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Conductivity in Fiction

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

Night Rider. By Robert Penn Warren. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. By Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. Sirocco. By Ralph Bates. New York: Random House. $2.50. The Wild Palms. By William Faulkner. New York: Random House. $2.50.

About all these four books have in common is the fact that they are all fiction. Under the circumstances, the one workable expedient seems to be the setting up of an arbitrary function or quality of fiction, and the measuring of all the books against it. Call our arbitrary principle “conductivity,” the capacity to transmit the living sense of participation that is half the justification of fiction. It is more than mere understanding or intellectual appreciation or the perception of an artistic idea. The scholars take that approach too frequently, and render themselves emotionally impotent before the literature they study. Conductivity is simply that emotional rapport between character and reader which for the moment makes the fiction more convincing and moving than reality; it functions through the ductless glands rather than through the mind.

Measured by that standard, Robert Penn Warren’s “Night Rider” is an in-and-out novel. Mr. Warren has focused the crisis of the “tobacco war” of 1905 in the person of Percy Munn, a Kentucky lawyer caught in the old dilemma of the liberal: do nothing, or do things for which no justification except the compulsions of the cause can be found. Under those compulsions Munn throws in his lot with the growers’ association that is bucking the buyers; finger by finger he loses his hold on his old life; he is forced deeper into violence, from raids on plant beds to the murder of a blackmailing cropper and the burning of the company warehouses with its accompanying killings. In the end he has come the full distance to murder in personal rather than group causes, and almost immediately after that revelation of the bottomless depths in himself he meets his own appropriate end by violence.

There is a fine inevitability about the progress of Percy Munn. We watch his growing dedication to violence with appreciation of Mr. Warren’s plan. But very rarely do we get into Munn’s mind, only seldom do we know his motives. Perhaps by the author’s intention, he appears to be carried like a chip on a wave, to move by inertia or by external force rather than by volition and conviction. But it remains a serious fault that the character who should move us most moves us hardly at all. His disintegration comes to us as an intellectual perception rather than as experience in which we participate.

In other ways, Mr. Warren’s novel is completely convincing. The action scenes have a swift and dramatic certainty; the minor characters—croppers, Negroes, politicians, and growers—are clean and sharp and consistent. The background is detailed and vivid. It is only in the personal life of the principal character that there seems to be a short circuit.

I am tempted to say the same, though more cautiously, of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”—cautiously, because we are dealing here with one of the surest and most subtle craftsmen now writing. There is in all these three novelettes an absoluteness of technique and a felicity of language that are seldom encountered even in the best fiction. Both the title story, set in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and “Old Mortality,” the indirectly told tragedy of a Southern belle, are as keen and polished as slim steel. Still, “Noon Wine” seems to me the best of the three, though not as perfectly proportioned. It is the story of a Texas dairy farmer whose life falls to pieces after he has inadvertently killed an amateur detective bent on returning to the asylum the Swede farmhand who has brought prosperity and comfortable self-respect to the farmer. It is not the swifter action that makes this story the best of the three; it is the tense transmission of the farmer’s feelings as he goes about the neighborhood after being exonerated by the courts, trying to recapture the respect and belief of his neighbors by telling the story over and over, patiently, knowing they don’t believe him, but driven to re-establish his former comfortable and easy peace of mind.

That story communicates; it has voltage. The other two, for all their perfection, seem to me to move away from the qualities that made “Flowering Judas” so exciting a book. They show a more and more elaborate attention to form, and although one grants that fiction is an art of indirection, there is a point at which obliquity defeats itself and becomes sterile. I found myself reading all three novelettes with admiration, but only “Noon Wine” with excitement. Somehow the other two do not conduct.

Almost without exception, the stories by Ralph Bates in “Sirocco” are safe from that criticism. Arranged chronologically from the period of the monarchy through that of the republic to the civil war, they surmount the hazard of foreign picturesqueness and give us characters who are people first and Spaniards afterward. Not so sure a technician as Miss Porter, a little inclined toward superimposed symbolisms which sometimes come off (as in “The Unreaped Field”) and sometimes do not (as in “The Launch” and “The Birth of a Man,” where they seem forced), and slipping sometimes over the edge of sentimentality (as in the story of a penitent harlot, “The Quince”), Mr. Bates is still at his best a warm and sympathetic interpreter of living people and a swift and effective story teller. The title story, which spans all three divisions of the book, is an extremely fine, though episodic, novelette; “The Unreaped Field” is a story the anthologists will be after; “Forty-third Division,” the tale of a rugged and undisciplined fighter in the passes of the Pyrenees, is a masterpiece of active prose.

No propagandist in spite of his months of active service with the Loyalists, Mr. Bates gives us a Spain of peasants, fishermen, revolutionaries, all ground under the pressure of landlords and priests. The point of view is obvious but never obtrusive; with sound artistic caution this writer strictly avoids the strident and the hortatory. And his stories remain warm and human. They conduct, they make us laugh and cry and swear. In most of them the current is stepped down to domestic uses.

By contrast, William Faulkner’s latest book, “The Wild Palms,” is a high-tension line, loaded with the kick of thirty-three thousand volts. I think there is no one now writing in English who can evoke a scene, particularly a violent or tense scene, with Mr. Faulkner’s power. Here he tells two stories, arranged in alternating chapters and aiming, according to the jacket blurb, at the elucidation of the contrasting themes of flight and refuge, the struggle for freedom and the struggle for security. The love story of Wilbourne and Charlotte shows two people beating like wild palm fronds in the winds of passion, the contrapuntal story of the convict shows a man fighting with superhuman doggedness to get back to the safe prison from which a Mississippi flood has released him. Even if one does not agree that the two utterly separate stories are sufficiently orchestrated, one can still see reason for the thematic juxtaposition and the alternation of chapters. For one thing, the love story, full of a stripped and quivering passion that never relaxes, is almost too harrowing to be read through consecutively. Mr. Faulkner’s power of evocation is so great, his voltage so high, that the love story, in spite of all its pitiful beauty, would exhaust a reader. The convict story, though intense itself, furnishes relief because the tensity in this second tale is pure muscularity, pure determination, without the emotional strain of the other.

In the convict story, incidentally, the author has matched matter with manner better than ever before. The very structure of the sentences suggests the eddies, the backwash, the coiling rush of a flood, carrying clauses and lost pronouns like uprooted barns on the surface. Apart from those masterful flood scenes, it is hard to read Mr. Faulkner without irritation, yet the total effect, because or in spite of the flood-water style, is devastating, with the heart-stopping, abrupt vividness of a nightmare. Here, certainly, is a master of the catastrophic, a writer who if he cannot please and charm can still conduct, and so powerfully that reading him is like taking hold of an electrified fence.


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