The Novels of Willa Cather

If someone is unfamiliar with the novels of Willa Cather, AS Byatt has written an interesting article about them, titled American Pastorial, of which I quote the last part:

In her 50s Cather published three novels which are often called tragedies – A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor’s House (1925) and My Mortal Enemy (1926). Both A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House are tragic in the sense that they present the slow process described in the Book of Ecclesiastes:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them … when the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.

Both novels present a vision of the youth and strength of the early European explorers and settlers of north America as a kind of primeval Eden, full of light and life, which has fallen away into vulgarity, real estate, ugly urban life. The decay of the pioneering vision of the land goes with the ageing of the central characters. In A Lost Lady the young male narrator idealises Marian Forrester, the beautiful and generous wife of a railway pioneer who loses his fortune compensating his shareholders in a market crash. She degenerates, taking lovers, drinking, becoming shoddy and shabby, and even becomes the mistress of the snake in the garden, the evil Ivy Peters, who is first seen putting out the eyes of a woodpecker for fun. Desire fails, both in narrator and his beloved, and is replaced by world-weariness.

I sometimes think The Professor’s House is Cather’s masterpiece. It is almost perfectly constructed, peculiarly moving, and completely original. It is the story of Godfrey St Peter, a successful professor whose great work has been a history of “Spanish Adventurers in North America”. The adventurers are related to the railway pioneers in A Lost Lady – Cather herself compares both to the crusaders, brave men with a vision. In an early essay (1896) on “The Kingdom of Art” the young Cather had compared the daring artist also to the crusaders, who suffered and died in the burning deserts, and found no paradise – “only death and the truth”. St Peter is happily married, with two daughters. He lives near the shore of Lake Michigan. The novel is the tale of his experience of the failure of desire. There are two “houses” – a brand-new one, purchased with the prize-money he won for his masterpiece, into which he is expected to move, and the old house, where he persists in working in his old study, which doubles as a sewing-room, and is inhabited by two dressmakers’ “forms” – one made of “a dead opaque, lumpy solidity, like chunks of putty or tightly packed sawdust”, one in wire, with no legs, no viscera, and a bosom like a bird-cage. They are household gods, turned to lifeless yet threatening idols.

At this point I must emphasise the other side of Cather, the teller of tales about great journeys, hard endeavours, single-mindedness. She can describe domestic comforts, the minutiae of pots, pans, food, so as to make them glittering and strange, as though seen for the first time. She wrote perceptively about Katherine Mansfield and her great gift for showing the simultaneous beauty and terror of group life, domestic life. She studies French domestic subtleties, tended by women, or by priests, in alien American landscapes, hot New Mexico, cold Quebec. She believes passionately in civilisation, as Virgil saw it, as the Dutch painters recorded it in their domestic interiors. In the essay on Mansfield she describes human relationships as “the tragic necessity of human life; they can never be wholly satisfactory, every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them”.

The professor has sought them, and is now pulling away from them.

The triumph of the novel is the story inserted into it. “Tom Outland’s Story” is the tale of a brilliant young man, who later became the professor’s student, made a scientific discovery of a gas that left him rich, and died in the first world war, before he could marry St Peters’s daughter, to whom he left his patents.

In the inserted story he explores a mesa in New Mexico, working as a cattle driver. The golden silence of New Mexico, the thin air of the heights, the riding and work, are the equivalent in this novel of the grey seas glimpsed through the window in a Dutch painting. In it Outland discovers “a little city of stone, asleep”. “I knew at once that I had come upon the city of some extinct civilisation, hidden away in this inaccessible mesa for centuries, preserved in the dry air and almost perpetual sunlight like a fly in amber.”

Cather said she wanted to juxtapose the stone city, the “fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa” with “Professor St Peter’s house, rather over-crowded and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes furs, petty ambitions, quivering jealousies”. The young man, Outland, on the uninhabited mesa feels pure energy. “Nothing tired me. Up there, alone, a close neighbour to the sun, I seemed to get the solar energy in some direct way.” Cather describes the sun, the rock, the jars made by the vanished people, the mysterious body of a woman, violently killed, so that each detail is unforgettable. Then she returns us to St Peter, in danger of dying from escaping house-gas on his lumpy sofa, thinking grimly of Longfellow’s translation of an Anglo-Saxon poem about a third kind of house.

For thee a house was built
Ere thou wast born;
For thee a mould was made
Ere thou of woman camest.

He is reminded by his sagging sofa of “the sham upholstery that is put in coffins”.

“Just the equivocal American way of dealing with serious facts, he reflected. Why pretend that it is possible to soften that last hard bed.” He thinks he would rather be alone in the grave than with his wife – whom he loves. “He thought of eternal solitude with gratefulness, as a release from every obligation, from every form of effort. It was the Truth.”

No one has written better about the pull of solitude. Most novels are about human relations. This one is about the desire to be released from them. Nietzsche thought a “strong pessimism” was what human beings needed. It is paradoxically invigorating.

My Mortal Enemy is a real tragedy, constructed out of a real romance – the story of a rich and determined young woman, who ran away with a penniless lover, seen through the eyes of a much younger woman narrator. This story too is of the failing of desire – a failing so complete that the “heroine” comes to refer to her loving and patient husband as “my mortal enemy”. The word mortal here is of course, completely double. A mortal enemy is a determined destroyer. A mortal enemy is simply a mortal man. The book is brief, and at first I liked it less than some of the apparently stranger and more complicated ones. But the writer in me thinks about it now almost more than about any other. In it Cather has completely achieved her aim of telling by showing, and showing by making an arrested, mysterious image. Nellie Birdseye, the narrator is a good observer of things and expressions, pleasant and unpleasant, about the not-entirely romantic Myra. Each brief, glancing episode is a perfect revelation of something new and unexpected. It is still and violent. Not one word is wasted or redundant. It is distant and at the same time unbearably moving. The writer knows completely the tale she is telling, its beginning and its end.

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