TO MOST OF MY GENERATION Kay Boyle has been merely a vague name floating somewhere around the edges of that movable feast, Paris in the '20s, an American writer sometimes mentioned in books about Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Gertrude Stein. While she had a certain reputation among the literary, she remained virtually unknown to most readers. So it is with a sense of both delight and discovery that one reads this moving and beautifulcollection of Fifty Stories -- stories as true as only fiction can be -- the work of a writer whose career has spanned more than 50 years. (Her work includes eight collections of stories, 14 novels, four books of poetry, three books for children, the compilation and editing of another writer's autobiography, and a revival of Robert McAlmon's memoir Being Geniuses Together to which Kay Boyle added her own recollections).
The stories in this collection which were originally published in magazines appeared during the '30s and '40s; (the most recent date cited is 1951). Is it because there are so many fewer outlets for short fiction than there were 30 years ago, especially in the slick magazines? Or because, after 1950, Kay Boyle turned her attention to other kinds of writing? The latter probably is a partial explanation -- the majority of the stories were, in fact, written prior to that date. But I wonder if that shift in Boyle's attention, and her subsequent lack of publication in the genre, is not at least somewhat due to the kind of fiction that has increasingly found favor with critics in the last three decades.
These critically approved stories are ones that any contemporary reader of The New Yorker recognizes at once -- they are of such a type that they have even come to be identified as "a New Yorker story." They are stories in which nothing at all happens, no one is changed, nothing is illuminated. In his introduction to Fifty Stories, David Daiches speaks of them as "the last infirmity of noble minds," stories in which the writer "may employ the sophisticated deadpan, assembling of an insignificant collocation of actions and dialogue and stopping abruptly when the insignificance has been made manifest in the hope that the very abruptness of the conclusion, at a point where no obvious conclusion seemed warranted, would force the reader into believing that some subtle pattern of meaning -- too subtle for any obvious formal rendering -- had been worked out."
In contrast we have the stories of Kay Boyle. Things actually happen, people are forced to act or refuse to do so, they are changed by their experience, as they confront issues of love and war and honor and courage and justice. It seems that Kay Boyle is -- dare one say it in this day and time? -- a moralist. Which does not mean one who judges rigidly and harshly and without compasion, but simply one who is concerned with what another moralist named William Faulkner called "the old verities of the human heart." These stories fit Poe's dictum that the primary aim of the "tale" is "Truth," an "earnestness of verisimilitude" that comes from an experience of "totality," that is, reading whole at one sitting a story that achieves a "single effect." They also meet what Daiches calls "the real challenge of the short story, which is to invest a brief sequence of events with reverberating human significance by means of style, selection, and ordering of detail," so that it becomes "both a valid picture of some phase of experience and a sudden illumination of one of the perennial moral and psychological paradoxes which lie at the heart of la condition humaine." In that definition, one is reminded of DeMaupassant, perhaps, or better still, Chekhov.
And many of the stories do indeed withstand such comparisons. Despite their realism, the best of them have a certain magical, almost fabulous quality as well as the kind of inevitability we associate with the folk tale but a reviewer can do little more than single out a few favorites. In "Black Boy," a young girl befriends a black boy who pushes chairs on the boardwalk in Atlantic City and learns a brutal lesson about adult prejudice, an ending delivered with shocking economy. In "Friend of the Family," two little girls observe, through naive eyes, the tension between their parents caused by a handsome young visitor. A surprising number of the stories, in fact, center around children, whose opposition to an adult world they neither made nor comprehend Kay Boyle seems particularly to understand. One of the most successful of these is "Winter Night," in which a lonely little girl dances for her babysitter, a survivor of the Holocaust, who recalls another little girl who danced. And one could hardly write about this book without singling out "Your Body is a Jewel Box," a grim and faintly erotic tale about two sisters and what happens on a trip to commit one of them to an insane asylum.
The collection is divided into six groups, loosely following their order of composition, and a number of them are set in Europe just before and during World War II and during the postwar Occupation: The penultimate of these is "Defeat," in which two Frenchmen who have escaped to Vichy France from a German POW camp are aided by a schoolteacher who is sewing the tricolore in secret because it is Bastille Day. One of them remarks that "a country is not defeated as long as its women aren't." Later that day, the two men stop at a garage and are hidden by its owner. Through a window, they observe a bandstand in the town square where an orchestra and the tables are spread for a party. A number of German soldiers are standing around waiting for a dance to begin. Telling the story later, one of the Frenchmen recalls that he kept thinking that someone should tell the Germans they were wasting their time, that no women were coming. "'And then what happened?'" someone asks. Without looking up, the man continues, "'Maybe if you've had a dress a long time that you wanted to wear and you hadn't had the chance of putting it on and showing it off because all the men were away; I mean if you were a woman. I worked it out that maybe the time comes when you want to put it on so badly that you put it on just the same whatever's happened.' . . . 'Well, that was just one town,' says the other man."'Yes, that was just one town,'" he answers, with "something as crazy as tears . . . standing in his eyes."
And there are others equally worth mentioning. Not all of them, of course; it would be astonishing in a collection of this size if all the stories were equally successful. Some of them seem written in a style that borders on the rococco and have endings that seem overly romantic and contrived. Sometimes, too, Boyle's passion for social justice, her compassion for the oppressed and poor and hungry get in the way of her story. Her vision is not a particularly pretty one. People suffer even when they don't deserve it, and sometimes they don't suffer when maybe they deserve to they betray each other and are trapped by circumstances and they die. But there are also the simple acts of kindness and generosity -- the father who shelters the refuge in "The Criminal," for example -- and people do go on loving despite all the evidence that there isn't much use. As Flannery O'Connor once said, in answer to the criticism that the modern novel is too full of despair, "People without hope do not write novels."
Nor stories like these. Maybe Fifty Stories will go a long way towards giving Kay Boyle the audience that should be hers. There is much to be learned here.