Kay Boyle Boyle, Kay (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Boyle, Kay 1903–

Boyle is an American novelist, poet, and short story writer who considers herself primarily a poet. Many critics find her fiction poetic in its intense and beautiful, but sometimes brutal, imagery. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Katherine Anne Porter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Kay Boyle's way of thinking and writing stems from sources still new in the sense that they have not been supplanted. She is young enough to regard them as in the category of things past, a sign I suppose, that she is working in a tradition and not in a school. Gertrude Stein and James Joyce were and are the glories of their time and some very portentous talents have emerged from their shadows. Miss Boyle, one of the newest, I believe to be among the strongest. At present she is identified as one of the Transition group, but these two books [Plagued by the Nightingale and Wedding Day] just published should put an end to that. (p. 277)

She sums up the salient qualities of [the Transition group]: a fighting spirit, freshness of feeling, curiosity, the courage of her own attitude and idiom, a violently dedicated search for the meanings and methods of art. In these short stories and this novel there are further positive virtues of the individual temperament: health of mind, wit and the sense of glory. All these are qualities in which the novel marks an advance over the stories, as it does, too, in command of method.

The stories have a range of motive and feeling as wide as the technical virtuosity employed to carry it. Not all of them are successful. In some of the shorter ones, a straining of the emotional situation leads to stridency and incoherence. In others, where this strain is employed as a deliberate device, it is sometimes very successful—as notably in "Vacation Time," an episode in which an obsessional grief distorts and makes tragic a present situation not tragic of itself; the reality...

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Edmund Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I picked up Kay Boyle's Avalanche in the hope of finding a novel worth reading, and have been somewhat taken aback to get nothing but a piece of pure rubbish.

Aside from a few literary devices such as italicized "interior monologues," Avalanche is simply the usual kind of thing that is turned out by women writers for the popular magazines. (p. 128)

I have heard Miss Boyle praised as a stylist, but, though there are in Avalanche a few fine images and gray and white mountain landscapes, I cannot see how a writer with a really sound sense of style could have produced this book even as a potboiler. One recognizes the idiom of a feminized Hemingway: "There was one winter when the blizzard got us part way up … If you looked in the direction the wind was coming from, your breath stopped suddenly as if someone took you by the throat"; and a sobbing Irish lilt: "He touches my hand as if it were a child's hand, and his promise of love is given to a woman. To him it is nothing to walk into a mountain refuge and find me, and to me it's the three years without him that have stopped crying their hearts out at last." And, for the rest, there are several tricks that Miss Boyle overworks with exasperating effect. She is always giving possessives to inanimate objects, so that you have "the weather's break," "the balcony's rail," and "the mitten's pattern" all within a space of sixteen lines; and there is a formula that recurs so often in the passages of conversation that one can almost say the whole book...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Struthers Burt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Boyle is a storyteller, a superb one; by and large, the best in this country, and one of the best now living. This somewhat belated point of view concerning her work emerges clearly, it seems to me, in this present volume of her collected tales [Thirty Stories], especially as they have been arranged chronologically and according to background; according, that is, to the country in which they are laid….

[The] early stories are mostly interesting as a study in the emergence of an artist; an artist with a beautiful command of language, a unique gift for striking metaphor, granted as a rule only to poets, and a passionate, impelling drive. An artist, original, rebellious, and bitterly observant…. On the whole, these stories are not completely successful. That was the way they struck me when I first read them many years ago; and that is the way all but one, "Friend of the Family," strikes me now. "Friend of the Family" is a beautiful story, delicate, straight-moving, and filled with implications, and is Miss Boyle at her best and in full control of her equipment. But the remainder of this group seem to me all implication, vague and confused, and not at all clear in the mind of the author….

It is when she goes to Europe, or, rather, when she begins to write with a European background, that she comes into her own…. These stories have a sure touch; the touch of a master craftsman. A sure direction. They go places, whether you do or do not always agree with them; whether or not you find, at times, the faults, the reverse side, of Miss Boyle's virtues, too much metaphor; at moments, too much calorescence, too much heat. She has an eerie gift of bringing completely to life the European background; Austrian, English, French, and of bringing to life the people who live there…. [The] more of a story she has to tell, the better she is….

Struthers Burt, "The Mature Craft of Kay Boyle," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1946 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 48, November 30, 1946, p. 11.

Nathan L. Rothman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In writing about a book by Kay Boyle, who is one of the shrewdest stylists in the language and something of a mystic no matter what material she makes momentary use of, one has to consider several things simultaneously, such as: what she is presenting and what she is suggesting, what she is saying and what music she is making, and how she is doing all of this inside an arbitrary plot-circle. The best thing she does is to transform the mundane detail and wring some spiritual essence from it; quite literally she can make (at her best) silk purses out of sows' ears, and you watch her writing as you would some marvelously deft machine performing this miracle, holding some scene or some person still while she outlines in space the nature of its, or his, meaning. And even when the miracle doesn't come off—as it does not in [His Human Majesty]—even when the gears turn and the music soars, yet nothing is revealed but the fine hands of the operator, still the process is an exciting thing to behold. Miss Boyle can so compel us with symbols that we are lulled almost into accepting them as the stuff of life. It is only, in this case, the very harsh and contemporary character of the tale she has chosen to tell that dispels her charms and reveals, this time, their impotence….

Miss Boyle's way is to pass [her male characters] through the varied prisms of her own austere and romantic vision, until they have lost the common form and sound...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Richard C. Carpenter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mastery] of style accounts for only one side of the blade that is Kay Boyle—the side that glitters and dazzles and, perhaps, blinds some readers to the more significant things she has to offer. Style is obviously integral to her work and makes it peculiarly her own; it undoubtedly helps heighten the intensity and immediacy which most readers recognize as the hallmark of Miss Boyle's writing. Dagger-sharp images and crackling metaphors do assist in raising the temperature of a story. Other qualities, however, seem to me to be more basic. First of all, a thorough acquaintance with the bulk of her work leads to an increasing appreciation of her mastery of her own kind of fictional technique. She has a most delicate touch in unfolding the lives of her characters, an exquisite sense of reticence and balance, all the while that the tale is trembling on the edge of pathos or sentimentality. Much of this effect she manages by carefully limiting the area of perception (something she may have learned from Chekhov or perhaps from Faulkner, whom she admires most highly), so that the reader becomes aware in the form of a gradual revelation, as do the principal characters. This contributes greatly to developing the "specification of reality," the sense of immediacy which James desired of fiction. When used, as Miss Boyle frequently does use it, with judicious foreshadowing, it creates a considerable current of tension without having much "happen" in the sense of the usual well-plotted story. We do not leisurely savor her stories but breathlessly turn pages, sure that these apparently innocuous events are somehow tremendously vital.

Beyond technique, Miss Boyle's basic themes are also productive of suspense and intensity. Her fiction world is not a happy one: she deals with disease, war, perversion, cowardice, frustration. Her people are complex souls undergoing a variety of torments, prevented either by their own weaknesses or by the devils of circumstance from living the rich and full lives which should be theirs. To make things worse, her people are not degraded but potentially fine and potentially happy. They are sensitive, courageous, artistic, profoundly emotional. We like them, usually, and would like to see them...

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Robert E. Knoll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Unlike] some of her contemporaries Miss Boyle's emotions do not turn inward, feeding on themselves; and she is not the object of her own speculation. Rather, she offers as a high gift her sympathy and her compassion. The world's injustice grieves her; but the subject of her poetry [in Collected Poems] is the injustice, not her grief. She does not wail because the world's wrong. She laments that men are isolated, that they are needlessly hurt, that her friends—and strangers, too—suffer.

In short, Miss Boyle is a woman poet. The range of her experience is feminine, and her virtues are feminine virtues. (pp. 176-77)

Miss Boyle's reputation rests on her very distinguished fiction; these poems are fugitive pieces. But they are, in their way, as distinguished as her stories. At first glance, they do not seem to be of the same order, for the stories are "intellectual" and these poems are not. The first glance is misleading. If her stories are more difficult than much popular fiction, this difficulty is due to their frequent omission of transitions and their minimizing of exposition. They pay readers the compliment of assuming that they too have minds which may participate in experience. The stories are, in their way, lyrics, even as these poems are. Both succeed because of the intensity of a single moment of passion, because they isolate a spot in time. Exposition and transitions have been excluded from lyric verse for generations; only recently from fiction. As a result Miss Boyle's poems look more conventional than the stories, but they are actually part of the same intense desire to share experience. (p. 177)

I like these poems, for they come offering friendship and understanding. Personal, they never invade the privacy of the person to whom they are addressed even as they do not masquerade their love with irony. These are love poems, every one. (pp. 177-78)

Robert E. Knoll, "Love Poems," in Prairie Schooner (© 1963 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1963, pp. 176-78.

Richard C. Carpenter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kay Boyle's theme is nearly always the perennial human need for love; her design is woven from the many forms the frustration and misdirection of love may take. Her style and the care with which she limns a setting are, as they inevitably must be with a creative artist, but vehicle and adjunct for her central meaning. Although on occasion she may have forgotten the artistic obligation in exchange for sheer virtuosity (always a danger for the virtuoso), using her style to bedazzle rather than to aid vision, or letting exotic setting obscure the human situation with which she is dealing, in her better fiction, style, setting, and theme form a seamless web in which all the threads are held under a precise tension....

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Earl Rovit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This selection of Kay Boyle's short fiction [Fifty Stories] spans almost forty years of work and is itself only the sparest sampling of her total literary production…. (p. 286)

Most typically in her stories, [Boyle] presents herself as a vitally interested witness. The events that seize her sympathies tend to be those in which social determinations collide with human hopes, rendering the latter poignant in their twisted impotence….

Boyle's fiction has an astounding variety of landscape, and especially in the rural countryside, whether French, Austrian or British, her stories seem to be comfortably at home. In general, although her European villagers receive a national or...

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Vance Bourjaily

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kay Boyle remains a central character in that group legend that nourished us all, the literary Paris of the 20's…. [They] invented techniques we still practice, and introduced themes that still concern us.

Kay Boyle's "Fifty Stories" is a wonderful exhibit of these techniques and themes in evolution. Among the techniques we have grammatical simplification, rhythmic repetition, the mixing in of vernacular, stream of consciousness, density of impressions, radical imagery and experiments with surrealism that may have originated with Gertrude Stein and James Joyce but became community property of the group.

These 50 stories are set as the author's life was set, and their themes and...

(The entire section is 369 words.)