After much anticipation, it is finally Virago Reading Week hosted by the delightful Rachel and the lovely Carolyn, two of my favourite bloggers even when they’re not giving me reason to discover new books and explore the offerings of a publisher who, until now, had rather intimidated me. I’m not sure where this sense of intimidation came from – really, with a catalogue as large as Virago’s there’s something for everyone – but until now all the Virago Modern Classics I’ve picked up have been incredibly depressing. For me, this week is all about banishing those negative associations so I’ve started with a very approachable book and one that has been on my To Be Read list for – and this is a terrifying thought – a decade: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather.
The Song of the Lark details the life of Thea Kronborg from her beginnings in a large Scandinavian-American family in a small town on the Colorado prairie to her eventual glory twenty years later at the Metropolitan Opera House. But it is less a tale of her career development as an opera diva than a coming of age story, detailing how Thea both discovers and then comes to train and understand her musical gift:
The growth of an artist is an intellectual and spiritual development which can scarcely be followed in a personal narrative. This story attempts to deal only with the simple and concrete beginnings which color and accent an artist’s work, and to give some account of how a Moonstone girl found her way out of a vague, easy-going world into a life of disciplined endeavor. Any account of the loyalty of young hearts to some exalted ideal, and the passion with which they strive, will always, in some of us, rekindle generous emotions. (p. 397)
I’m struggling to find the words to describe this novel. It is primarily a novel about desire and about devotion to one’s art. A devotion that drives everything else and also excludes everything else. It is a magnificent, noble emotion, the natural but all too rare result of desire. For Thea, it is everything, an all-consuming passion that is hinted at in her childhood by an extraordinary, insightful music teacher but not fulfilled for another ten years until she comes to know herself:
‘Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires. The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing – desire. And before it, when it is big, all is little.’ (p.68)
A less subtle writer than Cather could have made this a very narrow, very trite novel about the value of hard work in making dreams come true. Cather, however, rises about such mundane considerations, describing the spiritual awakening of an artist discovering her calling. Thea is neither forceful or dominant but rather quietly focused and determined. She is intelligent and serious, remarkable enough to find a kindred spirit in the town’s stifled doctor, Dr. Archie, who has known, loved, and encouraged her since childhood and, as a young woman, to attract the energetic Fred Ottenburg who loves and guides her to both acknowledge and fully develop her talents. But though these men – and others, primarily music teachers – help Thea along the way it is she who devotes herself to her art, she who makes the sacrifices necessary to become a great artist. This is not a Pygmalion story, of men molding a perfect woman as they think she should be, but a tale of a woman who takes on almost god-like significance to the men who revere her and worship at her feet. I was particularly interested by the secondary, almost servile role men play in Thea’s life, always adoring supporters who respect her art and encourage her without demanding or expecting anything in return. Even Fred is more eager to give than to receive: his primary interest is in Thea the artist rather than Thea the lover. As a aficionado of the opera perhaps he knew long before Thea what it meant to be a true artist, knew before her what kind of relationships she might be able to sustain when her whole being was devoted to aesthetic perfection:
Your work becomes your personal life. You are not much good until it does. It’s like being woven into a big web. You can’t pull away, because all your little tendrils are woven into the picture. It takes you up, and uses you, and spins you out; and that is your life. Not much else can happen to you. (p. 378)
Is it worth it? Even for true musicians life Thea, are such sacrifices – so emotionally draining, so destructive to any hopes of a personal life – ever worthwhile? The final section and then the epilogue attempted to answer this question with muddled results. The epilogue seems to contradict everything we’ve learned in the three main volumes of the novel. Things were tied up too neatly, an attempt to give Thea a conventional happy ending completely at odds with all that she stands for. It was a “have your cake and eat it too” ending, guaranteed to make some readers smile while the others wonder what just happened.
I suppose, as with any of Cather’s Prairie novels, it is necessary to discuss her passionate descriptions of the landscapes that so influence her characters. Indeed, Thea’s pivotal maturation and self-discovery take place in a great and desolate desert, a location as grand and majestic as the score of any opera. I know I’m missing something from Cather’s novels by not enjoying these descriptive passages but I can’t bring myself to care about physical surroundings when there are characters to be discussed. I am particularly apathetic about prairies and deserts, which are of course where Cather’s novels are set, so her lyricism is wasted on me. Cather’s fascination with and respect for the native tribes of the region and Mexican immigrants would also probably be of interest to a more socially conscious reader but I was reading primarily for the story of Thea the artist, not the historical significance of how minority groups were portrayed. I’m sure those who are concerned by such things would be intrigued to see how Cather approached those groups and her characters from them.
I loved both O, Pioneers! and My Ántonia, the two other novels that make up her “Prairie Trilogy”, but I think The Song of the Lark might be my favourite of the three. Cather’s honest and passionate treatment of artistic devotion is both fascinating and humbling, a reminder of the author’s own life as this is generally described as her most autobiographical novel.