Robert B. Heilman
"Stylist" is likely to call up unclear images of coloratura, acrobatics, elaborateness of gesture, a mingling of formalism probably euphuistic with conspicuous private variations, like fingerprints…. It is not so with Miss Porter. There is nothing of arresting facade in her style, nothing of showmanship…. In Ship of Fools the style is a window of things and people, not a symbolic aggression of ego upon them. It seems compelled by the objects in the fiction; it is their visible surface, the necessary verbal form that makes their identity perceivable. It seems never the construction of an artist imposing, from her own nature, an arbitrary identity upon inert materials, but rather an emanation of the materials themselves, finding through the artist as uninterfering medium the stylistic mold proper to their own nature. Miss Porter is ruling all, of course, but she seems not to be ruling at all: hence of her style we use such terms as "distance," "elegance," and of course the very word for what she seems to have ceded, "control." She is an absentee presence: in one sense her style is no-style. No-style is what it will seem if style means some notable habit of rhythm or vocabulary, some uninterchangeable (though not unborrowable) advice that firmly announces "Faulkner" or "Hemingway." Miss Porter has no "signal" or call letters that identify a single station of wave length. She does not introduce herself or present herself. Much less does she gesticulate. (pp. 197-98)
No-style means a general style, if we may risk such a term, a fusion of proved styles. She can do ordinary documentary whenever it is called for…. She relies without embarrassment on the plain, direct, ordinary, explicit. (p. 198)
On [her] sturdy foundations of style she can build in several ways. Without altering the everyday, matter-of-fact manner, she gets below the surface…. The easy lucidity never shirks depths or darks, which to some writers seem approachable only by the involute, the cryptic, or the tortuous.
Using the kind of elements that she does, she can organize them, elaborately if need be, with control and grace. The local papers "cannot praise too much the skill with which the members of good society maintain in their deportment the delicate balance between high courtesy and easy merriment, a secret of the Veracruz world bitterly envied and unsuccessfully imitated by the provincial inland society of the Capital." Under the gentle irony and the rhythm that serves it, lie in easy and well articulated orders a remarkable number of modifiers—such as Hardy would have fouled into knotty confusion, and James, pursuing precision, would have pried apart with preciosity in placement. She manages with equal skill the erection of ordinary terms, both concrete and analytical, into a periodic structure in which all elements converge unspectacularly on a climax of sudden insight…. A compact sketch of outer world and inner meaning, it is never crowded or awkward or rambling. (pp. 199-200)
Miss Porter can combine words unexpectedly without becoming ostentatious: for instance, an adjective denoting mood or value with a neutral noun—"serious, well-shaped head" …; or sex words with gastric facts—"They fell upon their splendid full-bodied German food with hot appetites." She pairs partly clashing words: "softened and dispirited" (of a woman affected by childbirth) …: and gets inner contradictions in sharp phrases: "this pugnacious assertion of high breeding."… She can surprise, and convince, with a preposition: a newly married couple's "first lessons in each other."
She has strong, accurate, but not conspicuous, metaphors: "soggy little waiter."… But metaphors are less numerous than similes…. Her images … come solidly out of life; they are not stylistic gestures, literary exercises, but unlabored responses to need, responses from experience against which the door of feeling and knowing have never been closed.
The difficulty of describing a style without...
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