I'm finding that when I crack open my Persephone short story collection I want to keep reading when I finish my allotted one story per weekend. Had it not been for a lack of reading time this weekend I would have continued on. Kay Boyle has long been someone I've wanted to read, and a quick perusal of my archives reminds me that I have had an opportunity to get a little taste of her writing already. I have this habit of getting a little taste of an author and if I like her or him I will begin collecting all their work. Kay Boyle is just such an author.
Kay Boyle lived a long and distinguished life. She wrote more than 40 books, short stories, poetry, essays and children's books. She was active artistically and politically and during the McCarthy era was blacklisted. She was jailed twice for her opposition to the Vietnam War. Louise Erdrich wrote the introduction to Fifty Stories. I thought it was interesting that she says, "...like Albert Camus, she has always celebrated not the voices of those who make history, but the people who endure its workings: the silenced, the oppressed". Boyle's formal education consisted of one single 'grieving' day in Kindergarten. Instead she stayed home with her mother, to the happiness of both of them.
"At eleven, Kay was pondering the theory of Cubism and writing fiction that described such imaginary incidents as the daily ride of Kaiser Wilhelm II through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a story that her mother read to guests along with Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons."
She sounds a little formidable, doesn't she? Although it appears she wrote broadly, I think she's best known as a short story writer. I was impressed by that first story I read by her a number of years ago, and I am equally impressed by the one I read this weekend.
Bit of a warning--I do talk about the story in its entirety here, so beware of possible spoilers.
"Defeat", a story published in 1941, is set in France during World War II and is written from the perspective of a French soldier. The defeat suffered in this story isn't just the literal one that the French endured when Germany invaded, but it's a moral one as well.
". . . 'A country isn't defeated as long as its women aren't' or 'until its women are' or 'As long as the women of a country aren't defeated, it doesn't matter if the army is'--something like that . . . "
So explains a French soldier to two commercial travellers he runs into in a café. The soldier is a soldier no longer as he has come back from the North, returning surreptitiously, and donning the role he played in his former life as it becomes obvious that the Germans cannot be easily ousted from his country. He does not tell the story of his return to those in his village, rather to the two men he met through his work as a chauffeur of a mail bus.
When the French knew they could not win, soldiers poured from the North back to the south, to their homes, coming back without their uniforms or their victory. The man tells of his journey, of the kindnesses of those who helped him and of the disappointments of those who didn't out of fear. He tells of a woman, a school teacher, who in blatant disregard of her safety helped the soldiers and snubbed the Germans by pinning the French colors in the schoolhouse and red, blue and white bunting of the flag all along the walls. You see as long as the women of the country are not defeated, neither is the country.
As the soldier gets closer and closer to his home village he realizes that July 14, the French holiday of Independence, has arrived but without fanfare (so that's why the village seems so empty). The Germans, however, see the day as one of celebration (perhaps of another sort--one to help demoralize). They have strung lights and set up tables filled with food--fruit tarts, sweet chocolate, beer and lemonade.
"'They had as much as you wanted of everything,' he said. 'And perhaps once you got near enough to start eating and drinking, then the other thing just followed naturally afterward--or that's the way I worked it out,' he said. 'Or 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, or maybe, if you're one kind of a woman, any kind of uniform looks all right to you after a certain time'."
This was a powerful story and exceptionally told. Kay Boyle was already on my TBR list, but now I think I must pull off my shelf one of her books or at the very least the collection of stories I own by her in order to dip into it more this year.
Next week: Mollie Panter-Downes (one of my favorite authors!).