Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories is something of a litmus test for readers. For some, it is a neglected masterpiece, a revolutionary work in the development of fiction, a book like no other. For others, it a book like no other … in its pretentiousness, its relentless interruptions to remind the reader that he/she is reading a piece of fiction, and its refusal, in many stories, to follow any conventional narrative pattern.
Riding first published Progress of Stories in 1935, when she was living with the poet Robert Graves on Majorca and running the Seizin Press. She had already made a name as a modernist poet in the U.S., divorced her first husband, had an affair with the poet Allen Tate, attempted suicide and broken up Graves’ first marriage–although she cut off sexual relations with Graves early in their time as a couple. If Riding comes across as a woman inclined to take things to extremes, that comes across in her fiction.
In the words of Graves’ nephew and biographer Richard Perceval Graves, “Her plenipotent intellect and personality swept away all resistance, reducing to discipleship, abject servility, or virtual madness anyone who could not manage to shake him/herself free from her mesmerizing, tyrannical influence. Her most subjective responses to experience were translated (by her as well as her followers) into world-historical imperatives and aesthetic universals, while her insight into the multiple layers of human personality enabled her to manipulate everyone around her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually.” (There is a striking resemblance between accounts of Riding by people who knew her–and her responses to them–and those of another litmus-like figure, Ayn Rand.)
I must confess defeat through exhaustion in dealing with Riding’s life and a good deal of her opinions. This is a woman who, in her eighties, could chastise Harry Mathews over four lengthy paragraphs for referring to her in a New York Review of Books article of the 1982 of Progress of Stories as “Laura” rather than “Laura (Riding) Jackson” (her preferred name after her 1941 marriage to critic Schuyler Jackson). She also made sure to note that “my work and myself” were subjects “which no professional literary man or woman can afford to disregard in his or her position-taking.” And I nearly surrendered before even reaching the stories in Progress of Stories thanks to 33 pages of prefaces (the one to the 1935 edition, followed by a second for the 1982 edition).
From the start, Riding draws a stark line between her work and those of virtually all her predecessors: “There is a quaint cult of story-writing which practises what is called ‘the short story’; pompous little fragments in whose very triviality, obscurity and shabbiness some significant principle of being is meant to be read.” Instead, it is time, she declares, that “we should be telling one another stories of ideas.” This is no earth-shaking assertion, but soon after it, Riding challenges the reader to digest the following sentence: “Thus the story-telling model of human speaking, or, as speaking recorded for silent apprehending is literarily named, ‘writing’, persists, in its natural casting of speaking or writing as reduplicating the live processes of happening, into the open areas of knowledge and understanding that all minds share as the world of intelligent being—partaking, in their unitary reality as minds, of the identity of mind.”
I balked for a moment, but plowed on (write me if you can explain what she meant). Or rather, detoured past the rest of the preface material and headed into the stories themselves. The book is organized in three major sections: the stories from the 1935 edition, followed by a selection of stories from Riding’s first two fiction collections, Anarchism is Not Enough (1928) and Experts Are Puzzled (1930). It concludes with “Christmastime,” a story she wrote in 1966 and her own reflections on some of the preceding stories.
The Progress of Stories section represents something of a journey out of conventional story-telling into the new territory Riding proposes to discover. The seven stories in Part One, “Stories of Lives”, a written in a very spare style but still somewhat represent other short stories one might be familiar with, although rather as if being viewed under a microscope like a specimen.
In Part Two, “Stories of Ideas,” however, Riding sets the reader down in wholly unfamiliar material. “Reality as Port Huntlady” opens with a simple, traditional narrative sentence: “Dan the Dog came to the town of Port Huntlady with two friends, Baby and Slick.” OK, no problem there. But then Riding tells us that, “Port Huntlady was not a town as other towns are towns. It was rather like a place where one felt a town might one day be, or where one felt that perhaps there had once been a town.” Port Huntlady, in other words, is not your usual seaside resort town. No, it is a town that–like the story itself–hovers between life in the real world and life in a world of ideas: “Port Huntlady was a place where things might happen; not the things that happened in the world proper, which were personal experiences, but universal experiences, such as the end of the world, or great turning-points in the course of human events.”
At the center of Port Huntlady affairs is Lady Port-Huntlady–herself an orphic figure who might well be a fictional counterpart for Riding herself: “Never seeming to say anything—and yet, after one had left her presence, it seemed that she had said a great deal, at least that one had understood a great many things that one did not really understand.” Indeed, a cynic might say the same thing after finishing Progress of Stories
But it doesn’t really matter what Lady Port-Huntlady might or might not say during her soirees, since, as Riding soon tells us, “We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case.” The inclusion of details is, for Riding, part of the attempt the story-teller to be believable, but this is ultimately equivalent to hypnotism: “this true-seeming is the power of the story to keep your interest until you have abandoned, quite frankly, those rational standards of interest with which we all prop up our chins when our thoughts scurry between brain and heart and we can do no better than be proud. It is the moral pretence of the story created by our joint vanity in being conscientious, orderly and truthful creatures—before we give ourselves up to its gentle idiocy….”
“But, indeed,” she asks further on, “is our story very important? Is any story very important? I assure you that no story is of much importance; and I think you will agree with me. Are we not all agreed that only a few things are really important?” Though she introduces other characters and engages them in various actions, she notes that these matters are both pointless and, therefore, infinite in their possibilities: “… how Lady Port-Huntlady would have consoled the cats by bringing down the remains of their lunch from the lounge; and how Miss Bookworth would have left Port Huntlady soon after to take up a post as secretary to a wealthy invalid whose hobby was corresponding with patients in tuberculosis sanatoria, in which he had spent much of his own life; and how a story may go on indefinitely unless there is perfect understanding at the start of the limitations that keep a story from being anything but a story….” In the end, she writes, driving a last stake through any pretense of honoring the “laws” of fiction, “no amount of ingenuity can save a story from seeming, in the end, just a story–just a piece of verbal luggage, belonging to anybody who cares to be bothered with it.”
In an interview, the poet Lisa Samuels, who edited the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Riding’s 1928 collection, Anarchism Is Not Enough, argued that Riding was challenging the very conceptual basis of fiction itself, rather like Brecht breaking the fourth wall between the play and its audience: “Her tone can be crisp in those stories, as you say; but her combinations of the fantastic, fairy tales, interrogating language as power, investigating what it means to draw and disassemble characters, challenging the reader to be aware of their desire for narrative and syntactic seduction, and so on, make for a situation, in my reading, of multiple possibilities (rather than precision) and messy genres (excess – I mean that in a good way).”
If you wanted to know whether or not you would get anything out of Progress of Stories, you could actually just go straight to “Reality as Port Huntlady” and draw your conclusions from that. For me, reading it was rather like the experience of looking at a Magic Eye picture, where you can feel your visual perception of the image switching back and forth between what seems like noise and then, a moment later, becomes coherent. It was both disorienting and, in a way, almost thrilling.
Continuing on in this manner for another two hundred-plus pages, however, was a like being trapped in a gallery with nothing on the walls except Magic Eye pictures. A little bit is an exciting novelty; dozens of these pictures, one following the other relentlessly, was mind-numbing. Reviewing the 1982 edition in New York magazine, Edith Milton concluded, “All this self-consciousness makes for quite difficult reading, and, despite their formal brilliance, the stories pall.”
On the other hand, Harry Mathews–himself a veteran challenger of the conventions of fiction–considered Riding’s venture among the most ambitious in 20th century literature: “Riding’s aim in writing this carefully structured series of stories was to make articulate in the experience of her readers a knowledge of life that is both true and nonconceptual. It was as if she wanted to make the mechanisms of language, usually so approximate and reductive, accurate enough in the effect of their working to initiate the reader willy-nilly into an awareness of what she felt to be the pure, unmediated truth.”
Unfortunately, Mathews managed to express himself better than Riding herself. For her entry in the 1955 edition of Twentieth Century Authors, she wrote: “We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled–and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.” Indeed, “a total reconstituting of words’ meanings” could present a fairly insurmountable obstacle if one is trying to pursue writing as a career.
After seeing Progress of Stories mentioned as an undeservedly neglected book for decades, I was glad to finally have the chance to read it, but in the end, I was reminded of something a friend of mine once said when returning a book he’d borrowed: “It was good, but not that good.”