What She Was and What She Felt Like - Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter died at the age of 90. She had one of those very long lives the sickly, with their bronchial troubles and early threats of tuberculosis, achieve as a surprise to us and perhaps to themselves. It was just two years ago, in September 1980, that she died and now we have a biography devoted to this long life.

Biographers, the quick in pursuit of the dead, research, organize, fill in, contradict and make in this way a sort of completed picturepuzzle with all the scramble turned into a blue eye and the parts of the right leg fitted together. They also make a consistent fiction, the fiction being the arrangement, artful or clumsy, of the documents.

Biography cast a chill over the late years of some writers and, perhaps from their reading the lives of those they had known in the toosolid flesh, provoked the insistent wish that no life be written. Among those who wished for no life after life were W.H. Auden, George Orwell and T.S. Eliot. The result has been two lives already of Auden and Orwell, and Eliot's life is in the making, waiting to be lived again by way of the flowing bloodstream of documentation.

Sometimes very fine writers and scholars undertake biographies, and their productions have at least some claim to equity between the subject and the person putting on the shoes. Others hope to establish credentials previously lacking by hard work on the abounding materials left by a creative life. In any case, a biography appears to be thought of as a good project, one that can at the very least be accomplished by industry. And if there is a lot of busy work in it - many visits to libraries, a store of taped interviews and, of course, the ''evidence'' of the writer's work itself (the last rather a difficulty since it is not precisely to be understood by research) - the book gets written and the ''life of'' is, so to speak, born. In her 86th year Katherine Anne Porter appointed Joan Givner to undertake the re-creation of her many decades. The biographer might be thought to be in luck since Miss Porter advised her to ''get at the truth,'' an always murky command when ordered on one's own behalf. The real luck about the truth turned out to be that the distinguished writer was unusually inclined to fabrication about her past. These fabrications, dashing often and scarcely news and only mildly discrediting, seem to be the driving engine behind Joan Givner's accumulation of the facts of life.

How certain human beings are able to create works of art is a mystery, and why they should wish to do so, at great cost to themselves usually, is another mystery. Works are not created by one's life; every life is rich in material. By the nature of the enterprise, the contemporary biographer with his surf of Xerox papers is doing something smaller and yet strikingly more detailed than the great Victorian laborers in the form. Our power of documentation has a monstrous life of its own, a greater vivacity than any lived existence. It makes form out of particles and finds attitude in a remembered drunken remark as easily as in a long contemplation of experience, more easily in fact. It creates out of paper a heavy, obdurate permanency. Threats to its permanency will only come by way of other bits of paper, a footnote coup d'etat. No matter, a territory once colonized in this way has had its indigenous landscape and culture put to the heel.

In Joan Givner's book the root biographical facts have the effect of a crushing army. Everything is under the foot. Each character and each scene of Miss Porter's fiction is looked upon as a factuality honored by its provenance as autobiography. And separate fictions are mashed together as bits of the life recur or are suggested in different works. Miss Porter, in a manner impertinently thought of as dilatory, did not often translate experience in a sequential fashion. So she is writing ''Hacienda'' while she is ''living'' ''The Leaning Tower.'' She is boarding the ship of fools before the Mexican stories have been accomplished. It is something of a tangle to get this particular life and its laggard production into time slots, and the result is an incoherence in regard to the work. Information about when each story was actually completed, when published and where, is lost in the anecdote of days and nights. No doubt the information is somewhere among the pages, but it is a slogging task to dig it out.

The life - some scandal and a considerable amount of folly. Katherine Anne Porter was born in a log cabin in Texas and grew up in hardship without a really good education. She knew a genuine struggle to provide for herself and slowly to define herself. Gradually, along the way, after her stories became known, she slipped into being a Southern belle and into being to some extent a Southern writer after ''Flowering Judas.'' The role was there for the choosing since to be a belle and to be a Southern writer is a decision, not a fate. (Poe, for instance, was a Southerner but not a Southern writer.) Perhaps under the influence of the very talented Southern Agrarians - Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon and others - she began to appropriate a rather frantic genealogy of Daniel Boone and certain Southern statesmen; in addition, she developed some soothing memories of plantation dining rooms, ''several Negro servants, among them two aged former slaves,'' and so on. In this way she filled in the gap between what she was and what she felt like.

She was handy too in disposing of the traces of her various mismatings, the first a marriage at 16. ''I have no hidden husbands,'' she once said. ''They just slipped my mind.'' She was beautiful, a spendthrift, an alert coquette and, since she lived long, a good many of her lovers and three of her husbands were younger than she was. She lopped off a few years here and there. The book goes into a determined sorting out and the husbands are lined up, the years restored.



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