Suppose I were not a coward, but said what I really thought?
-Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (273)
Like most of Katherine Anne Porter’s stories, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a devastating tale. The story of Miranda, a character who is repeated for the last time in this story and who is based on Porter herself, is one of striking authenticity. Porter has such an incredible gift for weaving into her stories moments of startlingly accurate articulations of life.
The two pairs of eyes were equally steady and noncommittal. A deep tremor set up in Miranda, and she set about resisting herself methodically as if she were closing windows and doors and fastening down curtains against a rising storm (292).
Set against the end of World War I, the specter of the tired war still looming clings to the growing drama of the Spanish flu epidemic. And at the center is each individual. Porter’s humanism, pacifism and yearning for the spark of life are themes that she never overtly articulates, and yet they are the very truths that move one so profoundly when reading her stories.
She spoke his name often, and he spoke hers rarely. The little shock of pleasure the sound of her name in his mouth gave her stopped her answer (294).
In and out of dream states and influenza induced hallucinations, Miranda yields to her heart, giving it fully to Adam. The first and last man she will ever love. Yes, she knows what it’s like to fall in love as well what it is like to be heartbroken. The effort that Miranda makes to feel that kind of love, only to have it shattered, is devastating. As Lawrence Durrell wrote so painfully, it is one of those love affairs that marks one for life.
Her hardened, indifferent heart shuddered in despair at itself, because before it had been tender and capable of love (315).
Porter’s stories are all marked with the bitterness of an intelligent woman trapped in the destiny of her biology, the waste of her body and mind. She uses the elements of story telling to lament the shame of it all, without ever taking on the mantle of victimhood. Her female protagonists have cores of iron, but they are not dull fools.
For ten minutes Miranda smiled and told them how gay and what a pleasant surprise it was to find herself alive. For it will not do to betray the conspiracy and tamper with the courage of the living; there is nothing better than to be alive, everyone has agreed on that; it is past argument, and who attempts to deny it is justly outlawed.
The biting cynicism is full of compassion and empathy. The core of humanity in her writing is as subtle as it is unparalleled. How many people have been cheated out of the happiness which is the natural state of mankind? It is writers such as Katherine Anne Porter that keep tally.
*Title from title song “Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (304).
**The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter