Manners and Methods
Certain writers keep their mysteries to themselves and remain enigmas to us. It doesn't make their writing bad, and we might comb it to understand why it meets with our indifference. They remain a law unto themselves without quite becoming a criminal offence. Bad writers we can take apart, notice the lazy thinking and the frayed-at-the-edges phrasing. We understand where they are coming from; we just don't wish to go there. But some writers have a way of thinking that is not our own, and with all the will in the world we cannot follow them. Eudora Welty is for this writer one such figure: someone whose work never quite seems to achieve the effect it seeks, but where the failure cannot easily be blamed on her.
In 'Writing and Analysing a Story' Welty discusses one of her own, 'No Place for You, My Love'. Originally she wrote it from the point of view of a girl "caught fast in the over-familiar monotonous life of her small town, and immobilized still further by a prolonged and hopeless love affair." (Eye of the Story) Yet Welty believed that as she had originally written it, the story was trapped inside the girl's head, and she needed to get our of there. Instead of coming from the south like Welty herself, the character now came from the Middle West. The point of view became indistinct, as though caught between that of the man who gives her a lift (a stranger who knows nothing about her, but wonders what her story might happen to be) and the young woman's. Welty has some very interesting things to say in and about the tale. "Above all, I had no wish to sound mystical, but I admit that I did expect to sound mysterious now and then, if I could." In the story itself, the narrator says: "had she felt a wish for someone else to be riding with them? He thought it was more likely that she would wish for her husband if she had one (his wife's voice) than for the lover in whom he believed." The narrator adds shortly after: "Whatever people liked to think, situations (if not scenes) were usually three-way - there was somebody else always."
We can notice here Welty's determination to keep the story mysterious though the limiting of point of view is quite tortuous. His thoughts of her having a husband are his wife's; the notion that she has a lover his own. Notice as well the use of parenthesis, sometimes clumsy when used in an essay, but a stylistic touch that can seem very obtrusive in fiction. They are often evident in Milan Kundera's work, but Kundera is a novelist determined to break down assumptions about narrative technique and wishes to work less with mystery than with analytic perspective. He doesn't reject narrative assertiveness for sub-textual possibilities; he asserts it all the more strongly to suggest different ways in which we can approach character and situation. When Kundera discusses Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he happily invades Tomas's thoughts: "(his friend slept on a narrow couch that Tomas found uncomfortable)"; all else he excluded (almost pedantically)". Yet Welty does not seem such a writer; she is one much more given to what theorists call the scenic method, an approach that insists on showing rather than telling, so that sub-text forces the reader to draw their own conclusions. Of course, the conclusion the reader draws has often been planted there by the writer: it isn't as if we can make up our own minds; more that the writer has made it up for us but refused to spell it out. While Kundera says that Tomas found the couch uncomfortable, a writer more given to the scenic method would be inclined to comment on the springs in the couch poking through the material; that the length was around five feet and so on, making it clear this would be an uncomfortable couch on which to sleep, without making it categorically the case. Yet while some will insist that the latter approach is better than the former, it is more useful to see them as two different approaches to fiction. Gerard Genette in Narrative Discourse talks about mimesis versus diegesis, picking up from the Ancients the distinction between showing and telling without regarding one over the other. Kundera's approach is diegetic; the other approach would be mimetic. The diegetic discourse would seem to be better than the mimetic when it comes to utilising parenthesis. This might be why we find it so odd in Welty's work but part of the aesthetic style in Kundera's. We might find brackets used in numerous Welty tales (in 'Clytie', for example, or 'A Memory'), but it remains anomalous.
Perhaps Welty believes mystery resides more in showing over telling, yet knows also that any showing is also a variation of telling. As Gerard Genette says in Narrative Discourse: "from our own strictly analytic point of view it must be added...that the very idea of showing, like that of imitation or narrative representation (and even more so, because of its naively visual character), is completely illusory." "Narration, oral or written, is a fact of language, and language signifies without imitating." Welty more or less admits this, saying: "when a novelist writes of man's experience, what else is he to draw on but the life around him? And yet the life around him, on the surface, can be used to show anything, absolutely anything, as readers know. The novelist's real task and real responsibility lies in the way he uses it." (The Eye of the Story)
This is where point of view becomes so important. Even if a writer wishes to offer omniscience they will still find themselves concentrating on some characters over others; we know rather more about Madame Bovary, for example, than about the villagers in Flaubert's novel. At the other extreme, we have a novelist like Alain Robbe-Grillet who can claim that there is nothing beyond the words on the page: they don't represent life; they generate a closed universe. "...if art is something, it is everything, which means it must be self-sufficient, and that there is nothing beyond." (For a New Novel) Let us take Robbe-Grillet's position as an important provocation; so many are keen to read the writer's work through biography and through seeing the characters as life-like that it is useful to move in the opposite direction and insist on pure form. Yet point of view helps us see that a work of fiction is both made out of the world at large, and a work of its author without being the author's opinion. When in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald takes an indirect approach to Gatsby's life by viewing him through the eyes of Nick Carraway, this is a very Fitzgeraldian way of being close to great wealth but removed from it perceptually. Nick may himself be rich, but as the opening of the novel makes clear, wealth shouldn't be taken for granted. "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. 'Whenever you feel like criticising anyone...just remember that all the people in this world haven't had your advantages.'" Throughout the book Fitzgerald manages to capture the Jazz age while remaining aloof from it; examines character without pretending to know it. When near the end of the book Gatsby relates how Daisy and he had first met some years earlier, Nick reports it thus: "for Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year..." this is both a remark about the past and at one remove. It creates that Fitzgeraldian sense of melancholy mixed with nostalgia, perspectivised through a narrative position that is intrigued but not impassioned. It is the form which creates our sense of Fitzgerald as a writer. Those unresponsive to his work might insist it lacks immediacy, that it is too vague; that it never gets to the heart of things. Others will see that being is a labyrinth with no easy heart of things to get to, and that Fitzgerald brilliantly captures this problem. Welty wouldn't disagree, saying "there is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer."
The question then might be how does one escape from that clarity. If the writer doesn't want simply to examine their own life, and doesn't want to clarify the world they choose to expose, then how to find the right angle in which to explore an aspect of the world, and is this finally what we respond to in a writer's work: to their perspective? When Welty says "the words follow the contours of some continuous relationship between what can and cannot be told..." each writer makes that choice, and in turn, each reader makes it too. It isn't enough to say that a writer is great and therefore we must keep reading until their greatness is revealed to us; part of their greatness might be that the secret they offer can only be comprehended by some and not by others. Our purpose in such instances should be to acknowledge why the writing is impressive, but accept that it cannot find a way into our consciousness. We respect it at a distance, but cannot turn it into a friend.
Doris Lessing makes some salient points on this issue in her introduction to The Golden Notebook when discussing students asking questions about her work. "They also ask a thousand details of total irrelevance, but which they have been taught to consider important, amounting to a dossier, like an immigration department's...why spend months and years writing thousands of words about one book, or even one writer, when there are hundreds of books waiting to be read." Unless we have a strong response to the work, then we should not fret too much over what is there that we cannot readily find. This isn't to say that a polemical attack on anything we don't find engaging is the right response either: if there is something pointless in trying to talk about books we don't respond to as Lessing suggests, then there is something horribly wrong-headed in a writer taking to task another because they don't agree with them, rather as food doesn't agree with one's digestive system.
And yet, and to continue our digression, sometimes very fine work can come out of this wrong-headedness when the writer is keen to acknowledge the limitations of a work but does so with the strength of their own creative powers. Tolstoy's attack on Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot's reservations about Hamlet, and Chinua Achebe's irritation with Heart of Darkness are all examples of fine texts that are hardly fair to the work to hand. Lessing one suspects would have far less of a problem with such works than the student essay that needs to be written, but has no strong point of view behind it; hence needing to go to Lessing to find out what she 'means'. Thus if we are to comment on a writer we don't get, should we avoid writing on the person at all, or try to find an angle of our own that suggests why, in this instance, Welty fails us?
Perhaps it concerns that question of the scenic method: the need to keep the story sub-textual dilutes strength of perspective, and we will say more about this later. Maybe the twofold risk in fiction is asserting one's position in an overly diegetic manner (accusations levelled at Kundera), and offering the mimetic to the point that no perspective comes through at all. For us, Welty appears more inclined to the latter, but with occasional moments of assertiveness that would benefit from being further explored rather than retreated from: to move in the direction of the diegetic over the mimetic. When for example in 'Flowers for Majorie' the narrator says: "He was one of the modest, the shy, the sandy-haired - one of those who would always have preferred waiting to one side..." this is diegetic writing. Mimetically presented it would have read something like this. "He came into the cafe by his wife's side, and as she insistently started ordering even before they sat down, he seemed to be walking behind her like a shadow. His light, red hair looked more so in the sun that passed through the window." Yet the story becomes increasingly mimetic as it goes on, and yet moves between the hint of interior thought, and objective presentation. This is mimetic: "Marjorie sat on the little trunk by the window her round arm on the sill, her soft cut hair now and then blowing and streaming like ribbon-ends over her curling hand where she held her head up." Yet this would seem more diegetic: "there were times when Howard would feel lost in the one little room. Marjorie often seemed remote now, or it might have been the excess of life in her rounding body that made her never notice any more the single and lonely life around her, the very pressing life around her."
There is then a mixture in much of Welty's work of the scenic method allied with a narrative perspective that suggests the authorial. Scenic method is described as "when an author presents a series of scenes from which a reader could draw their own conclusion rather than having them spelled out by the author," Another way of looking at is to imagine the writer drawing or painting with words: describing the scene but in no way narrating it. If someone were to say a woman sat on a sun lounger reading a newspaper, this could be painted as readily as described. Yet to say even Mildred sat on a sun lounger reading a newspaper would be to introduce narration, unless perhaps Mildred was wearing a name badge. Thus, of course, it is very hard for an author to avoid narrating altogether, even if writers from Hemingway to Robbe-Grillet would seem to push the scenic method quite far. Many moments in Welty's work offer it in modest form. 'The Wide Net' for example. "In Dover it had rained, and the town looked somehow like new. The wavy heat of late afternoon came down from the watertank and fell over everything like shiny mosquito-netting. At the wide place where the road was paved and patched with tar, it seemed newly embedded with coca-cola tops. The old circus posters on the store were nearly gone, only bits, the snowflakes of white horses, clinging to its side." And yet we see even here we are not getting pure description that we would find in a drawing. Words like 'somehow', 'seemed' and 'liked' intrude on the descriptive. They remain within the scenic method in the sense that they are not telling us what to think, but they are showing us the evidence of a writer thinking. This is not, strictly, description. But a passage from the beginning of 'First Love' more clearly suggests narration; it does indicate what a central consciousness is thinking. "Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams, and in Natchez it was the bitterest winter of them all" as the story goes on to describe a north wind that struck one January night.
Now let us say that with very few exceptions the writer does not absent themselves from the material: that narration will almost always intrude as we realise we cannot simply draw the scene: it is still being told. We don't say an artist tells a painting (he paints it), and, finally, writers don't describe a story, they tell it, not matter how much description is involved. Perhaps then one's reservations about Welty rest on the means by which she tells her stories, relying highly on the scenic method, but with narration that intrudes but never quite concludes: her stories can feel incomplete rather than conclusive. Now we frequently find in more popular forms like the detective novel or the romance that the conclusion is very pronounced indeed. The detective solves the crime, and the couple finally get together. Of course, this is not what we are talking about when we feel that Welty's stories can appear to us as incomplete. It rests much more on the question of narration and description, allied to point of view. When Welty writes on Chekhov she says that he would set a story "forth in simple terms of everyday life where it took place. The stuff of life was transmuted into the stuff of his story - the stuff of reality. All the same, "real", as in the "real world" does not, as we know, mean invariable or static, or ironclad, or consistent or even trustworthy." (The Eye of the Story) Yet if Chekhov is one of the greatest of short story writers it rests in taking the stuff of life and managing to reshape it into a form that combines narration with the scenic method, a strong sense of an ending without the resolution of lighter fiction. When Welty says that "Chekhov shows no fondness for the abstract. Reality - along with good and evil, justice and love, and other subjects of fundamental importance to him he dealt with in terms of the particular and personal meaning it took on for human beings in the course of their lives" (The Eye of the Story), she reveals in the conclusion to her remark what Chekhov was so brilliant at doing. He managed to give us a sense of a person's life through the course of it as time flows through his stories, giving his reality a shape as the temporal strongly impacts on the spatial. If we think of The Lady with a Lapdog, for example, the story is so powerful partly because we have a cynical man who has been a married philanderer with children who meets a woman whom he might actually love. The story's texture comes at least from feeling that he has perhaps wasted half his life on useless womanising, and also on a marriage with kids. Yet, of course, he has brought people into the world through the marriage and the woman he falls for in turn has a life experience behind her that she cannot easily separate herself from. This love story is shot through with the problem of time: of the course of people's lives. Any scenic method is there to convey a strong narration that in its absence would leave Chekhov's stories thin.
And what about his point of view? Whether first person or third, what is vital to Chekhovian narration is loss and regret: it needs a narrative perspective that can reflect this purpose. His stories feel complete because his theme seemed so consistent and yet hardly narrow. Welty's work appears to lack this assertiveness, as if there is no vision strong enough to hold the material together even if the writing is never obvious, never smug, never insensitive. She can write beautifully about a spinster who captures her reflection in a barrel of water in 'Clytie': "it was a wavering, inscrutable face. The brows were drawn together as in pain. The eyes were large, intent, almost avid, the nose ugly and discolored as if from weeping, the mouth old and closed from any speech. On either side the head dark hair hung down in disreputable and wild fashion. Everything about the face frightened and shocked her with its signs of waiting, of suffering." But in such a description she doesn't quite knit together time with the accumulative force of a Chekhov.
Yet we must be wary of rejecting a writer because they don't conform to our wishes as they pursue their own needs; just as we might find ourselves if we praise them at all admiring in their work the qualities we most seek in it while ignoring what might be more distinctive in the writer. Is this why we respond for example to 'The Hitchhikers', 'Livvie' and 'No Place for You, My Love' more than most? Perhaps. In 'The Hitchhikers' Harris is a travelling salesman who picks up the title characters, one with a guitar, and after leaving them in the vehicle goes to a hotel he knows well and asks if there is any chance the two men could sleep the night out the back. But when he returns to the car he sees that the guitar player is slumped in blood having been seriously attacked by his colleague.
The story isn't especially about the crime committed, but the conscience and consciousness of Tom Harris, a man of few words but it would seem deep thoughts and complex feelings. When later on he goes along to a party, he is in his milieu but not quite of this world. He is clearly attractive to women and interesting to the men: "so this is the famous 'he' everybody is talking about" a girl in a white dress says, pouting. Some find the story exciting; others worry about the mess inside his car, with blood everywhere. Tom is understandably more concerned about the dying man than the flattery of those around him, but there is a sense that Tom isn't easily charmed and has never trusted the party world.
Later he can't sleep and, when walking to the window, finds a voice calling to him. It is Carol, a woman at the party who when he joins her outside tells him that she had a crush on him in the past. She was just a girl then and he had started travelling, and he can't remember her, but a bond that evening develops between them that Welty contextualises within the man's pain elsewhere, and the indifference of the partygoers that he had to escape. "You're sweet" he says before they part. "What's sweet about me?" she asks. "It was the look of bewilderment in her face that he would remember." It is as though she has accessed his tenderness, however provisionally, while what he had seen earlier that evening had been harshness and cruelty. By the end of the story the man will have died, and the guitar lies on the back seat. Even the police didn't want it and a "colored boy" more or less asks if he can have it: nobody else seemed interested in taking it. The story ends on the unwanted wanted, and Welty achieves a pathos that is nevertheless far from sentimental. Through the character of Harris the story's tone remains reserved but empathic, a sense that the world is a harsh place but where we needn't assume that has to be the way our central character must think and feel.
In 'Livvie', a sixteen year old girl marries a much older man and they have been living for years far away from town life; Solomon doesn't want Livvie to realise all the opportunities she might be missing. She was sixteen when she married Solomon, and did it as an act of obedience and not of love. Now he can barely get himself out of bed he is so old and tired, and in time a stranger passes by and Livvie finds herself instantly attracted, or at least believes she is. She realises that she would have seen Cash before, a whistling farm worker employed by her husband. "He was a transformed field hand. Cash belonged to Solomon. But he had stepped out of his overalls into this." Playing like a variation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, we might wonder if the young lovers will kill the ageing husband, but it doesn't quite work out like that though Solomon will die and the story will end as symbolically as 'The Hitchhikers'. Early in the tale Solomon wonders if she is choosing Winter will she not pine for Spring; at the end of the story we are told that the "redbirds were flying and criss-crossing, the sun was in all the bottles on the prisoned trees, and the young peach was shining in the middle of them with the bursting light of Spring." With Winter past, she can now choose Spring in the sprightly form of young Cash. Yet Welty will insist symbolism is only as good as the story allows. "Symbols have to spring from the work direct, and stay alive. Symbols for the sake of symbols are counterfeit." (The Eye of the Story) The guitar is an integrated thing in the story, and would be wanted by someone. Ending a tale on the presence of Spring isn't just a symbol of the man's youth and vigour, it echoes back to the beginning of the story, and gives pathos to Solomon's remark.
Both 'The Hitchhikers' and 'Livvie' are stories pregnant with possibility, and the same might be said of 'No Place for You, My Love'. Here a couple of Northerners are in the South and at a luncheon find themselves drawn together through the friends they happen to be with, and they spend some time travelling in the hatchback he rents. Welty weaves between the thoughts of the two characters but remains a partial rather than an omniscient narrator throughout. What are the feelings these characters are developing for each other we might wonder; what is she keeping from him and him from her, and both from themselves? Welty, as we have noted, originally wrote the story from the woman's point of view but found it too claustrophobic, perhaps worried that if she offered the story omnisciently it would become too conclusive and clear. Yet she also says, in the Paris Review, "I really do work for resolution in a story. I don't think we often see life resolving itself, not in any sort of perfect way, but I like the fiction writer's feeling of being able to confront an experience and resolve it as art, however imperfectly and brieflyto give it a form and try to embody it to hold it and express it in a story's terms." How to achieve completeness without obviousness, and Welty might answer with the aid of the symbolic, as we have already noted in 'The Hitchikers' and 'Livvie'. 'No Place for You, My Love', suggests a strong complicity between these two characters, but one that couldn't easily be satisfied. He is a married man and she is a preoccupied woman, someone with a lover on her mind even if she might have removed him from her life. The story ends with the woman never telling her story to the man, but it is as if his company was enough: she hasn't told him because of a deep sleep we might suspect has been a long time coming. The man drops her off and as he drives along the New Orleans streets he is reminded of his own youth in New York, "the shriek and horror and unholy smother if the subway had its original meaning for him as the lilt and expectation of love."
In these three stories one finds a way in, but are they especially strong Welty stories or do they just appeal to a certain sensibility: that they are stories less immersed in the milieu of probability, than of possibility? Welty talks in the Paris Review of the difference she sees between northern live and southern ones. "In New York you may have the greatest and most congenial friends, but it's extraordinary if you ever know anything about them except that little wedge of their life that you meet with the little wedge of your life. You don't get that sense of a continuous narrative line. You never see the full circle. But in the South, where people don't move about as much, even now, and where they once hardly ever moved away at all, the pattern of life was always right there." This might seem like a geographical variation of Flannery O'Connor's distinction between mystery and manners, and returns us to a much earlier point concerning the mystery Welty sometimes seeks in her work. Indeed our point about probability versus possibility coincides with O'Connor's to the point of plagiarism. "He will be interested in possibility rather than probability" O'Connor says, adding: "his kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted." (Mystery and Manners)
Yet if we are using the same terms as O'Connor we are talking about a slightly different thing. In the stories examined, we don't feel these are characters possessing a depth of psychology; more a perspective of mystery, and this is why point of view is so important to Welty. Her characters are often more straightforward than her narrative position, and so the mystery finds itself in the spaces between what might have been told. We don't find out very much about the woman's personal life in 'No Place for You. My Love', and the space Welty creates between Harris's preoccupations over the dying man leaves his own psychology at one remove. Harris appears to be someone alienated from his community, as if travelling the country gives him the chance to escape from ready expectation, but the murder leaves him with something on his mind, without revealing his mind. If Welty's character sometimes are complex, she wants to find a means by which to tell the story that leaves us unsure of the depths or shallowness of the characters because she wants to keep that a mystery.
Returning to Welty's comment in the Paris Review about northerners keeping themselves more to themselves, while southerners are more inclined to know far more about each other, there is the suggestion in Welty's work that she could do the manners of the south very well. She discusses in Paris Review that "dialogue's the easiest thing in the world to write when you have a good ear, which I think I have." But of course a good ear isn't enough: one can capture the superficial speech, but how does one reflect a character's thoughts? Welty might believe that dialogue can be nuanced in numerous ways, but literature has the enormous advantage of going into a character's head without difficulty, yet needs to be wary of doing so partly because the mystery of a person's self can then be lost. The apparent advantage of the diegetic method can sometimes be its weakness. In both 'The Hitchhikers' and 'No Place For You, My Love', Welty suggests mystery more than in many of her tales, where manners prove more present. But if she remains a minor figure in one's canon, it rests on the sense in which the mysteries are often not explored far enough.
© Tony McKibbin