Here’s a conversation I had with Brad of The Neglected Books Page, about Laura Riding’s short story collection Progress of Stories (1935). This American author is most well-known for her marriage to the poet Robert Graves, and for her own poetry.
KM: I didn’t like them. Well, I did like quite a lot about quite a lot of them, but her style did not work for me. The book was republished with an additional 13 stories in 1994, with not one but two prefaces by the author, both largely incomprehensible. And that’s the problem; you have to really buy into Riding’s reputation and oeuvre to enjoy these stories. They are modernist, surrealist fairy tales, written in a flat, disassociated style that hides wonders and makes the remarkable ordinary. Leonora Carrington did something similar with her collection The Hearing Trumpet (1960), but her prose is magnetic. I didn’t find that reading Riding. Her style is mannered and determined to keep the reader off-balance. At least, that’s what I thought.
BB: Like you, I have mixed feelings about this book. There are a handful of stories that I consider just stunning in their refusal to be like anything else I’ve ever read (I must confess that I’ve not read Leonora Carrington’s stories). Certainly there is that deliberately abstract and absurdist approach that we all know from Kafka, where a man transformed into a cockroach overnight is taken at face value. But unlike Kafka, Borges, and others, Riding has no problem inserting herself into the story, commenting upon the narrative, at times almost poking at it like some odd specimen she’s examining with her magnifying glass.
I’m thinking in particular of the long story, ‘Reality comes to Port Huntlady’, where she interrupts her narrative with such asides as:
Exactly what the business between Cards and Lady Port-Huntlady was, then, is a matter standing in the way of your ultimate enjoyment of this story as a thing of your own. It is—how shall we say—the pious tediousness of the author, who, in telling a story, must always observe the fiction that to tell a story is to persuade people of something entirely true, or publicly actual; this side of a story is called its verisimilitude.
It is, of course, obvious that to tell a story is to persuade people of something almost false. We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case. And this is why some matters secondary to the story must be brought in, such as the business between Cards and Lady Port-Huntlady, to make the story seem true as well as, quite frankly, a story.
I find these asides rather marvelous and funny. On the one hand, Riding is both reminding us that we are engaged in an illusion – reading about these characters in this strange town called Port Huntlady – and shattering that illusion. It’s a bit like telling yourself you are speaking while you are speaking: many people find this quite disconcerting, sometimes so much that they can’t go on speaking. On the other hand, it’s also in the fine tradition of Sterne in Tristram Shandy, where the author provides a running criticism of his own work.
The many prefaces and other commentaries by Riding that clutter up the collection are truly awful, though – or perhaps I am insufficiently abstract in my reasoning to reach whatever ethereal plane she was operating on. I found, however, by coincidence, something she wrote in the mid-1950s for her entry in Twentieth Century Authors that may offer a clue to what she was trying – and help explain why it’s unlikely that it would make sense to anyone but herself:
We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled – and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.
I would imagine that this would be a particularly difficult challenge when one has chosen writing as one’s profession.
Did you manage to extract any sense from the prefaces or did you skip them entirely, as I quickly decided to?
KM: I could not be bothered after the fifth page of garbled nonsense in the first preface. It didn’t tell me anything other than she had a lot of mixed feelings about the process and intent of writing, but neither preface was interesting enough to try to untangle.
I have to say that I don’t share your amusement at ‘Reality comes to Port Huntlady’: that was the first story I gave up on. I quite liked the fable about Miss Banquett creating the world in her own image, but it palled. I liked ‘Socialist pleasures’ a lot, and found ‘Schoolgirls’ very interesting, but less enjoyable. ‘Three times round’, about the extraordinary life of Lotus which the narrative voice is deathly bored by, is a story you have to read by effort of will.
It’s Riding’s narrative style that kills the pleasure for me. It’s determined to BE stylised, and uninterested in the fiction. Aggravating and irritating, saved from complete annoyance by the brilliance of the subjects and small things slipped in unexpectedly, like fireworks during a boring play at the theatre. So the effect is to make the reader sit up and ask ‘Wait, what was that?’, and then IGNORE the reader’s needs. It’s a contemptuous way to tell stories.
Brad will be posting a more detailed post on Progress of Stories sometime next week. I don’t have anything left to say!