Monday, January 7, 2013
The Leaning Tower by Katherine Anne Porter
Not her best work
The Leaning Tower is a collection of short stories and novellas by Katherine Anne Porter. It was originally published in 1934, sandwiched chronologically between her two other collections of short fiction, Flowering Judas and Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Compared to those excellent books, The Leaning Tower is a bit of a disappointment. While Porter’s prodigious ability to craft realistic settings and render psychologically authentic characters is evidently on display here, the selections tend to be too heavy on description and too light on plot.
The opening novella, “The Old Order,” is composed of a series of chronologically jumbled vignettes in the life of a family in rural Texas, told from the third person perspective of Miranda, presumably the same Miranda featured in Porter’s stories “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Miranda recounts memories from her childhood, concerning in particular her grandmother and the family’s black servants. The insights into black/white relations in the changing American South are fascinating, but too much attention is devoted to the imperious grandmother, who treats everyone as a servant, whether black or white, old or young.
This is followed by the short story “The Downward Path to Wisdom,” told from the point of view of a young boy about five years old. It feels a bit pointless, as if the story’s sole purpose is for Porter to prove she can write from this unusual perspective. In “Holiday,” a young city woman decides to spend her spring vacation living with a large farming family in East Texas. There she develops a friendship of sorts with the family’s crippled servant, who carries a dark secret. The story finishes well, but the first two-thirds is spent merely describing in detail the daily life of the family, at times from an overly critical, condescending perspective. The best selection in the book by far is “A Day’s Work.” The Hallorans are an Irish couple in New York whose marriage has devolved into hatred. The husband, unemployed, blames his wife for missed opportunities, while she views herself as a martyr to his sins. It is an excellent story until the final paragraph, in which one character behaves in a manner which seems to be a complete reversal of everything that came before.
The collection ends with its longest piece, the title novella “The Leaning Tower.” Charles Upton, an aspiring painter, lives out a childhood dream by traveling to Berlin, but ultimately finds Germany a disappointing destination. Porter’s depiction of Berlin is about as flattering as a George Grosz cartoon. There is much dwelling upon the myriad ways in which Germany sucks, its people are ugly and rude, etc. The story provides a vivid glimpse into the atmosphere and mindset of a nation licking its wounds from one disgraceful World War while lurching towards another. Once again, however, there’s just too much description and not enough action. When things finally start happening to Charles, it’s too little, too late.
Katherine Anne Porter is one of the best American short story writers of the 20th century, and her brilliant talents do shine forth at moments here and there among these selections, but the entries here never rival masterpieces like “Flowering Judas,” “The Cracked Looking-Glass,” or “Noon Wine.” Flowering Judas and Pale Horse, Pale Rider are much better collections of her work, and should be given higher reading priority over The Leaning Tower.
Stories in this collection
The Old Order
The Downward Path to Wisdom
A Day’s Work
The Leaning Tower
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