raised pavement blocks for characters to trip on. There has to be a reason for misery if anyone is to care, and there has to be the fleeting chance that the redemptive path might instead be taken, even if it is cruelly blocked off or subverted in the end.
I wanted to capture a little of that spirit again, so I turned to one of the authors of the early twentieth century South who we don’t remember so well today, namely Katherine Anne Porter. I read her most famous book, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), a collection of ‘three short novels’ that deal with classic themes of the genre—family fracture, rural living, and particularly death or even Death, the ‘pale rider’ among us. The first of the short novels, ‘Old Mortality’, is the story of two young girls, Maria and Miranda, learning and then re-learning their ancestry through the oral telling of their many aunts, uncles, elderly ‘cousins’ and their grandmother. Part II , set in 1904 after the girls have grown up a little, is the sweetest piece of the story. They are taken along to meet their fabled Uncle Gabriel for the first time, a man of whom they know only through family legend. In the flesh, they find, he turns their stomachs, this haggard shyster who is party to his own penury when he tosses his infrequent racecourse winnings to the wind. Uncle Gabriel displays just the kind of nuanced grotesquerie that is the hallmark of Southern Gothic writing, and I felt with him that I had returned to a place I knew.
The last ‘short novel’ in the collection is the eponymous and only lightly fictionalised account of the author’s own near-fatal illness. Living in Denver as a young woman at the end of World War One, Porter was one of many millions afflicted worldwide by the influenza pandemic that took the lives of an estimated 650,000 people in America alone. Each of these personal details is passed on to the returning character of Miranda, who was a young girl in ‘Old Mortality’ and returns here as a down-trodden theatre critic. As its title suggests, Death stalks ’Pale Horse, Pale Rider’—in her dream, Miranda rides alongside the ghostly figure, and awake she sees (by my count) three funeral processions pass by her along the street in just the first twenty pages. These are representative of both the men who were sent to Europe to die in the trenches and domestic casualties of the ‘flu. Amid it all, before she too falls ill, Miranda works in vain to find any point, any future in her romance with a soldier who is soon to ship out for France, from where neither of them expect him to return in tact. This urban setting, scenes imbued with a global not a local dread—this is well beyond the reach of the Southern masters I so revered when young. Porter shows herself in this final ‘short novel’ to be a writer of greater worldliness and versatility than many of those I consider her peers, but she matches them on their own ground too, turning out magical phrases of loss and longing with the best. I was compelled to bring out the latter point, more than anything else, to allow me to quote something from a wonderful accounting of how a nascent love can still be worthwhile even if it means everything for just a short while:
“Strolling, keeping step, his stout polished well-made boots setting themselves down firmly beside her thin-soled black suède, they put off as long as they could the end of their moment together, and kept up as well as they could their small talk that flew back and forth over little grooves worn in the thin upper surface of the brain, things you could say and hear clink reassuringly at once without disturbing the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two person named Adam and Miranda, twenty-four years old each, alive and on the earth at the same moment… ” (197-8)
Porter’s legacy is due a revival. Richard Wright’s, by contrast, is not in doubt. Second this week I read his self-portrait of rare prowess, Black Boy (American Hunger) (originally published 1945; restored text, first published 1991). Alongside the monumental novel Native Son (1940)—which you should read if you haven’t already—this book established Wright as one of the major figures of early twentieth-century America literature. Now that I have read it myself, I understand why.
My sense is that the impact of Black Boy derives much more from the remarkable conviction and personality of the author than it does from the particular way in which he tells his story. I’ve no doubt that much of the dialogue and many of the scenes from the author’s childhood are, at least in part, not merely reconstructed but wholly fabricated for effect. The first section, ‘Southern Night’, reads more as Künstlerroman than strict autobiography, but I don’t intend to argue the point. The scenes of physical violence and terrible indignity are visceral, but if you have ever read a slave narrative, or anything by Ralph Ellison, or Toni Morrison, or James Baldwin, or Alice Walker, or Zora Neale Hurston, etc., then you will know the type already. For me, the emotional honesty of the book is what really catches hold. Wright never covers over his meaning by means of irony or forced detachment; he comes straight at you. In the bright glare of all his well-earned indignation, I was more inclined to question my own life than the strict fidelity of Wright’s narrative technique.
As Frederick Douglass once famously did, Wright recounts how he learned the alphabet and the first hundred numbers surreptitiously, having been kept clear of school for almost all of his first ten years. He sees such minimal education for what it is, right from the beginning: an act of subversion, indeed an object of derision or cause for a beating if discovered, but also the raw material for a new way of living. He was compelled to hide the books and magazines he read as a teenager from his suspicious mother, relatives, employers and friends, and as is the way, this secretiveness only made his affinity for the written word ever more ardent and harder to conceal. To his illiterate grandmother, the stories he reads are naught but the devil’s work of lying; she finally disowns him when he insists upon supplementing his starvation rations with the money earned from working on the sabbath day. Wright’s resolve to read his way out of this place that does him no good, the South, always proves stronger than the filial devotion that his family fails to earn.
As this weekly series attests, I spend a lot of time reading and writing. I always have done. But now, not eligible to work and not formally studying either, they become the centre of my life most days. And Wright, looking out at me so righteous in his hard-won literacy, makes me wonder why I waste my time. I did not struggle against awful odds to learn that A comes first and B second. When I want to read a book and I don’t have the money for it, I am not forced to forge a man’s signature on a request for any run-of-the-mill volume at a whites-only library. And if my conviction is to turn my view of the world into stories, I am not manhandled by the thuggish local leadership of the Communist party or cast out as a non-conformist. Yet, he is the only one of us who has yet achieved the latter goal. It helps, no doubt, that Wright was a man of remarkable talent and application. Black Boy (American Hunger) attests that he would willingly alienate himself from everything and everyone he knew before he would be convinced to stifle what he felt in himself to be true. As far as I could tell there was no one left, by the end of the book, to speak for him except himself, but then he only trusted himself and his own words anyway. I would never want to decide between successful self-expression and interpersonal love in the way that Wright finds he must. All the same, the artist in me envies him that selfish choice.
There were two other books I read this week that didn’t knock me sideways or hollow me out, but which I enjoyed all the same. The novel Big Girls Don’t Cry (originally published in the UK as Big Women, 1996), by Fay Weldon, tells the story of the birth and eventual folding of a feminist publishing house in London over the course of twenty-five years, between the early 1970s and the mid-90s. Even as Weldon seems to celebrate the women who founded this press that they call Medusa, there is not a character among the many in this book with whom her sympathies really seem to lie. Or rather, in exposing each woman’s flaws, she is reminding us that those with laudable goals are still fallible, meaning here that a renowned feminist publisher is as liable to commit adultery or covet others’ wealth as the next person. The author sees the real project of the women behind Medusa as an attempt to change the world rather than change themselves, rendering their environment one in which they are more free to be nasty. This book reminded me once more that effective novels need not be populated by friendly characters.
And lastly, since I saw it near my hand at an idle moment, I picked up This Is Your Life (1988), by Meg Wolitzer. It is a novel of upper-class Manhattan life, but please, stay with me: it’s not what it looks like. We find in the opening pages a family of odd, ill-fitting parts. Two young girls, Erica and Opal Engels, are being neglected by a string of small-time club comedians (their baby-sitters, who spend more time rehearsing their impressions in front of the mirror than looking after their charges). The girls’ mother Dottie, a popular comedian, is away somewhere, probably in Los Angeles or Las Vegas, where on any given night she might be running through her set on Johnny Carson or opening for Tony Bennett. Erica and Opal see Dottie more on television than they do in person, and this sense of relationships mediated by some unwelcome manipulator—a TV executive, a booking agent, or later a drug habit—is all-pervasive, yet Dottie still rings true as a loving mother, and that is the clever balance that Wolitzer has managed to strike. This Is Your Life is an unusually personal look at stardom, not shining on all sides but always warm.