Francis Silver by Hal Porter, 1962
by Hal Porter, 1962
It is difficult to avoid questions of autobiography in Hal Porter's short fiction. Many of his stories are told in the first-person voice and can be traced to incidents in his life experience, whether they are set in his native state of Victoria, Australia, or in places where he has lived or visited, including Rome, London, Athens, Tokyo, or Venice. In a typically mischievous comment Porter remarked in 1969 on his "lack of imagination," comparing his "reportage" to the activities of a "shoplifter" from his past. Nevertheless, he admitted to the techniques of an "illusionist," especially regarding written conversation in fiction: "The reader has to be tricked with a selection of words which look like what is supposed to be heard."
Porter's story "Francis Silver" was published in 1962 in the second of his volumes of short stories, A Bachelor's Children. Autobiographical accuracy is indicated by the many reported details of Porter's early life. A meticulous collector of the bric-abrac of furniture, songs, architecture, photographs, and idioms in his fiction, Porter felt that "an anachronism mars all." Important though such details are in his short fiction, however, they are not the heart of it.
"Francis Silver" is the story of a middle-aged man—the first-person narrator—whose mother died at the age of 41, when he was only 18 years old. The oldest of seven children, he is the one destined to carry on the memory of his mother and his mother's memories. Indeed, the story turns on the nature of memory, its fragility and its notorious unreliability. The emotional impact conveyed to the reader is of a young man who identifies deeply with his mother but for whom the father is a shadowy, insubstantial figure. The loss of the mother is a crisis for the young man, though it provokes no emotional deathbed scenes in the story. Rather, the story's focus is on a son's capacity to recall his mother's memories and to place them in his own life experience.
Who then is Francis Silver? He is the principal myth figure of the memories of the narrator's mother. Throughout childhood he is the invisible other in his mother's domestic life—the lover whom she left to marry the boy's placid father:
In marrying the country wooer, my father, and darning [his] socks, mother left the suburb for a country town set smack-flat on the wind-combed plans of Gippsland. She also left behind Francis Silver, whom she never saw again, at least not physically. He lived on, remarkably visible, in a special display-case of her memories.
In a separate album, among all the postcards of the prewar period of his mother's young womanhood, those of Francis Silver have "a sacred quality." To the eldest son Silver comes to represent all that his father is not. A picture framer with his own business, he is presented to the son as "artistic and sensitive":
He smoked Turkish cigarettes, did not drink, was popular with other sensitive young men, wore a gold ring with a ruby in it, was very proud of his small feet, and loved the theatre.
Francis Silver thus becomes a talisman of the boy's links with his mother. Silver's image emerges from the boy's hallowed world of domesticity that the mother has animated with her vivacious presence, making even the rituals of ironing the sheets a sacred event. Before she dies, the mother entrusts her son with the task of returning the album of postcards to their sender and of personally burning a lock of her hair in an envelope with Francis Silver's name on it.
Faithful to his mother's wishes, the son has carried out these tasks. What gives a special force to the concluding part of the tightly constructed story, with its artfully contrived flashbacks, is the scope its author leaves for both ironic reflection and feeling. The irony is evoked by the boy's firsthand observation of the myth figure from his childhood when he visits him at his shop. The real Francis Silver is short and fat, and he lisps. Moreover, he has totally forgotten the boy's mother. How can this person be his alternative father? The boy-man's confusion is patent: "Scraps of the past were blowing about my brain like the litter at the end of a perfect picnic." Disillusion is inevitable but is not dwelt upon, for the middle-aged narrator is able to give an ironic perspective to the boy's confrontation between myth and physical reality. Moreover, the rites of initiation have a further twist. The boy prepares to tell a saving lie to his father, for whom Francis Silver has been a necessary imaginative counterpart throughout his married life—the invisible, imagined rival. In the recognition that inventive lying is necessary, the narrator reconfirms that he is his mother's son.
In this perfectly proportioned story of a rite of passage, the conclusion returns us to the young man's moment of pain. Porter once remarked that he first thought of his conclusions and then wrote toward them. The concluding sentence in the story captures the narrator's momentary perception of the burning of his mother's envelope, with a lock of her hair, to Francis Silver: "It writhed and writhed in an agony I could not bear to watch." He has fulfilled her dying wish. Is he now his own man or forever hers?