Pale Horse, Pale Rider (Katherine Anne Porter)

Posted: July 30, 2014 in fiction
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This volume has three short pieces, each fifty or sixty pages in length, so they fall right on that line between short story and novel. Maybe they’re short novels, maybe novellas, maybe there’s no need to classify them based on length. It also reminded me of the buyer-beware aspect of used bookshops, since every page from 137 to 162 is torn neatly across from the edge into the binding [proof that it didn’t come from my two favourite shops, since they have such high standards that they always refuse around half the books I try to trade in]. The tears start close to the bottom of the page and move progressively upward, as if someone was trying to rip the book in frustration but got a bit twisted up. But nothing is missing, so after reading, I don’t think there’s any reason to be so angry at this little book. Porter’s delightful.

OLD MORTALITY

The story begins with a portrait of an ideal, Aunt Amy, and the two little girls who grow up in her shadow. Throughout their lives, everyone is compared unfavourably with the deceased Aunt Amy, who was apparently more beautiful, more charming, and more daring than any other woman anyone had ever known. In an era when women’s actions were carefully guarded, Amy did whatever she liked, bugger the consequences. She could bat her eyelashes and smile her way through nearly any situation, and when her brother shot at (or possibly just shot) a man to protect her honour and had to move to Mexico for a year, he was happy to go on an adventure for her. There are worse places than Mexico during the Old West for a Texan who’s just committed a violent crime on his sister’s behalf. There are some people who can get away with stuff and become legend while the rest of us learn to behave. My older sister was one, and I suspect that my middle son is becoming one. I was not – too much conscience, too little popularity. Examples: as a teenager, my sister once locked all of the adults at her summer camp in their cabin, and my son sang several verses of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” in McDonald’s when he was three years old.

And what happens when we meet the stuff of legend?

They had just turned their dollars over to the bookmaker for the fourth race when a vast bulging man with a red face and immense tan ragged mustaches fading into gray hailed them from a lower level of the grandstand, over the heads of the crowd, “Hey, there, Harry?” Father said, “Bless my soul, there’s Gabriel.” He motioned to the man, who came pushing his way heavily up the shallow steps. Maria and Miranda stared, first at him, then at each other. “Can that be our Uncle Gabriel?” their eyes asked. “Is that Aunt Amy’s handsome romantic beau? Is that the man who wrote the poem about our Aunt Amy?” Oh, what did grown-up people mean when they talked, anyway?

He was a shabby fat man with bloodshot blue eyes, sad beaten eyes, and a big melancholy laugh, like a groan. […] Miranda and Maria, disheartened by the odds, by their first sight of their romantic Uncle Gabriel, whose language was so coarse, sat listlessly without watching, their chances missed, their dollars gone, their hearts sore.

Like so many stories from the 1930s, this is a story of losing faith in ideals. We build up hopes and dreams, a Technicolor Oz of the imagination, only to wake up in gray Kansas. When Miranda follows in Amy’s footsteps, the family that laughed over the aunt condemns the niece. So. Not so ideal after all.

NOON WINE

I find I don’t have much to say on this story, probably because it addresses one of the issues that is most emotionally laden for me – mental illness. There are aberrations on both sides of my family, and one of my deepest fears is that I’m going to stop perceiving reality accurately. When I was religious, I was into mystic experiences, seeing visions, hearing voices, and so forth. When I think of my life then, I’m relieved that I don’t hallucinate any more, and that I no longer feel like I ought to. Leaving off the delusions of grandeur relieves a lot of pressure, too. But if I were to have a traumatic experience like that of Mr Thompson, I wonder even now if I would do any better at keeping track of what is happening, whose hands are doing what, and what degree of responsibility I have for actions that turn out to be mine.

And what clue do we have of insanity? Silence. Mr Helton doesn’t say much. I don’t say much. The extreme verbosity on this blog is a way of compensating for the extreme silence in my non-virtual life. I seldom talk much, unless I am (a) in front of a classroom, (b) drunk, or (c) with people I know well, or more accurately, with people whom I feel know me well. Mr Helton’s silence seems perfectly natural to me without explaining it with madness; indeed, the behaviour of most mad characters in literature seems normal to me until the author tells me they are mad. Which is one of the reasons that I worry.

PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER

Whenever I realize that a story is set in 1918 and a character begins to catch a cold, my heart quails within me. There are some implications that this is our old friend Miranda from Old Mortality, now in her mid-20s and surrounded by bored soldiers and busy newspapermen. This is primarily the story of Miranda’s delirium, with some moments of lucidity. It reminds me of the Porter story I used to teach, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” though the titular Granny declines steadily instead of by fits and starts. She also doesn’t seem to realize how quickly she’s dying, while Miranda expects and welcomes death. An influenza patient in love with a soldier during a war; of course she’s reconciled herself to the coming death.

Miranda sighed, and lay back on the pillow and thought, I must give up, I can’t hold out any longer. There was only that pain, only that room, and only Adam. There were no longer any multiple planes of living, no tough filaments of memory and hope pulling taut backwards and forwards holding her upright between them. There was only this one moment and it was a dream of time, and Adam’s face, very near hers, eyes still and intent, was a shadow, and there was to be nothing more. . . .

“Adam,” she said out of the heavy soft darkness that drew her down, down, “I love you, and I was hoping you would say that to me, too.”

He lay down beside her with his arm under her shoulder, and pressed his smooth face against hers, his mouth moved towards her mouth and stopped. “Can you hear what I am saying? . . . What do you think I have been trying to tell you all this time?”

For Porter, illness and death isolate us slowly, putting a gradual yet firm distance between the sufferer and humanity. It’s like when you’re trying desperately to stay awake but not quite succeeding, so bits of current sensory information mix with the coinages of the unconscious mind, all in a briary tangle of reality and dream-logic. Disorienting because you don’t know you’re dreaming and it’s just real enough to be utterly convincing.

I once asked a class if they didn’t think Granny Weatherall was a hoot, and they looked back at me in gaping silence until someone said, “But she dies at the end.” I replied, “Yes, but before that?” A story is more than its ending. The end can give a clue to an overall meaning, but the joy of the story is seldom concentrated there (it is in Catch-22, a few hundred pages of stagnation followed by five pages of unbridled joy, but that book is hardly representative). The joy is in the telling; it’s in the language, the moments, everything that makes up the middle. That’s where the important stuff is. That’s why there’s more of it.

So, to me, it doesn’t matter so much if Miranda lives or dies of influenza, if Adam survives the war or gets blown up by a mine, or even if he snatches Miranda’s influenza death from her like the sacrificial lamb she compares him to. For me, it’s a story of hating the war and narrating delirium in a stream of consciousness like Esther Summerson or Quentin Compson. People called it The Great War, but it’s not like it solved that much. This story is set in 1918 at the end of the war, first published in 1939 as the world was moving into the next great war, and this paperback was published in 1962, around the time we were not starting a great war over Cuba.

My grandfather did some very brave things in World War II, but without killing anyone, so he feels a little effete when his friends in the nursing home talk about their experiences. My father spent his war in Thailand, working on the radio most of the time and spending the rest of the war hauling his fellow soldiers out of prostitutes’ beds so they could do their work. After seeing a touring production of Miss Saigon, he spent the rest of the night in tears. And me? I don’t have a war. I don’t feel the lack of one either. I don’t doubt the possibility of there being another world war in my lifetime, I could be around for another forty years, but I’m far too much of a pacifist actually to get involved. And when I hear my students tell me about how they can’t quite get their brains to work right ever since they drove over that IED in Fallujah, I’m grateful that I have a disposition for peace. I also don’t mind having a president whose war record consists of caring for those who survived. I’d rather have someone leading a war who has a clear memory of lost limbs and fractured minds than someone whose mind was fractured and is still caught up in jingoistic rhetoric about the glory of war. There’s no glory. Just confusion, a fog of delirium in which people die. Kind of like an influenza epidemic.

So, three little stories about death, disillusionment, conflicts that cannot be resolved, and being Texan between 1885 and 1919. I suppose the volume is rather sad, but this too is life. None of us can expect an unbroken chain of affirmations; sometimes we have to let the ideal die and accept the world as it is, in which forces beyond our control shatter our dreams and leave us abandoned and dispossessed. But life is still worth living, and hope still flutters its fragile wings. I believe there are bright futures and new dreams to be had, despite the passing crepuscular present.

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