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Words That Must Somehow Be Said : SELECTED ESSAYS OF KAY BOYLE, 1927-1984, edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth S. Bell (North Point: $16.50; 262 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Susan Slocum Hinerfeld | Hinerfeld is a Los Angeles-based critic and writer.

It is not possible to write a line without telling something of oneself, and in the essay form the very choice of subject speaks.

The person revealed by these essays is clear-thinking, direct, sometimes tart, concerned both with fine distinctions and larger meanings. The point of view is principled, liberal, vigorous: Wrongs can be righted through action; let us take action now.

A corollary/example: Kay Boyle has no patience with Elizabeth Bowen, 'sensitive and distinguished,' nor with the central, recurring type of Bowen's fictions, a "pallid and introverted figure . . . ." The tragedy of such a writer in her eyes (in Bowen's case it is reckoned a "minor tragedy") is the failure to locate "a functioning world." The triumph of Boyle as a writer and citizen is that she was born to, belongs to, "a functioning world" intact and nourishing.

We learn in the essay "The Family" that Grandfather Boyle, "Puss," founder of The West Publishing Co., was a tyrant and charmer. Perhaps self-confidence came from him.

But it was the matrilineal Evans heritage that mattered. Work, art and ideas could be the center of life. Among the women of that remarkable family there was already a long tradition of civic zeal and high-minded, forthright activism.

Boyle has no time for pale introversion. She was someone who (to borrow from Nadine Gordimer) "always knew what to do and did it." Enabled, she acted when issues seemed to her to call for action. The French would say that she was comfortable in her skin.

The 25 essays here--on literature, politics and human predicaments--span six decades. (It is startling to read a review suggesting the path where Faulkner's future lies!)

Boyle has written novels, short stories, poetry, reportage, criticism and memoirs (notably the major revision of her friend Robert McAlmon's book on Paris in the '20s, "Being Geniuses Together")--and of course, essays. But that variety was not enough, so she turned to a mutant form.

Perhaps fact and fiction, like oil and water, simply do not mix. A good example is "Farewell to New York," 1947. It is a ghost story, really, its nub that the dead are with us, their voices our conscience.

At 6 on a winter's evening, at a Longchamps restaurant in New York, a Spanish exile remembers a cold night in Paris, 1945. There, in a street called the rue du Palais, was a shop with curtained booths for the taking of identity pictures. "(A)n endless stream of outcasts" passed through its turnstile at 30 francs a throw.

A "strange thing happened . . . suddenly a strip of photographs came out which belonged to no one in the place . . ." The shop girl was annoyed. Then someone said: "I knew him. We came from the same town, we went to school together. He was killed in Durango in 1936." Out come the photographs of dead men, strip by strip, "in spite of death . . . ."

It is a gorgeous fiction, until it ends with quotations from Pound, Waugh and Eliot, on why they did not fight in the Spanish Civil War. "Spain is an emotional luxury," Pound said in 1937. To repeat his words in 1947 was a luxury of polemics--one the frail story could not afford.

The book closes with the majestic preface from "The Smoking Mountain," which appeared in The New Yorker in 1950, reporting the trial of a Gestapo official in a denazification court in Frankfurt. It also reports the moral climate of a courtroom, a city and a country. It is a work of intelligence and subtlety, a preface that is a suitable finale.

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