on the dangers of reading too often

February 3, 2014

Grad school is a period of extended adolescence. One’s future is up in the air, and one is largely dependent on others, especially creditors. Unlike adolescents, however, grad students often lead very sedentary lives. farmerThey burrow into libraries amongst musty aisles of books. And they stoop over their reading and stuff their faces with flaky croissants and stain pages of books with inkblots of coffee. Sure, the cloistered life of learning has its advantages, but physical activity isn’t one of them. In One of Ours, many contrasts are in play: urban/rural, individual/group, and reason/faith, among others. But my favorite contrast hands down, and the one that makes me chuckle at all hours of the day, whenever I think of it, is the contrast between the life of the body, say, farming, and the life of the mind. Of a young man who intends to be a professor, Claude’s muscular and sun-burned neighbor drily asks, “What’s the matter with him? Does he have poor health?”

Postscript. In related Bay Area news, here’s a tribute to a “crusty old farmer who had a dream.” I have something approaching love for him.

Ghost in Search of a Machine

February 1, 2014

One of Ours is a 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Willa Cather. Like a Quentin Tarantino Film, the story starts in one genre but ends in another. No, I was never a big fan of From Dusk Till Dawn. So it’s no surprise that One of Ours leaves me dissatisfied.

Books I through III are set on the prairie of Nebraska. We follow the growth and development of Claude, who searches for something fine and splendid in life, as he navigates the crass materialism of his dad and the foolish piousness of his mom. The prairie sections of the novel are quite lovely. Even the creek bears witness to it.

“The sun popped up over the edge of the prairie like a broad, smiling face; the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly, timbered windings of Lovely Creek…”

But when Claude journeys to France to fight in World War I, Cather’s bildungsroman morphs into an uninspired war novel. It’s as though the narrator, at first totally enthralled by Claude and the comforts and pleasures (and difficulties) of country boyhood, abruptly loses interest in her host and breaks free from the skull of Claude’s experience. In books IV and V, a homunculus is on the loose, one that’s gallivanting about, fascinated by cheese and architecture, and by the abstract joys of military life, of marching together, of living and dying together.

Problem is, an Odysseus who leaves home in search of an ideal is only as interesting as the inner experience that propels him. And this experience is largely ignored once Cather’s narrative gaze looks beyond the green alfalfa and “shattered grain” of Nebraska.

No wonder I’m homesick for the Midwest.

wherein life trembles like a tuning fork

October 8, 2013

Of time and the river, not the novel by Thomas Wolfe, rather the image and symbol in Lucy Gayheart. I’ve returned to Cather again, always Cather. Of time and the river in Gayheart, we can say this. It cuts a path in the earth. Youth finds itself on one bank, and the aging find themselves on the other. As water surges and passes, so all things, too, pass—strength, ardor, hope. Because youth is innocent of the river’s shifting currents and ice holethe ocean into which it eventually feeds, life “trembles like a tuning fork with unimaginable possibilities.” In the opening scenes of Gayheart, Lucy is skating on a frozen river as though she’s preparing for flight into the adventuresome unknown. Note her slender crimson wings; note them well, for they’ll return by story’s end. Lucy does indeed take off from that frozen tarmac in Nebraska. She leaves Haverford, the parochial town of her youth, and lands in Chicago to study music where she falls in love, of the youthful passionate variety, with an older man, a good and decent man, and a famous classical vocalist, too. Sebastian shares the same passion for art and music. Lucy is on one side of the river and Sebastian is on the other. Very briefly they bridge the gap, but it doesn’t last long. The famous vocalist leaves for Europe where he’s in high demand for a lengthy tour. Lucy returns to Haverford, depressed, alone, and misunderstood. Gossip swirls around her dubious tryst in Chicago. In a bout anger and frustration, she sets off for the Platte River with her ice skates, not knowing the river had changed its bed the prior spring and is no longer safe. She laces up and sets out on the river, and then it happens, the ice cracks, Lucy slips into the water up to her waist. The cracked sheet of ice she’s holding on to tips gently and lowers her into the river. Worried, her dad sets off with a neighbor for the Platte, and from the bank of the river, in the gathering darkness, they spy a red scarf on rotten broken ice, Lucy’s crumpled wings. She is drowned.

flight before the fall

October 3, 2013

Admirers of Cather’s prose appreciate her gift for fusing realism and imagery to convey keen observations of the natural world and create powerful symbols. Of all of the vivid images in Lucy Gayheart, I want to draw your attention to one, as though to say, Hey look, check it out, gayheartbefore it flits away and is gone. Follow my cinematographic lens, starting as it does at tree line near the shore of the Platte River, covered with ice and a dusting of snow. Climb above the trees, steadily, and climb higher still above the Platte, and see, down below, six skaters pumping their legs into the wind. A brief aerial turn and now descend toward the two who lead the pack, a young man and a young woman, late teens, surrounded by a cold, gray expanse. Zero in on the young woman. Lucy wears a “brown squirrel jacket and fur cap…, and two ends of a long crimson scarf [are] floating behind her, like two slender crimson wings.” Here the animal imagery of a squirrel pelt and fur cap is a really nice touch, suggesting that Lucy is part and parcel of nature, and the slender red wings hint at longing, passion, imagination, and the desire to be elsewhere. It’s a fine image, and because migrations are dangerous affairs, who doesn’t want to follow Lucy closely and learn how she fares?

Postscript. Really, I’m just shoehorning this in because I like the sound of it, “On she came, past hedges and lilac bushes and woolly-green grape arbours and rows of jonquils, and one knew she was delighted with everything…, with the air and the sun and the blossoming world.”

walking swiftly with intense direction like a bird flying home

October 1, 2013

Between Cather and Wharton, I’m a hopelessly divided man. And although I hail from a Mormon polygamist family, and should have no trouble marrying both, I don’t know how to apportion my loyalties. But if I had to choose a first wife—a privileged one—I would choose the windswept and prairie-scented Cather. She’s lovable catherbeyond measure. Have you heard of Lucy Gayheart? I hadn’t. Not until recently. And for an admirer of Cather’s prose, who aspires to more than a passing knowledge of her work, that’s downright embarrassing. The very existence of the Gayheart caught me by surprise. Like learning your spouse of 25 years is a classical pianist. I found a used copy for 50 cents, and good lord am I happy for the discovery! Is it possible that Gayheart is more impressive than The Professor’s House? More tragic than A Lost Lady and grander than My Antonia? So many things to say about this fine novel. I don’t know where to start. No, wait, I do: with nature. If Cather is prairie-swept, Lucy is spring incarnate. Although we first meet Lucy ice skating on the Platte River in winter, she is an elemental force of spring. Always in motion, she is “dancing or skating, or walking swiftly with intense direction like a bird flying home.” Lucy embodies additional qualities of spring, too. She’s sweet, charming, fresh, beautiful and full of irrepressible joy. Her eyes “flash gold sparks like Colorado stone.” That’s a nice touch. And her cheeks are like “the red of dark peonies, deep and velvety.” But as with all things that flourish in spring, another season is in the offing just waiting to lay it bare. So I’ll say something more about Lucy’s fate in the next post. Hint: of time and the river. Ah, yes, the river, the opening and closing scenes…

Postscript. My beloved grandmother, dead now for many years, and who bore an uncanny resemblance to Willa Cather, a very plain, sturdy and highly approachable face, was the second wife in the celestial marriage of my grandfather Clyde. She was not the preferred wife, judging by my grandfather’s journals, a strange and curious read.