Katherine Anne Porter's past was a skein of fantasies, half-truths, and ornamentations, for, as biographer Joan Givner acknowledges, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ''Ship of Fools'' and numerous works of short fiction ''edited the story of her life as she might have shaped one of her short stories , rejecting certain experiences . . . and substituting others which seemed more appropriate.''
The difficulties inherent in writing about a life so decorated with fancy are obvious, yet Givner has plumbed Porter's every year thoroughly in this comprehensive and well-rounded study.
One goal was absolutely central in Porter's mind. The girl from Indian Creek, Texas, dreaded leading a parochial, droning existence, and through great industry she became an enormous literary success. After overcoming poverty, the early death of her mother, and her grandmother's harsh piousness, Porter sought picturesque material for her fiction throughout the globe.
She became a nomad, sojourning in Paris, Germany, Greenwich Village, Mexico, Belgium, and elsewhere. Always in the vicinity of excitement, Porter grafted her experiences onto her writings, often adding a rich overlay of symbolism. She had at last burst the constraints of a miserable childhood, emerging elated and artistically triumphant.
Still, Porter's path to fame wasn't linear. Throughout her 90 years, various heartaches caused her to digress from her work. Rejections curdled her ego. Illness troubled her frequently. An incorrigible sentimentalist, she married four times and took many lovers, yet neither matrimony nor liaisons sated Porter's need for male approval. Her social life buoyed her, and the allure of leisure time spent with Matthew Josephson, Glenway Wescott, Ford Madox Ford, and other renowned buddies often tempted Porter to neglect her writing. Without such diversions she could have been far more prolific.
Yet her pride and resilience prevented her from quitting her writing altogether, and what fiction she did produce is generally considered stylistically brilliant. Some critics deplored Porter's characters as being static, unable to grow and develop. This shortcoming dims the overall excellence of stories like ''Pale Horse, Pale Rider,'' ''Noon Wine,'' and ''The Grave.'' Yet by most accounts, Porter was a virtuoso.
Edmund Wilson stated that ''the task of uncovering the source of power in Porter's stories is a baffling one,'' although he never denied that it existed. If her technique appears astringent and without any lilt, it's because Porter resisted frills, preferring a hard, clean declarative tone.
There were a multiplicity of Katherine Anne Porters, and thankfully Joan Givner has refrained from reducing them to one. With patience and understanding, she presents this woman as the ''artistocratic first lady of American letters, linguist, musician, femme fatale, and raconteur,'' destined perhaps for rediscovery by a new generation of readers.