"THERE HAVE GOT to be some things you can count on, would be an ordinary way to put it," says Marilee Summerall in Elizabeth Spencer's "A Southern Landscape." "I'd rather say that I feel the need of a land, of sure terrain, of a sort of permanent landscape of the heart."
This is the cri de coeur of many Southern writers. It appears in the fourth story of this thick volume, the fruit of more than three decades of a distinguished writing career. The reader may fear that the remaining 300 pages will be trapped in that landscape, Spencer's native Mississippi. But perserve: by the next story, the pastoral landscape gives way to a world of new suburbs, barren construction sites, Asian refugees, and odd little boys who yearn to visit Orion. And by the sixth story, Spencer has transported her Southern protagonist to Rome, with "her imagination responding fully, almost exhaustingly, to these shores' peculiar powers of stimulation."
Elizabeth Spencer is a Southern writer, then -- but one whose art has been shaped by exile. She lived for years in Italy before moving to Montreal. The Italian stories in this book render that enchanted land and as well as the work of any American writer I have read. Spencer knows and loves the Italian landscape, Italian architecture and art, and she is particularly acute in rendering the odd gallantry of the Italian people:
"His life so far would have been like the sweep of a windshield wiper. Of course, he was a prince; of course, he had a villa and a castle, with the daughter of a famous man for his wife and roses and two beautiful children, and Moral Rearmament and English flannels, and if the peasants did not understand, he sent them away. If that was not enough, he did not eat the meat. Was there something else?"
In later stories she returns to the South of her imagination -- a land of self-deceiving "good families," genteel neighborhood scandal, and domestic tragedy and loss. This landscape is vivid, but familiar and largely static. There are echoes of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, flowers, horses, characters named Gowan and Gavin, burned-out mansions and iced tea with fresh mint. There is little of the turmoil, change and hope that have passed through Dixieland in the past quarter of a century; what changes take place are family changes. But her narrative voice remains engaging and sure, never acquiring what she preceives correctly as the "drawling voice that only Southerners who have been away and come to know themselves in another context unconsciously cultivate."
Within her sphere, she can evoke a place and a story with effortless economy:
"After dinner that day it was very hot and when everybody lay down and quit fanning themselves with funeral parlor fans because they had fallen sound asleep, some with the fans laid across their chests or stomachs and some snoring, the two Airedales that belonged to Mr. Dave had running fits."
Within her sphere, too, she knows the harsh and shameful side of the genteel Southern character, as when Marilee's mother tries to convince her to avoid tha black servant who has become her uncle's mistress. "I'm afraid you'll get to smell like a Negro," she warns serenely.
Most of these stories, foreign or domestic, center around women. Marilee appears in three -- sensible, spunky, bemused and appealing. But Spencer creates women in many moods and many modes of life -- the grim self-sacrifice of maiden aunts, the manipulative self-destructiveness of beautiful roommates, the desperate self-amusement of faculty wives. Spencer's voice is deeply feminine; but at a time when many "women's books" have taken on a kind of hectoring insecurity, she is at her best rendering the ways in which self-confident women stake out a corner of the world -- larger or smaller as luck and talent dictate -- and claim it for their own. In "Instrument of Destruction," a teen-aged science student casually declares her independence of the prissy aunt with whom she lives (and thus of the whole network of disapproving family which can be a major heartache of Southern life):
"We don't exchange confidences or ideas or anything. I have long dark hair and go around in sandals till my feet just about freeze. If she thinks I'm going to change, she is mistaken. This is me."
An unobtrusive sensuality gleams through Spencer's prose -- a solid intimacy with flowrering plants, Roman frescoes, and men. Sex remains largely a matter of attraction and potential, but it is also evoked with artisty and restraint, as in "Ship Island," when a young girl embraces her lover on an abandoned Gulf Coast fortification:
"Maybe she began to make up for all that the poor little soldiers had missed out on, in the way of making love. The island's very spine, a warm reach of thin ground, came smoothly up into the arch of her back; and it was at least halfway the day itself, with its fair, wide-open eyes, that she went over to. She felt somewhat historical afterward, as though they had themselves added one more mark to all those that place remembered."
As the years have passed, I have developed a certain testiness about short stories. They are too much like traveling friendships. I extend myself, learn to know and care for characters, and then at the next stop, they are gone forever. The weary work must be done again with newcomers to the compartment. But Elizabeth Spencer's stories do not have this effect -- even though nearly a third of them seemed too short, the lapidary, elliptical sketches we call, fairly or not, New Yorker stories. Their saving grace is that the characters partake of the author's confidence. They waste no time in awkward shuffling and shifting, but rather introduce themselves, look the reader in the eye, and hold his attention until they leave, trailing perfume and promises to write.
The major disappointment is a long novella, "Knights & Dragons," about an American cultural official in Rome haunted by her hated and feared ex-husband. It seemed like an uncut short story, repetitious and portentous. The best stories are in the middle range, 4,500 words or so -- a length which lets Spencer render landscape, character and nuance. I am thinking of the wistful sensuality of "Ship Island," the psychological mystery of "Judith Kane," the family grief of "Indian Summer."
My favorite is "The Visit," in which an academic couple pays an ill-fated visit to a legendary art critic in his eccentric Italian menage. Spencer interweaves marital and professional regret, the mystery of art, and the dead vitality of Italy with bright, unquestionable grace. There was in this story one line at which I kept my critical wits about me sufficiently to question Spencer's style and diction. Except for that brief moment of consciousness, I was wholly and willingly under this wise and womanly writer's spell. Her words, and her worlds, have entered the landscape of my heart.