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Katherine Anne Porter's Crowning Work

Ship of Fools

by Katherine Anne Porter

(Atlantic-Little, Brown; $6.50)

Katherine Anne Porter has published her first novel at the age of 72, and since she spent 20 years on it, we must assume it will be her only novel. She forecast the book in 1940 in the preface to the Modern Library edition of Flowering Judas:

     [These stories] are fragments of a much larger plan
     I am still engaged in carrying out. … All the conscious
     and recollected years of my life have been lived to this
     day under the heavy threat of world catastrophe, and
     most of the energies of my mind and spirit have been
     spent in the effort to grasp the meaning of those threats,
     to trace them to their sources and to understand the
     logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of
     man in the Western world.

Here at last is the fruit of the effort. Ship of Fools, whose title is taken from a 15th-century German allegory is so complex that it must be described briefly. It narrates the voyage of a German passenger ship from Vera Cruz, first to Havana, then to some European ports, and finally to Bremerhaven in August, 1931. The large cast of characters includes several German couples and individuals; a Swiss family; several Mexicans; two young American artist-lovers, an American divorcee, an American engineer; a troupe of Spanish dancers; a group of Cuban medical students; the captain and the ship's doctor; a Swede; and a Spanish countess deported from Cuba. In steerage there is a mass-character: 876 Spanish workers being returned from Cuba--men and women--who sicken, fight, murder, and give birth below decks during the crossing. About 30 of the first-class passengers are principals in the story.

The formal symbolism is so patent and so "very old" (as Miss Porter says in her foreword) that it is a quickly assumed bond between her and us. Her use of "this simple almost universal image of the ship of the world on its voyage to eternity" tells us that she is too concerned with large issues to devise small novelties. Its familiarity helps to place her work in a historical continuum and helps the reader to focus on content rather than form.

The first point basic to an understanding of this novel is the significance of its date: August, 1931. The United States was writhing in the Depression. Latin America was erupting through a 400-year-old crust of Castilian cruelty. To name the two European countries relevant to this book, in Germany the Nazi Party had leaped from 800 thousands votes (1928) to 6.4 million votes (1930); in Spain the Bourbons had been deposed, and the country had been made an arena for fratricidal left factions whose quarrels eventually invited the Falange. In short, Western man was beginning to run the fever that resulted in the collapse of a society founded on Judaeo-Christian ideals. Five thousand years of ethical monotheism, two thousand years of compassionate saviorism had produced a 20th Century that began with a world war and Fascism; now it was hastening towards Nazism and a vaster war. The seal was soon to be set on the fact that this particular spiritual and moral effort of the human race had not succeeded; that the relics of outward forms and nostalgie de dieu were no proof otherwise; and that another way must be found. Midsummer 1931 is a good place to mark the start of the last great landslide; what was always latent begins here to be visible.

The second basic point is a truth often obscured by Miss Porter's reputation as a writer concerned with sensibility and subtlety. She is a social-political artist as well. Flowering Judas and Hacienda are examples of this, as is the novella that is the clearest antecedent of the present book: The Leaning Tower, which deals with a young American painter in Berlin in 1931. In life as well as art Miss Porter has not been immured in ivory. Apropos of Jenny, this novel's young American painter ("She had picketed dozens of times … and had been in jail several times"), it can be noted that Miss Porter was arrested as a Sacco-Vanzetti picket in Boston in 1926. Throughout her life the spheres represented by the novels of Virginia Woolf and of Malraux have concerned her simultaneously.

It would be easy and superfluous to ticket each of this novel's characters. The doctor, duel-scarred and Catholic, represents what is traditional, proud, reticent in Germany; the young American pair represent the license for neurosis inherent in the New World's liberalism. And so on. As for the principal events: the grotesque flirtation between Herr Rieber and Lizzi Spoeckenkieker represents the sexually and socially frustrated elements that surged to support Nazism; the carnival masks are the truth about the maskers; he births in steerage en route symbolize he persistence and growth of the vindictive proletariat. All this, like her use of the ship image, is patent. Miss Porter has set no puzzles to be solved; the microcosmic symbols in her novel are crystalline.

It is more pertinent to discuss the book's achievements with those symbols. In substantial part this, unfortunately, means discussing its shortcomings, for, to me, the book is a disappointment. This was inevitable, of course. No book by any mere human being could be awaited as long and as fervently as Miss Porter's novel and then fulfill all expectations. But it is more of a disappointment than allowance for mortality explains.

To begin where any novel first meets us, before themes or characters are manifest: its style. Recently I re-read all four of Miss Porter's collections, and I understand Edmund Wilson's bafflement about commenting on their style: "a surface so smooth that the critic has little opportunity to point out peculiarities of color or weave." The style is neither stunning nor in itself poignant; it is inconspicuous at the same time that it serves the highest demands. It can rarely be quoted for itself, yet is rarely banal.

But in the novel there is a small yet radical change of texture, more of an enameled richness with paradoxical lapses which, like cracks in a table, reveal the veneer; and (to shift metaphors) for all the faintly plummy diet, there is a certain lack of sustenance. Its general feeling as against her past work, is one of somewhat more labor and slightly less certainty. No excerpts can adequately convey the effect of Miss Porter's prose, but these passages from the description of La Condesa may be some indication of what I mean. "She was slender except for a lazy little belly, and her clothes were very expensive-looking." The

first half is masterly, the second is commonplace and involuted. Why not "looked expensive?" It is at least simpler. "On her right [hand] she wore what appeared to be a light-colored much-Hawed emerald." The implication of "what appeared to be" is misleading; in the event the sentence would be both cleaner and more accurate with the phrase deleted. "These hands, very narrow, fine, heavily veined and old-looking, were in constant movement." Besides the excess of "very" and "looking" in one paragraph, why not "moved constantly"?

This is not to apply the marking methods of a composition class to a distinguished writer. Only because she has been so exceptional a stylist does the prose of the present book seem less pure--moderately ornate with the attendant penalties of ornament. If previously there were few quotable master strokes, there were also few heavinesses.

There is no central character. Because Jenny, the American painter, seems in some measure autobiographical, we suspect at the beginning that she is the pivot of the book, but this does not turn out to be so. The book's view is impartial, divine. The tapestry structure that Miss Porter has chosen--the frequent interweaving of numerous--character and narrative strands--is a difficult one to handle at such length. As far as transitions are concerned, Miss Porter manages it well--which is to say that, in a sense, she ignores the problem. She lets her interest in the next character she approaches take the reader with her. Only when she uses vaguely cinematic methods (we are "inside" A and walk past B; we then go "inside" B and watch A walk past), when she is worried about a transition and draws our attention to it by using a device, only then is there a slight jar. Otherwise this rigorous structural juggling is well executed.

The snare of this method, which Miss Porter by no means escapes, is compulsive rotation. After A and B have been absent for a while, Miss Porter returns to them, subjectively, whether or not she has anything to add to their portraits or has new action in which to involve them. She gives them further scenes merely to keep them alive for the reader, which leads to considerable repetition and duplication.

This duplication underscores a kinetic lack in the book. The characters are well perceived and described, but we know all that Miss Porter has to say about most of them after the third or fourth of their episodes. We know that Jenny and David are going to quarrel, although they would like to love each other: that Denny, the engineer, is going to be stupidly vulgar; that Frau Rittersdorf is going to write stuffily in her journal; that Professor and Frau Hutten are going to behave like George Grosz characters. Once they are established, there is little development of them in depth and only for a few of them has Miss Porter devised modest narrative. At the end the doctor knows more about himself as a result of his encounter with La Condesa; Freytag, the German with the Jewish wife, sees his position more clearly; perhaps the American couple are a little wiser about each other. As for the others, barring a few mild adventures for some, they are pretty much where they were in the first half of the novel. Although we have recognized them all very early as valid human beings, we are not much illuminated past what we initially recognize. The book is a portrait gallery, not the morality play or allegory it promises to be.

This fact--that we are given a cross-section of European and American characters and characteristics rather than a progressively meaningful drama--takes us to the largest criticism that must be made of the work.

The sign of a masterpiece (and surely Miss Porter's novel must be judged as masterpiece or no) is the creation of extra life; under such analyzable matters as style, structure, character there is a deep oceanic swell. It is a supra-real effect, the bright intangible circle made by the spinning tangible wheel. That effect is not made here; always we see only the hub, spokes, rim. We can see how (generally) well made the novel is and well written, how well observed in terms of surface and immediately sub-surface elements; but the most we ever get from it is magnified recognition, never extension or exaltation. Partially this may be because Miss Porter, unlike Tolstoy, Stendhal, Malraux, sees no further into the heart of the several intrinsic mysteries than we do, thus can only set down more superbly than we could what is more or less common knowledge. There are other reasons, too.

One does not quite presume to tell Miss Porter how she could have achieved profundity, but it is possible to point out a few ways in which she cut herself off from it. First: two-thirds of her principal characters are German, and with the exception of the doctor--who, doomed by heart trouble, is an enforced philosopher- they are uniformly repulsive. Sometimes this repulsiveness is imposed with blackboard- and-pointer observations: "The Captain, from his eminence of perfectly symmetrical morality, a man who steered by chart and compass, secure in his rank in an ascending order of superiors so endless the highest was unknown, invisible to him, took deep pleasure in his apocalyptic vision of the total anarchic uproar of the United States, a place he had never seen … " Mostly it is evoked with conventional accurate touches: creases of fat on the back of the neck, smug gemuetlichkeit, sentimentality about animals. (" 'Go away, get out,' commanded Herr Rieber … but because Bebe wore a hairy hide and was on all fours he was therefore sacred, there was no question of using sterner measures.") All through the book run prognoses of Nazi action: Nuremberg laws, gas chambers, euthanasia, world conquest. Although all of it is true enough, it is hardly completely representative of Carl von Ossietzky's country; and it turns the book into something of a thirty-year-old anti-German tract.

Second, a similar point, the only Jew in the book is Herr Loewenthal, who is a believable character: whining, aggressive, fearful, the product of the centuries' ghettos. (The scene in which Freytag is forced to sit at table with him for the first time is a small gem of misadventure.) Miss Porter, I think, wanted to use Loewenthal's cringing behavior with his cabin-mate and others as a foretaste of the fact that still staggers young Israelis: that German Jews rarely resisted their oppressors. But as her group of Germans is too unrelievedly dark, so her single Jew gives too mean and sullen a picture. (Freytag's wife is described otherwise, but she is not present as a force in the book.)

These two criticisms merge in a greater issue. Miss Porter is writing of the "majestic and terrible failure" of Western man, but all one can feel on finishing this book is that if this is Western man, it is high time that he failed and there is little majesty or terror in it. As with the Germans and Jews, on a larger scale her portrait is incomplete if she meant Western man, entire, to be her protagonist. There is scant hint in it of what makes his failure worth regret, scant trace of lost possibilities of grandeur. The book is thus less tragic than satiric; but satire about a huge complex of civilizations ceases to be satire and becomes misanthropy.

One does not urge a more sanguine view on Miss Porter; this in only to note some of the elements that keep us from the edge of the abyss she presumably wanted to show us. In his monograph on her four previous books, Harry John Mooney, Jr. writes of her autobiographical character, Miranda, and of Upton, the hero of The Leaning Tower: "Both Miranda's tragedy and Charles Upton's horror spring from contemporary history; they are the result of those hostile elements, only dimly perceived in the order of the world, which spell death for the individual plan for happiness." There is little of this tragedy or horror for any of the characters in this novel. Either they are satisfied with the world or (like the dancers) contemptuous of it or (like Jenny) flirtatious with its responsibilities. The title of the book becomes more literal than figurative, and the whole effect is smaller than we anticipated from Miss Porter's crowning work.

Stanley Kauffman is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann