Kay Boyle - whether Boyle is focusing on the role a doomed horse plays in a dysfunctional and displaced family’s dynamics in the English countryside, the queer ways in which class disintegrate in the face of sex and nature, or the political ramifications of speaking out against authority, Boyle is a prose stylist without peer


Kay Boyle, Three Short Novels: The Crazy Hunter; The Bridegroom's Body; Decision, New Directions, 1958.

By far, Kay Boyle was the best literary discovery of 2014 for me, and I have the Buried book group/resource on Goodreads for alerting me to her work. In this collection, whether Boyle is focusing on the role a doomed horse plays in a dysfunctional and displaced family’s dynamics in the English countryside, the queer ways in which class disintegrate in the face of sex and nature, or the political ramifications of speaking out against authority, Boyle is a prose stylist without peer—so it’s a shame that her work has not earned her the reputation she so rightfully deserves. While her singular style owes much to Henry James, Boyle is a master all her own: a reader of her work will never view a sentence’s possibilities in quite the same way again
...Now reissued in The Revised Modern Classics series, Kay Boyle's Three Short Novels can once again startle the unwary reader with their brilliant combination of keen observation, skillfully crafted prose, and moral awareness. In "The Crazy Hunter," the killing of a blind gelding is pivotal in a power struggle between a businesslike mother, a feckless father, and an almost grown daughter. In "The Bridegroom's Body," swans become surrogates for human emotion in a story of suppressed passion and the unquestioned male subjugation of women. "Decision," the only overtly political story in the collection, deals with the liberating power of moral choice—even if the choice means almost certain death—in Franco's Spain. As Robert Smith wrote about Kay Boyle in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Few American writers have written so beautifully of the human condition with a mind that recognizes the limitations of conduct and with a heart that sees the need to test those limits always by love and courage." - K. Thomas Kahn

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Kay Boyle, Fifty Stories. New Directions, 1992.

read it at Google Books

Kay Boyle’s Fifty Stories is an eloquent testament to the possibility of living and writing with passion and honor. In Paris in the twenties, in Austria before and after the Anschluss, in New York, in occupied Germany, in California, Boyle has been an inspiration both as an exquisite stylist and as a chronicler of the nuances of human experience. Now in her ninetieth year, Kay Boyle dares us, in this most comprehensive collection of her stories, to explore the themes that have preoccupied her for a lifetime: "the inviolate integrity of the human soul, the impact of external events on the most intimate of feelings, our fractured experience of love versus duty, self-respect versus hubris, social convention versus personal ethic...She is still unquestionably modern" (Ann Hornaday, The New York Times Book Review). Acclaimed novelist Louise Erdrich has provided a very personal appreciation of Boyle’s power and grace. As she comments in the Introduction: "Kay is a citizen whose life and art are intertwined, one morally dependent on the other, both inexhaustible."
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Kay Boyle, Crazy Hunter, New Directions, 1993.

“I think my Crazy Hunter is the best thing I’ve ever done,” Kay Boyle wrote to her sister Joan in 1939, two weeks after she had finished writing it. Twenty years later she wrote to a friend, it “remains one of my best, I think.” This stunning short novel portrays a family––an almost grown young woman, her mother, and her drunkard father––and a magnificent blind gelding. Powerful and businesslike, the mother is determined to put the blind horse down; her daughter is determined to save him. Part of Boyle’s “British” period (based on her year’s stay in Devon), The Crazy Hunter is a charged inquiry into family relations and moral choice.
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Kay Boyle, Death of a Man, New Directions, 1989.

When Death of a Man was first published in 1936, the anonymous reviewer in Time described the novel as a "Nazi idyll." Nothing could be further from the truth. Boyle, who lived in the town of Kitzbühel in the Tirolean Alps during the mid 30s, recalls that "In 1934, mothers, fathers, children––all barefoot––stood in the ankle-deep snow on the sidewalks of Vienna, their hands out-stretched for help .... Nazism as to them mutely accepted as the one hope for the economy." The subtlety and precision honed by Boyle in her acclaimed short stories are used in Death of a Man to describe the tragedy of a society pushed to the edge by circumstance but as yet unaware of the dangers, the incipient evil, of the course it is choosing. In this setting, the passionate relationship between the appealing and vigorous but pro-Nazi Dr. Prochaska and the pampered, neurotic American young woman Pendennis, is a paradigm of the difficulty of individual love in a disordered world.
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Kay Boyle, Life Being: the Best & Other Stories. New Directions, 1988.

In both her art and her life, Kay Boyle has exemplified that quality she values most in other artists––the bold articulation of a passionately held belief. An American expatriate in Europe from 1923-1941, Boyle was part of that pioneering group of modernists forging the "revolution of the word." Her stories from that period, thirteen of which are collected in Life Being the Best & Other Stories, are masterful in their complex, innovative use of language and their ironic acknowledgment of the subversive realities of life. From the quivering expectancy of the three sisters awaiting "The First Lover" to the dashed hopes of the architect’s daughter in "The Meeting of the Stones" to the desperate remedy a small boy finds for life’s dissatisfactions in the title story, Boyle provides a catalog of the ways in which love can fail. The missed (or nearly missed) chances for human connection as each individual mounts his or her solitary quest for identity provide Boyle’s characters with moments of personal intensity and her readers with an ache of recognition. Boyle strove (as she once said of Harry Crosby) to write "with an alertness sharp as a blade and as relentless." She succeeded.

Author Kay Boyle was an American expatriate in Europe from 1923-1941. Her stories from that period, thirteen of which are included in this volume, are masterful in their complex and innovative use of language and their ironic acknowledgment of the subversive realities of life. At the heart of all Kay Boyle's stories is "--a belief in the absolute certainty of love-on a private and public scale- and a sense of tragic loss when human connections fail, leaving individuals who are desperately in need, bnouncing off one another like atoms".
Kay Boyle, Process, University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Three quarters of a century after the manuscript of Kay Boyle's first novel disappeared, a carbon copy of it was discovered by Sandra Spanier, the pre-eminent Boyle authority. Set off by Spanier's substantial introduction, "Process" is published here for the first time in paperback. A classic bildungsroman, "Process" tells the story of Kerith Day, in search of her own identity and place in the world. A keenly critical observer of the dreary industrial landscape and the beaten-down inhabitants of her native Cincinnati, Ohio, Kerith determines to discover something better. She places her faith in art and politics and sets off for France, where workers and radicals are on the same side.

'Process' tells the story of Kerith Day, in search of her own identity and place in the world. A keenly critical observer of the dreary industrial landscape and the beaten-down inhabitants of her native Cincinnati, Ohio, Kerith determines to discover something better.

Kay Boyle, Avalanche, The Reader's League of America, 1944.

In the blacked-out carriage of a train running through "unoccupied" France sits a young American girl, Fenton Ravel. She knows that two men share her compartment, but in the blackness she cannot see their faces. As the night wears on, the two men try to draw her into their conversation - to discover what brings her alone to this dangerous country. But Fenton is too wary to speak the words aloud to strangers - that she has come to search for her lover who has disappeared in the dark intrigues that followed the coming of the enemy.

Kay Boyle, My Next Bride, Penguin, 1986.

"I am ready to take each act of my life as a stone in my hands, never to be denied,and my words will be like stones to myself, hard and irrevocable."Victoria John, a young American with Puritanism in her blood, arrives in Paris in 1933 and takes a room in a Neuilly lodging-house. Here are two Russian women, starving and shivering over the remnants of their gentility who advise her to leave and tell her of Sorrel the visionary in his steel-grey tunic. Drawn into his fantastic artists' community where she sells handwoven scarves, she witnesses the dirt and conniving behind the scenes. Victoria is looking for truth but stumbles instead into drunkenness and emotional chaos when she meets the erratic artist, Anthony Lister. First published in 1934, this autobiographical novel which lays bare one woman's path to self-discovery, is a poetic and imaginative achievement.  

Kay Boyle, Plagued by the Nightingale, Virago Press, 1981. 

'Papa says we should have a child,' he said. 'A dear little child to run around and call us mama and papa. I can give it paralysis, what can you give it, my dear?'This extraordinary novel, first published in 1931, recounts the love story of the American girl Bridget and the young Frenchman Nicolas whom she marries. Bridget goes to live with his wealthy, close-knit family in their Breton village and finds there a group -- mother, father, sisters, and brother-in-law -- who love each other to the exclusion of the outside world.
But it is a love that festers, for the family is tainted with an inherited bone disease, a plague which, Bridget slowly discovers, can also infect the soul. Then Luc -- young, handsome, healthy -- arrives and Bridget is faced with a choice: confronting the Old World with the courage of the New she makes the bravest choice of all...
In subtle, rich and varied prose Kay Boyle echoes Henry James in a novel at once lyrical, delicate and shocking.

BoyleSpanier Sandra Spanier, ed., Kay Boyle: A Twentieth-Century Life in Letters, University of Illinois Press, 2015

One of the Lost Generation modernists who gathered in 1920s Paris, Kay Boyle published more than forty books, including fifteen novels, eleven collections of short fiction, eight volumes of poetry, three children's books, and various essays and translations. Yet her achievement can be even better appreciated through her letters to the literary and cultural titans of her time.

Kay Boyle shared the first issue of This Quarter with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, expressed her struggles with poetry to William Carlos Williams and voiced warm admiration to Katherine Anne Porter, fled WWII France with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim, socialized with the likes of James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, and Samuel Beckett, and went to jail with Joan Baez. The letters in this first-of-its-kind collection, authorized by Boyle herself, bear witness to a transformative era illuminated by genius and darkened by Nazism and the Red Scare. Yet they also serve as milestones on the journey of a woman who possessed a gift for intense and enduring friendship, a passion for social justice, and an artistic brilliance that earned her inclusion among the celebrated figures in her ever-expanding orbit.

review by Frank Freeman

Joan Mellen, Kay Boyle: Author of Herself,  Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994.                         

Mellen's intimate, admiring, captivating biography of Boyle (1902-1992), short story writer, poet, novelist, memoirist and political activist, follows her egocentric trajectory as a "citizen of the planet." Fiercely ambitious, romantic, Minnesota-born Boyle moved to Paris in the 1920s, becoming a modernist writer and "golden girl" of the expatriate set. In the 1930s, living in Vienna with her second husband Laurence Vail, a surrealist painter, Boyle wrote emotive anti-Nazi pieces meant to show, as Mellen observes, how fascism "might be seen as a means to self-respect by ordinarily moral, indeed virtuous people." A New Yorker correspondent in postwar Europe, Boyle returned to the U.S. with her third husband, Austrian baron Joseph von und zu Franckenstein, to defeat a McCarthyite witchhunt branding them traitors. Boyle, living in the San Francisco area, emerged in the '60s as a writer of social conscience, fighting racism, militarism and the Vietnam war, but in her politics, as in her self-dramatizing fiction, she was "heroine of her own life," notes Mellen ( The Waves at Genji's Door ). An antifeminist who deemed the women's movement too narrow, she bore six children, viewing procreation as "a woman's natural destiny." Although Boyle was then forced to write for money, subverting her talent, Mellen makes a plausible case that her finest work, in particular her short stories, should be revived. - Publishers Weekly             

Driven by a mother who insisted she become a creative artist, prolific short story writer, poet, and novelist Boyle (1902-92) began writing at age five and never quit. A fascinating woman who lived on her own terms, Boyle was married three times, lived abroad for an extended period, authored more than 30 books, mothered six children, and became a social activist. Her literary fame reached is peak in the late 1930s, when, writing short stories for The New Yorker, she was hailed as one of the greatest of contemporary writers. Mellen (English, Temple Univ.) shows how after this point the sociopolitical climate of postwar America contributed to Boyle's decline as a writer, but she also makes it clear that Boyle squandered her talent by writing pulp for the mass market. Mellen emphasizes Boyle's life rather than her work, complementing the literary analysis in Sandra Spanier's Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist (Southern Illinois Univ. Pr., 1986). This thorough and at times damning study is recommended for public libraries. - Ellen Finnie Duranceau


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