Archive for the ‘Willa Cather’ Category

A few quick reviews from my less interesting reading encounters:

Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon (1901) – I loved Brewster’s Millions (despite its many quirks and frankly bizarre plot twists) so was determined to read more by McCutcheon.  When I learned he’d written a series of Ruritanian novels, starting with Graustark, it was clear where I would start.  I love a good Ruritanian romance.  However, it turns out this is not good.  It starts well enough, yes, with our young hero meeting a beautiful, mysterious girl on the train as they travel across America.  By the time they reach Washington, DC, he is in love but she must depart for home, a small European principality he has never heard of.  Naturally, it isn’t too long before he finds his way there and ridiculous adventures involving hidden identities, dastardly aristocrats, and national debt ensue.  The saving grace was our hero’s stalwart friend and travel companion, who provided a bit of levity and a merciful dose of common sense when everyone else lost theirs.  A ridiculous book – yet I’m still strangely tempted to try the next book in the series…

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923) – this novella by Cather was a lovely reminder of just what a beautiful writer she was.  As usual, her characters are a bit flat (particularly the lady at the center of the tale) but Cather’s passion for her setting – a small Western town of fading importance – and the simple elegance of her writing made this a pleasure to read.  That said, the memory of it is already fading from my mind, unlike her best works which remain vivid even years later.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (1972) – This is the first volume of L’Engle’s Crosswick Journals and, as usual, I approached them all out of order.  I read the last one first (Two-Part Invention – still one of my favourite bookish discoveries), then the third (The Summer of the Great-Grandmother), and now jumped back to the start.  The problem with that is that L’Engle rose to such heights with her later books that this first one can’t compare.  Those later books are deeply personal and she shares her memories and emotions in a way she probably hadn’t imagine when she wrote this first book.  This is an interesting look at her life and some of her thoughts, particularly around the communities she belongs to, but it lacks a compelling focus and I missed the sense of L’Engle herself that was so strong in the other books.  I still have An Irrational Season, the second book, left to read and will be interested to see how it compares to the others.

The Doctor’s Sweetheart and Other Stories by L.M. Montgomery (1979) – what a throw back to my childhood.  After I discovered Anne of Green Gables, I spent the next few years obsessively reading anything by or about Montgomery, including all the collections of her short stories.  This was one of many volumes that was put together drawing on pieces she’d had published in magazines (both before and after Anne, her breakthrough novel, was published), most of which had some sort of linking theme – here it is lovers who are parted.   I remembered them as repetitive and melodramatic, and was a bit embarrassed that anyone had wanted to draw attention to them by republishing them.  Twenty-two years later, that is still how I feel about them.  Well done ten-year old Claire for being such an astute literary judge.  From a scholarship point of view, this collection does have some interest – you can see Montgomery playing around with plots she would eventually use in her novels – but on their own they are best forgotten.

Salt-Water Moon by David French (1984) – part of a cycle of plays about the Mercers, a Newfoundland family, this focuses on the parents’ story, looking back to their youth.  It is just one-act, set on a moonlit summer night in 1926 when Jacob Mercer reappears in his small Newfoundland hometown a year after having left for Toronto.  He’s come to see Mary, his girl, and learn why she’s become engaged to the town schoolteacher.  Jacob is a chatty fellow and the two bicker back and forth all evening in enjoyable interplay.  By the end, of course, they have decided to face the future together, even though for Mary it might not be as practical as the future she had talked herself into with the hapless schoolteacher.  This wasn’t particularly special on its own but I’m intrigued enough to want to read more about the Mercers in French’s other plays.

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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.

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