All writers can be said to be "of their time and place." But Kay Boyle, in "Fifty Stories," far outstrips the conventional understanding of that phrase. At her best, Boyle not only reflects those times, those places; she calls them into being and into question with the same stroke of the pen.
This collection of stories dating from 1927 through 1966 is organized by chronology and nationality, in settings extending from Austria and England to France and America. But the neat chapter headings point to a problem: "Early Group 1927-1934" indicates a time which reveals itself to be a kind of place. "Military Occupation Group 1945-1950" indicates a place defined, not by its geography, but by its time. Making her readers recognize the difficulty of employing such categories, both in the orgnization of this book and in experience as a whole, turns out to be no small part of Boyle's accomplishment.
Boyle doesn't strive for innovative notions of narrative or character. What marks these stories is the very absence of any kind of display. With quiet technical assurance, Boyle simply writes very well. She demonstrates the value of discipline in scrupulous attention to detail. She is wry without being coy. Power and delicacy, far from canceling each other out, unite here in the stylistic equivalent of grace under pressure.
That much of the pressure derives from time and place is evident in the earliest stories. "Episode in the Life of an Ancestor," for instance, recalls a grandmother. the best horsewoman in Kansas, she is determined to defy that definition of "the feminine" which the "time of the century" and prairie society and her father would impose. "White as Snow" presents another portrait of determined grace and dignity. The black woman at its center must confront the racism of the white couple who have hired her as their children's nurse. The time and place of this story merge with the attitudes, the states of mind of Boyle's characters, as she suggests in the lyrical opening:
"There is only one history of importance, and it is the history of what you once believed in, and the history of what you came to believe in, and what cities or country you say, and what trees you remembered. The history of other things comes in one ear and goes out the other, and the history of places you have never been to is as good as a picture, but with no taste or smell. nor is it enough to speak the name of a city, for if the name of this one were said, you might recall things no one else remembers."
Throughout this collection Boyle is concerned with only the "history of importance." And that history grows increasingly political with time. During the prewar and war years, it is set on a European stage. It is played against a background of rising Nazi power, actual combat, the fall of France, the occupation, and American intervention. The personal moral dilemma becomes the substance of Boyle's drama.
A chateau in southern France, a cabaret in Land Hesse, a post exchange -- all of these have a taste and smell. the names of cities -- Innsbruck, Kassel -- are spoken, and the things which Boyle recalls and which no one else remembers print themselves indelibly on the reader's memory.
"A Puzzled Race" demonstrates Boyle's special power. Its protagonist is called back to an America in the grip of McCarthyism. As he leaves the American enclave in Germany, he reflects: "One strip of newly broken land along the Rhine seeking with desperation to emulate America. . . but failing because the reason for America was not there." He wonders how it begins -- the suspicion, the fear, "the final dying of belief."
To come to this story after Vietnam and Watergate is to recognize the value of what KAy Boyle can recall so well and of the one history of importance to which her stories testify.