Charlottesville, Va. -- This weekend Peter Taylor will do what he does best: tell a story.
His audience will get to hear it exactly the way the author "wrote" it: Since a stroke four years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer has been unable to use his right hand. Mr. Taylor, who once meticulously prepared 12 to 14 longhand drafts of each story, now composes and revises orally.
But that has not affected the quality of his work, which will be discussed this weekend in Baltimore at an Essex Community College-sponsored symposium. Mr. Taylor's most recently published story -- "The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs" -- is among his best.
Its magic is like that of being sequestered with a wonderful old storyteller, someone whose voice knows every trick in the book about holding a listener's ear -- a man, in fact, very much like the 73-year-old author himself.
"The pace of the stories is different now. Perhaps they are more fully developed, but I can't put my finger on it," says Mr. Taylor, whose "A Summons to Memphis" won the 1987 Pulitzer.
At first, he says, he was self-conscious about dictating his stories to a transcriber, "but then I began to enjoy it. I like having the company."
As a master of short fiction, the company Mr. Taylor keeps includes such names as Anton Chekhov, Henry James and Thomas Mann. And most critics rank him with Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty as one of the most important Southern writers since Faulkner.
"Like every writer I know, I'm in awe of his elegant prose and the directness and purity of his plots," says novelist Anne Tyler. "I honestly believe that a writing class could receive a complete education in the art of the short story simply by studying his work and no one else's."
Most of his stories -- his first was published before World War II -- are drawn from his own experience or the history of his family, one of the most prominent in Tennessee. Asked about his soon-to-be-published story, "The Fortune Teller of Stoneleigh Court" -- which he will read at the symposium -- Mr. Taylor tells one tale after another.
The story is about "a social-climbing aunt of mine who counted on living [at Stoneleigh Court in Washington]. When my uncle died after just one term in the [U.S.] Senate, she refused to go back to Nashville and stayed the rest of her life at that apartment building and became a fixture at the Congressional Women's Club."
Within moments, Mr. Taylor goes on to tell how his grandfather and great-uncle, each a former governor of Tennessee, ran against each other for the Senate; how their parents had "been heirs to divisiveness, for their mother had been a Confederate and their father a Union loyalist"; how his uncle Alf ran for governor of Tennessee as the first Republican since Reconstruction, and how his Aunt Bess, who had spoken out against him, got down on her knees to beg forgiveness, only to be told, "Some things can't be forgiven."
Such things can't be forgotten, so it's no wonder Mr. Taylor's stories concentrate on upper-class men and women of the middle South in the processes of courtship, child rearing and growing old. But if he is a historian of manners, social customs for him have a moral dimension.
"You can write about the misfortunes of the unfortunate to
somewhat less effect than about those who are well-born and have lots of money," he says. "That they should be unhappy seems outrageous and leads us to ask why. The answer is their common humanity -- exactly what they share with the rest of us."
His stories are usually told by narrators who recollect in tranquillity the events of a more passionate past. Always there is revelation -- for the reader if not the narrator -- and always there is a sense of loss. Southern writers are peculiarly well-equipped by the accidents of history to tell such tales.
"Recently I attended a conference on Southern fiction and saw Eudora Welty, Jim Dickey and Shelby Foote," Mr. Taylor says. "We all talked about how things used to be."
Mr. Taylor's prose is so elegant and well-behaved it sometimes is a shock to discover he writes about sex as much as (or more than) writers of randier reputation. There are no bedroom scenes, but sexual desire and the way it drives human behavior is powerfully present.
"You have to deal with it, it's what life's about much of the time," he says. As a writer dealing with change, he adds, it is only natural that he should be interested in sex and the rituals of courtship. "What has changed more than that in our lifetimes?" ++ he asks.