Jean Stafford (1915-1979) originally made her name as a novelist -- her first, Boston Adventure (1944), was a bestseller, and her second (of three) and best, The Mountain Lion (1947), is a haunting portrait of a Western childhood -- but in time she became known more for her short stories, into which she pumped her contempt for conventional pieties. When first published in 1969, her Collected Stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A new edition (Farrar Straus Giroux; paperback, $18) has just been published -- new and improved, for it includes another story, "An Influx of Poets," which came out in the New Yorker in 1978.
Stafford was a master at making scintillating fiction out of material that would have defeated more pedestrian writers. Among the earlier tales is "The Echo and the Nemesis," one of the few instances in which an American writer who went to graduate school actually turned the experience into first-rate fiction. Somewhat later, in "The Interior Castle," she again drew on her own life, this time to harrowing effect. As Joyce Carol Oates notes in her introduction, Stafford herself was "disfigured" in an automobile accident caused by her then-husband, the poet Robert Lowell, who was driving while drunk. In a tour de force that does justice to states of mind that can hardly be described, Stafford evokes not only the pain suffered by her protagonist, Pansy Vanneman, as she undergoes surgery, but also the bizarre effects of the procedure on her unaesthetized brain:
"She closed her eyes and this time and this time alone she saw her brain lying in a shell-pink satin case. It was a pink pearl, no bigger than a needle's eye, but it was so beautiful and pure that its smallness made no difference. Anyhow, as she watched, it grew. It grew larger and larger until it was an enormous bubble that contained the surgeon and the whole room within its rosy luster. . . . Never before had the world been pink, whatever else it had been. Or had it been, one other time? She could not be sure and she did not care. Of one thing she was certain: never had the world enclosed her before and never had the quiet been so smooth." After the operation, which appears to be a success, Pansy feels rather cheated: "She closed her eyes, shutting herself up within her treasureless head."
-- Dennis Drabelle