Friday, June 17, 2011

pale horse, pale rider (porter)

i have to admit i had never heard of porter before a friend recommended "pale horse, pale rider" to me. the book contains three short stories (or, novels as the author preferred to call them, detesting the word "novella"): 
  1. old mortality
  2. noon wine
  3. pale horse, pale rider

the copy i have is a browned, formerly eggshell coloured 1962 signet paperback that, undeniably, must have spent years on a smoker's shelf - not read, but exposed to lots of smoke. the lower quarter of the spine is brittle with a tear like it's been bent, but otherwise it is a good reading copy. this group of stories was first published in the 1930s. 

detail from "apocalypse"
by vasnetsov

i started with the title story, pale horse, pale rider, which in this edition (but not in all) comes last. the title is a reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse: the fourth horseman is death, on a pale horse. porter's tells the tale of two lovers who cannot be together because of world war 1, as well as a portrait of the circumstances of miranda, a young journalist who is the focal point of the story.

the whole, for me, falls into four parts: a very short part at the beginning, where she "meets" the pale rider, then her work and economic concerns, meeting adam, and the influenza. the first and last part, rather dream-like and disorienting, not only drew me in but drained me of energy while reading, while the other parts are much more clear and, i guess, illustrate her lucid state of mind.

old mortality i found easier to read. at times, i fell in love with little passages here and there. this story is split intentionally into three parts:

part 1: 1885 - 1902
part 2: 1904
part 3: 1912

in part 1 we meet the sisters miranda (8 at the time) and maria (12), who see their family and their own destinies through the stories about other family members. (this miranda may well be the same person as in pale horse, pale rider, only younger, and, in the last part, older.) the grandmother is instrumental in making those stories "real" in the sense that she is the keeper of tangible evidence to go with the stories: letters, photographs, a wedding dress.

Photographs, portraits by inept painters who meant earnestly to flatter, and the festival garments folded away in dry herbs and camphor were disappointing when the girls tried to the living beings created in their minds by the breathing words of their elders. Grandmother, compelled in her blood twice a year by the change of seasons, would sit nearly all of one day beside old trunks and boxes in the lumber room, unfolding layers of garments and small keepsakes; she spread them out on sheets on the floor around her, crying over certain things, nearly always the same things, looking again at pictures in velvet cases, unwrapping locks of hair and dried flowers, crying gently and easily as if tears were the only pleasure she had left. 
If Maria and Miranda were very quiet, and touched nothing until it was offered, they might sit by her at these times, or come and go. There was a tacit understanding that her grief was strictly her own, and must not be noticed or mentioned. (p.11)

apart from the girls, their aunt amy, whom they have never met, is an important, if absent character here.
after refusing his advances for years, and after a scandal at a dance and a shooting, amy suddenly decides to give in to gabriel and marry him. some weeks after the wedding, she dies. mysterious aunt amy is important to the girls, even if the painting of her does not strike either girl as beautiful. in the family's stories, and hence in their minds, amy is (was) wonderful.

the defining impact of stories told on their perception of reality goes further than idealized family members: when their father takes them to see some shakespeare plays (they are not allowed trivial entertainment),
Miranda thought the magnificent lady in black velvet was truly the Queen of Scots, and was pained to know that the real Queen had died long ago, and not at all on the night she, Miranda, had been present. (p. 15)
part two tells of the two sisters' time away from home, in a convent school in new orleans. miranda has, in the meantime, decided she will never grow into a tall beautiful woman, and toys with the idea of becoming a race jockey. both girls have strong ideas about stories. when they come across a fiction paperback, they read it but do not take it seriously, taking from the book just one word: "immured" - as a more romantic adjective for their time at the school. (p. 31)
It was no good at all trying to fit the stories to life, and they did not even try. They had long since learned to draw the lines between life, which was real and earnest, and the grave was not its goal; poetry, which was true but not real; and stories, or forbidden reading matter, in which things happened as nowhere else,  with the most sublime irrelevance and unlikelihood, and one need not turn a hair, because there was not a word of truth in them. (p. 32)
during the time at the convent, the girls briefly meet uncle gabriel, who is nothing like the romantic poet they had constructed in their minds from the stories they were told, and his hostile second wife.

the last part takes place on a train, as miranda, then 18 and recently married, travels to uncle gabriel's funeral. by chance, she meets old cousin eva, whom she has never met before and also only heard stories about. the stories mainly focused on eva's lack of a decent chin and her (supposedly) consequential life as a spinster. during the train ride, cousin eva tells a different version of the stories about amy and gabriel and the shooting. miranda comes away disillusioned and with the conviction that, at least, she will know the truth of her own life, her own story.

noon wine - a gripping story. i am trying to think what i can say about it without giving too much away, because this story relies much on plot events, and not so much on the characters' internal goings-ons as the other two. i hope you'll read the story anyhow, and if you don't want spoilers do not read past the following paragraph! :)

the setting: the title refers to a (real or fictitious) scandinavian drinking song about waking up feeling so great that one drinks all the wine ("likker") normally saved for the lunch break in the morning already, and feels even better. now, the story is set in south texas, and the notion of feeling great while drunk and working on the farm strikes farm owner mr thompson as bizarre, since he can barely stand the heat sober. the man who plays this song every day on his harmonica, mr helton, never touches a drop of alcohol for as long as thompson knows him. mr helton appears out of nowhere (well, out of north dakota) and asks for work, which mr thompson is happy to provide him with, for low wages. helton is a quiet character, very private and not always polite, but a hard worker and very good at what he does (tending the animals, making butter, straightening out the farm, later even making cheese for them to sell) and becomes almost a part of the family over the years.

--- spoilers ---

after many years, a stranger appears in search of helton. he makes some unsettling claims about the man who has been helping the thompson family immensely for years. he tells thompson that helton is an escaped lunatic, and a murderer at that, and the farm owner realizes this is a bounty hunter of sorts. he has to take sides. when thompson refuses to help him capture and handcuff helton, the stranger pulls out a knife. helton, hearing the argument, comes to thompsons' aid and there is a brief fight - believing the stranger is stabbing, even killing helton, thompson tries to knock him out with an axe, killing him accidentally. helton runs but then dies when caught. there are no knife wounds on him, but still, thompson goes free, claiming self-defense. despite the verdict (that he is not guilty) nobody believes him.  a week after the trial, having told his side of the story to every single neighbour, finding his wife stricken with panic attacks at night, and hearing his sons warn him not to ever do her any harm again, he gives up, writes one last testimony and shoots himself in the fields.

--- end of spoilers ---

if you wanted to, you could look at the images of manliness in this story. mr thompson has clear ideas about what is "man's work" and what is "woman's work" and what is "paid help's work". helton does not, apparently. (p. 74) there is also the passage where thompson and the stranger compare their stumps of chewing tobacco. (p. 91). you'll find some more stuff in here if you want.

anyway, thanks for recommendation, i am glad i read this. all three stories (novels) are very different from each other and well-written and interesting in their own way.

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