BOOK REVIEW / But what we really want to know . . .: 'The Still Moment' - Paul Binding: Virago, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
E M FORSTER, Ford Madox Ford and Henry Green all admired Eudora Welty's work. Yet the American author - unlike fellow Southerners such as Willa Cather and Katherine Anne Porter - doesn't even rate a mention in the Oxford Companion to English Literature.

In The Still Moment, Paul Binding puts the case for Welty, placing her among the greats - not just of the American South, but of the world. Considering her the 'true peer' of Faulkner, Binding cites Lorca, Joyce and Rilke as her 'rightful company'. It is to this octogenarian author, he argues, that a new generation of Southern writers feels most indebted. Anne Tyler, for instance, read The Wide Net at 14. 'I had thought till that moment, that you had to have epic heroes . . . not just the kind of people I met daily in the North Carolina tobacco fields.'

Welty creates flesh and blood characters, from hobos to plantation owners. The hawkers of shoes, blacks on farmsteads, gossiping beauticians and lonely music teachers inhabit a harsh world but one that can be ravishingly beautiful. Yellow butterflies race passing trains, white irises shine 'like candles on the banks' and new ferns are like 'green stars up in the oak branches'.

Welty's writing is moral without being political, never tackling head-on the racial tensions of the South. Life's inequalities inform her work more subtly. 'People are first and last individuals,' she has said. 'I don't think of them in the mass.'

She lacks Faulkner's elegiac quality (and detests the obsession with the Civil War). Nor does she have that eccentric pin-point focus that sees the Deep South through the eyes of the grotesques and misfits offered up by, say, Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers. But her ear for common speech, her understanding of lives that are comic and tragic simultaneously, makes short stories such as'Death of a Travelling Salesman' and 'The Hitch- Hikers' small masterpieces.

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, she still works in her bedroom in the house she has lived in since she was 16. In the 1930s she had a job with the Works Progress Administration and started taking photographs. She 'wanted to see people in their contexts', and in snapping Mississippians became aware of 'a story-writer's truth: the thing to wait on . . . the moment in which people reveal themselves'. If a photo is a 'moment's glimpse', the story is a 'long look, a growing contemplation'. Welty proved adept at recognising the promise of the still moment.

Binding's book is not a biography but a 'portrait of a creative spirit'. As a critique of Welty's work it is solid, but somehow fails to capture the spirit of Welty's own writing - its gossipy, anecdotal, domestic nature, the sort of preoccupations that make our neighbours riveting. Welty's voice is 'warm and animated', her face craggy. All right - but what we really want to know is why she has stayed 69 years in the same house.

Occasionally a tantalising detail slips through ('in adolescence she herself was a maker of scenes, a packer of suitcases'), but it is rarely followed up. We know that Welty dreaded getting stuck in teaching, her mother's profession. But why? Later, an encounter with Elizabeth Bowen 'could be explained in terms of the supernatural'. No explanation comes.

The Still Moment is a respectable study with few surprises. Eudora Welty remains in the shadows. There's little in it to nudge her into the limelight: for that you must go back to her books.