blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



Peter Taylor and “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court”
     from “Peter Taylor and the Lost World of the Modern”
     AWP Conference Panel, March 1, 2007

When David Lynn and I sat in the hotel bar in Vancouver at yet another annual conference of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs and bemoaned the lack of attention that Peter Taylor’s work seems to receive, we agreed that discussion of Peter’s fiction in such a forum as AWP provides would be a good thing and that we would title our proposal “Peter Taylor and the Lost World of the Modern.” David notes in his comments that Peter’s work shares with the high modernists, like Joseph Conrad, a core concentration on the act of telling the story itself. This act, David convinces us, is the catalyst for making sense—of history, family, place and time. I would add that, particularly in the later stories, Peter circles an incident that is not fully presented or understood. A center isn’t holding somewhere, and the struggle of the narrator and the art of his story-telling creator are the centrifugal forces that keep us from flying off the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Gravitron of the day-to-day of the late twentieth century. A good storyteller can keep a grip while the floor drops away under your feet, and all of those post-nineteenth-century isms swirl in a blur beneath you.

Also, over time, I have realized that in many ways that are obvious, the world that produced Peter and his fiction has itself gone missing. The shallow south in which he was raised is long departed, as is the optimism that his generation brought to a post-Depression, post-World War II world. Also gone is the wide-open, unexplored territory of modernist writing and the reading of that writing with a respect for the individual choices a maker of fictions like Peter sorts through each time he begins a story. Questions of narrative choice have been buried beneath the collapsing scenery of theoretical criticism, a process that reduces what may be perceived in a Taylor story to social commentary and excises the probing of the trustworthiness of memory and perception that make that story resonate. Peter is a master at the center of a labyrinthine set of narrative decisions, and he arrives there as a true advocate of the told tale.

Peter Taylor stories may appear to be (as John Updike noted to his shame, in my opinion) a glossy dissection of a certain moment and geographical place in southern social history, but they share these limits with the New York of Henry James or the Russian country town of Anton Chekhov. They may appear to fall within a narrow set of considerations—who is becoming engaged, how does a father manage a son, how do middle-aged children manage a widower father. But as the layers of the stories reveal themselves, you notice that they are not in the business of surface mining. The apparent ease with which they are being told is a very slippery critter.

The later stories, of which “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court” is a very late one, seem to share with other late-life work like Beethoven’s last quartets or Rembrandt’s final self-portraits, a loosening of the reins and a more concentrated and darker focus. What is smoothly reached through narrative in a story like “Dean of Men” dissolves into a mistier and grayer early evening. The structure of the story reveals itself as does a set of Russian nesting dolls. But in “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court” you begin to wonder if somehow there might not be any small token at the center at all. In a sense, the process itself becomes the token.

To illustrate, let us look at that late story, “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court” and begin at the beginning:

Mrs. Augusta St. John-Jones was now seventy-five years old and had lived in Washington for nearly half a century. She was the longtime widow of a Tennessee congressman who had in fact died of a heart attack while midway through his maiden speech on the floor of the House! This widow of the late lamented Congressman Jones (she hyphenated her maiden name and her married name only after her husband’s death) was actually a lady from Middle Tennessee and was generally known to us—her various nephews and nieces, that is—as Aunt Gussie Jones. But from the time of her husband’s early death our Aunt Gussie had stayed put in Washington (her own phrase) until the present day of this story I am about to relate.

This beginning (and those in many a Peter Taylor story) introduces us to a man, apparently at some distance from his youth, who in the most reasonable way possible, and in the most thoughtful, self-aware way, is inviting us to leisurely revisit a moment of his younger life. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that this moment has had a weight and significance that only near the time of the telling, or through the process of telling, has the narrator apparently puzzled out.

This opening structure and subsequent narrative development reveal that the majority of Peter’s stories have at least four levels of consciousness. The young man in the story, the older man telling the story and you, the reader, are three. As the reader, you are able to discern what the narrator and his younger self have missed. You can note their unreliable natures, the way they have marshaled memory and circumstance, their rueful acknowledgement of opportunities missed, and you seem to gain the knowledge that the older narrator purports that he has found. The other level of consciousness, however, the fourth gambit, belongs to Peter himself, moving away from, returning, circling around, taking a side road, in the consciousness of the older narrator. By leaving things out, adding the odd detail, by being the real storyteller in the group, he slyly situates you, his thoughtful reader, in the same shaky boat occupied by his narrator. “The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court” more directly tosses the conundrum of memory and consciousness into its reading, as the narrator suffers loss of memory himself, a loss that encompasses a dramatic wartime experience.

The time frame of the action of the story (apart from the time in which the narrator is reflecting on what happened) is divided into a period in the earlier days of World War II shortly before the narrator (who two thirds through the story is identified as Roger) is to be shipped overseas, and a period three years after the war’s end. The earlier section is set in Washington, D.C., and the later section takes place in Memphis. We learn early that Roger had initially applied for status as a conscientious objector, and for reasons he never sorts out, was instead quickly drafted. The older Roger immediately lets us know that the time in Washington was one of particular resonance.

The “present day” that I made reference to above, regarding my aunt, and the “now” and the “nowadays” that may creep into my narrative during these first pages must not ever be construed as having reference to the trite “present day” or the banal “nowadays” that such a one as I have lived on into. Rather, the time I shall have in mind will be the vibrant “now” of fifty years ago when the Second World War lay before us and I was that staff sergeant on temporary duty in the District of Columbia. I do believe in my heart that this is the period when the young people of my generation imagined ourselves most fully alive—whether we be some avowed conscientious objector such as I had actually listed myself with the Memphis Draft Board, or whether we be one of the more warlike spirits amongst whom we were inevitably cast in the ranks of the army. . . Yes, to all of us it was the most exciting and the very dullest of times. We had before us—the would-be conscientious objectors or the ordinary draftees—either imminent death in the global war of our day or, if spared, then we had the prospect of a stagnant life in a world we all dreaded and that we sensed we should certainly come to know when the War was over.

During this momentary window when time is on the pause button, Roger has met a “fantastically good-looking girl” named Lila Montgomery and has had himself assigned to temporary duty in Washington to be near her. In Washington, he also establishes contact with one of his myriad Tennessee connections, Aunt Gussie Jones, the congressman’s widow, who lives in the Stoneliegh Court apartments. Aunt Gussie dabbles in the occult, particularly in fortunes and séances, and her suggestive magic infuses the ionized air that marks this waiting-room period of Roger’s life. In fact, one could say that this magic, or its background aura, creates a tonal signature for the whole story, underlining its unanswered questions and the narrator's own missing memory. Also, Lila Montgomery and Aunt Gussie, who continue to meet after Roger has introduced them, share much more than their acquaintance with Roger. They are women of ambition, who, against the constraints of their small town Tennessee upbringings, want to be important, or to influence men who are important. Aunt Gussie claims to have used her prescience to advise Roger’s grandfather, a noted governor and senator, and Lila begins to trade up in her jobs and, with Aunt Gussie’s advice, sets herself on a career in the offices of Congress. Near the end of his Washington sojourn, Roger proposes marriage to Lila and is rejected. Time begins to move again, and he goes back to his base in Tennessee with the prospect of shipping out almost immediately.

The story breaks here and resumes after the war, with Roger living in Memphis. He has only just recovered from what appear to be battle fatigue and a vague injury suffered during the Normandy invasion. The combination of psychological and physical damage has left Roger with no memory of actions that led to his receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, and he is embarrassed by the public attention he is receiving for the heroism he does not recall. He is also beginning to embrace a picture of himself as someone settled into a quiet and conventional life with the “dear girl” Ruthie Ann Sedwick.

At this point, the family receives a phone call notifying them that Aunt Gussie Jones will be returning to Memphis to die, accompanied by a trained nurse and Lila Montgomery. As they arrive, Lila greets Roger with a kiss that signals a much greater intimacy than they shared before the war, and Roger realizes that his unremembered heroism has made him important to Lila and Aunt Gussie, important in the way of the desired ambition that the women share. To his mind, they mount an assault on him. Aunt Gussie rouses to tell him that she has brought his “fantastically good-looking girl” to his war hero self, and Lila takes him to her bed for an episode of “brutal” lovemaking that disturbs him by its impersonal nature, a characteristic of their post-war, post-romantic selves. His reaction is confusion. He has a strong desire to repeat the performance. He dislikes what the familiarity with casual sex says about him and about Lila. He questions his feelings for Ruthie Ann. Roger’s solution to this confusion is to define his attachment to Ruthie Ann and to marry her. The question remains whether his affection for Ruthie Ann is as much to the calm and ordered, almost pre-war and timeless, rhythm of Ruthie Ann’s life as it is to her. Aunt Gussie dies, and Lila returns to Washington.

These bare bones outline what happens, and Roger sketches them for us with various degrees of detail that describe, for instance, how Lila dresses herself both before and after the war. Her outfit before the war has a simplicity and an uncalculating quality—a pleated skirt, a self-knitted sweater. On the other hand, during her visit to Memphis, each day produces a new ensemble, each one in the height of Washington style—a plethora of clothing that points to carefully planned packing.

While the period in Washington is marked by Roger as one of rather spontaneous and open-ended activity with an unknown future sharpening its lines, the post-war time in Memphis is delineated by an unknowable past and, therefore, unpredictable, unreliable and shadowy future. Roger was unmoored in one way in Washington, separated from the world in which he was raised and about to be thrown into war. He is equally unmoored after that war, separated even from parts of himself.

By now I had repeated them [the details of his exploits] so often to my family and friends that the hardest part had come to be making myself remember not to believe in my own pretended memory. It had been a necessity for me at first to labor at remembering that I actually remembered nothing. First of all, the necessity had existed in order to get myself released from the hospital and from the doctors that surrounded me—overseas at first and later back in this country. Pretending that the memory had come back to me was the way I could regain my freedom! And once I had returned to my family the myth of my heroism freed me from the old shame of having been a conscientious objector. I spent so many hours thinking about my old secret and my new secret that at last I could not fail to speculate about what secrets other people kept. Perhaps it was only a way I had of consoling myself. What secrets did my mother and father share? And what secrets did they keep a lifetime from each other? What awful secrets had they kept about Aunt Gussie and about their own parents and about my own brother and sister and my spinster cousin Andrea Lomax? I realized perfectly how childish all this seemed, how like delayed doubts of childhood and puberty it was. Yet from the day I returned home from the War, nursing my secret—my “blankness,” as I came to call my state of mind—it was always with me. And it seemed the worse somehow because it was a secret nobody else could possibly know—not for certain, they couldn’t.

Roger in a sense sits at the center of a narrative constructed to mask an emptiness—the knowing and not knowing of that reasonable older gentleman telling us the story that at its heart, at the second of the man’s most profound act, has dissolved into an act of the imagination.

And true enough it is that certain war correspondents and certain official military observers have since given relatively accurate accounts of what happened among the hedgerows on that hillside, still in each case the journalist and the military narrator needed for his own purposes that which only I could supply. Of course I have not necessarily had to believe in the truth of their accounts. As I have read them I have gone along with said accounts (it has been a “learning experience” for me) because since I do not remember anything, I cannot therefore deny anything. For my own peace of mind and sometimes out of vanity I have accepted as truth all that I have seen put in writing. There have been moments when to deny anything at all would seem to deny everything and to have begun a great unraveling that might have ended I know not where.

Ironically, what Roger most closely shares with Lila and with Aunt Gussie is the need to create a self. While they are doing so to find a way out of Tennessee, he is doing so in order to return home. Aunt Gussie has recognized all along that Roger is a man of imagination, and Roger will spend his later years with Ruthie Ann and her mother “gardening, reading [their] favorite fiction, taking turns with the shopping” quite deliberately avoiding its exercise—with the exception of telling us his story. And there we leave him, the token sitting at the center of his own set of Russian nesting dolls, a man given shape quite literally through the process of narrative.

Peter Taylor is the writer to whom I turn time and time again for sheer pleasure—not only for the reading delight taken in his characters and voice and way of looking at the world but also for the intelligence, care and wizardry with which he wrote. I am more than happy to accept his way of doing things, to be mystified and to trust his hand on the controls of the Tilt-A-Whirl.  

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