1956
Monday, June 4, 2012 at 9:08PM
National Book Foundation

The Bride of the Innisfallen

By Eudora Welty

Original Publisher: Harcourt & Brace Co.

Current Publisher: Amereon Limited

Kirstin Allio writes: 

My mother must have mentioned on several occasions that my grandmother Arlene adored Eudora Welty. I associated the writer’s name with my mother’s stealthy disdain for her mother-in-law’s tastes, Arlene’s kitchen-centered sorority. Neither my mother nor I had ever read Eudora Welty.

My grandmother’s people were Pennsylvania Dutch, her father a church organist. They were all paragons of modesty, five sisters and single sickly brother, with a sort of mumbly and endearing regional accent. My grandmother suffered what she considered a pornographic sweet-tooth.

It didn’t seem to help my grandmother that she was the only one who left to marry. She remained spiritually hooded by the homestead, the jointless fruit trees, skim-milk clapboard and covered well-head where the rest of them spent all their days, imprisoned and timid, and tyrannized by the sister who was mythically beautiful, brilliant, and most likely an undiagnosed schizophrenic. Like something out of Eudora Welty.

The stories in The Bride of the Innisfallen are haunting, many-layered and veiled, and leave an after-image that feels more like memory than fiction. They’re claustrophobic: a crowded train compartment facing the unknowable Welsh night; the clotted, shadowed interiors of old antebellum houses, shelves of mnemonic keepsakes, cracked mirrors, half-lit, half-wit relatives cloistered on a stairless upper floor; bewildered, grown sisters emerging into alien daylight wearing enormous decorative hats and out-of-date dresses. Welty houses are as dark and deep as an inner life, protecting or imprisoning shy creatures.

Widowed at forty-three, my grandmother never remarried. She belonged, perhaps instead, to a secret, single-sex society, which is where, I suspect, she learned to read Eudora Welty. I imagine my repressed grandmother fluent and laughing in some interior drawing room, supping on lemon bars and blueberry boy-bait. I imagine her mix of mortification and delight at Eudora Welty’s paradoxically open-hearted condescension, and freakishly vivid, almost extra-sensory curiosity. How those Welty stories must have helped my grandmother tell her own story, if only to herself. Reading them for the first time, I’m reminded that one is never alone―or original―in literature.

The Bride of the Innisfallen is an audacious collection teeming with biodiversity: humans and plants and water and light, all equally animated. The tension between the quotidian and the otherworldly, between time and timelessness, gives the stories their sense of grand scale.

“No Place For You My Love,” the first and one of my favorite stories in the collection, is strung together of impeccable, visceral, emblematic, but acutely odd moments. There’s an “amateurish-looking boat,” crayfish crossing the road are like “little samples.” The unerring, if slightly off-gait tick-tock of physical details seems to allow the almost disembodied human drama to solo above it.

“They were strangers to each other,” begins the story, and it already rings true because I am a stranger to the story, all too aware of myself, standing outside it. But even as the sentence is ringing (all Eudora Welty’s sentences vibrate like leaves or a stringed instrument), a spell is broken (the writer simultaneously makes and breaks it) and I’m suddenly inside the story. It continues:

The moment he saw her little blunt, fair face, he thought
that here was a woman who was having an affair. It was
one of those odd meetings when such an impact is felt that
it has to be translated at once into some sort of
speculation.

Fiction itself: some sort of speculation! Then:

Whatever people like to think, situations (if not scenes)
were usually three-way―there was somebody else always. 

I hold my breath. Has she caught me reading and actually written me into the story?

Imagining my grandmother, I wonder if Eudora Welty was as elegant and old-fashioned in her own time, or―it thrills me to think―warm-blooded, intimate, vernacular? But there’s a more contemporary-seeming randomness in this collection than the formal syntax intimates. And certainly less traditional plot than elliptical, moody, fragmentary, poetic reasoning.

In the almost existential drive in “No Place For You My Love,” the two strangers, a man and woman, are suspended as if above their own lives. The top of the convertible is down, and it’s easy to imagine the hot wind and sound that prohibit much conversation. Neither one of them knows the road, the road does not even seem to know itself, as it unspools to the edge of the earth, toward water, and sunset: 

He had the feeling that they had been riding for a long time
across a face―great, wide, and upturned.

Weirdly aphoristic, exquisite, and calculatingly shining through its own borders. The story ends with a self-consciousness―maybe a meta-consciousness―of the highest order:

A thing is incredible, if ever, only after it is told―returned to
the world it came out of.

“Circe,” told in the first person, and written sometime before 1955, seems as radical―enlightened and experimental―as anything I ever read in grad school. And timeless, which is the real feat. Here’s the goddess/witch herself caught in luminous amber:

Oh, I know those prophecies as well as the back of my
hand―only nothing is here to warn me when it is now.

When is it now? I feel for Circe! What happens when men collide with myth? Time with timelessness?

I want to say Eudora Welty was a writer’s writer, but I’ve already said she was my grandmother’s writer too.

I don’t doubt that Eudora Welty’s writing makes any and every family history resonate. Her stories touch bone, the vast universal in the graphic specific. They are at once historic and futuristic. They’re intuitive and hypnotic. One more glance through the Weltyland mists at my grandmother and her sisters in a kind of chorus, witless ghosts who were once feverish virgins. One more word from Circe, herself viewing humanity through mists:

Yet I know they keep something from me, asleep and
awake. There exists a mortal mystery that, if I knew where
it was, I could crush like an island grape. Only frailty, it
seems, can divine it―and I was not endowed with that
property. They live by frailty! By the moment!

Kirstin Allio was selected for 5 Under 35 in 2007: many thanks to the National Book Foundation! She is the author of the novel, Garner, and numerous short stories, including one in The 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Seattle. (Photo: Michael K. Allio)


Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: John O’Hara for Ten North Frederick

Fiction Judges That Year: Carlos Baker, John Brooks, Granville Hicks, Saunders Redding, Mark Schorer

The Year in Literature:

More Information:

Eudora Welty was a Finalist in the Fiction (Hardcover) category for her Collected Stories in 1981 and won the National Book Award in the Fiction (Paperback) category for the same book two years later, in 1983. She was also a Finalist three more times: in 1971 for Losing Battles (Fiction), in 1973 for The Optimist’s Daughter (Fiction), and in 1984 for One Writer’s Beginnings (Nonfiction). Welty also received the National Book Foundatin’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1991.

Links: 

Article originally appeared on National Book Award Fiction Finalists (http://nbafictionfinalists.squarespace.com/).
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