I am in love with Willa Cather, it turns out. Earlier in the year I read A Lost Lady and adored it, then a week or so ago I read The Professor’s House and was completely blown away by its brilliance. This past week I read My Antonia, which was beautiful and redemptive but suffered a little in comparison with those later, more sophisticated novels. I still thought it was a wonderful book. I’m working my way through as many of Cather’s writings as I can get my hands on, and I went to the university library last week and found a chunkster of a biography on her, to add to Hermione Lee’s apparently more literature-oriented account of her life.
The last time I felt this enthusiastic about an author’s work, the author was Colette, and there are nagging similarities between these writers even though their subject matter is ostensibly so different. In both cases landscape and circumstance are tremendously important to the way the narrative develops, whether it’s the Parisian demi-monde or the prairies of the New World. In both cases there are gentle but insistent preoccupations with women’s survival in a culture where their choices are few. And in both cases, the answer to the difficulties they encounter is a steadfast belief in women’s capacity for reinvention. We can see this at work in A Lost Lady and My Antonia, novels with very similar structures. The heroines, Marian Forrester and Antonia Shimerda, both suffer severe reversals of fortune and, since they are being judged through the eyes of idealistic male narrators, come in for some harsh criticism. In petulant frustration, Niel Herbert and Jim Burden both rush off to follow their own ascending career stars, but the magnetic pull of the homeland always brings them back, and their fascination with these women leads them to track down the next instalment of their stories. Marian and Antonia have both successfully pulled themselves up by their bootstrings and found ways to continue with the kind of life they longed for. Quite how they managed this cumbersome struggle is left delicately to one side, and the results are a little mixed and ambivalent, particularly in Marian’s case. But then, her narrator, Niel Herbert, is less able to forgive the cause of his disillusionment, whereas Jim Burden’s sunny disposition allows him to enter wholeheartedly into Antonia’s new life. In any case, women survive quite well and independently, Cather assures us, even though men may assume that they will fall to pieces once their admiring gaze is withdrawn.
Cather is also intrigued by the ebb and flow of energy across a life – how the good times are marked by surges of power and competency, and the bad times are marked by lethargy and sloth. Creative work, be it growing things or study (here the women tend to grow things – children, social networks, crops – and the men study) is the basis of mental health and physical wellbeing. But this never solidifies into a rigid prescription for life. Cather almost always takes the long view with her characters and follows them over extended periods of their lives; eras of triumph and disaster come and go, just as there will be good harvests and poor ones. Progress and nature exist in a slightly disharmonious partnership in the world, progress pulling us forward inexorably, whether we like it or not, nature reminding us how cyclical our patterns are, regardless of how we experience them. Our lives can feel (and Cather’s children often feel this) locked in an eternal, unchanging present, but they are fundamentally discontinuous. Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.
Where I think Cather is particularly brilliant is in her use of the frame. It’s a splendid device to have her heroines framed by the witnessing gaze of young male narrators, boys who are more than half in love with her pioneering women, but aware they can never possess them in the conventional way of marriage; our view of these women is enriched because we can see the emotions that distort their narrative image and must decide whether to agree with those male perspectives or not. And then My Antonia is essentially a narrative of interpolated stories, with each character either telling a story or embodying a story of how it was to live in the extreme conditions of the Western frontier. These vignettes are both legendary and yet real – they represent the indomitable human spirit in a series of variations, and they are also tales of individual hardship and survival. In a very gently plotted novel like My Antonia, they offer a mosaic of diversionary interest and a sort of ongoing education of the reader as to what possibilities there are for people in this very particular time and place.
In The Professor’s House this use of the frame becomes more sophisticated: the story of the Professor, who has just finished his life’s work and is suffering one of those still, dormant phrases, is used to frame the narrative of his favourite student, Tom Outland. Yet Outland’s story is not exactly what we expect, and the relationship between what happens to Tom and what happens to the Professor is not immediately obvious, although the frame insists that the two are linked. Cather is very brave here to include such an obviously significant but thematically different story and it makes the reader think very deeply indeed about the story of the professor that surrounds it. It’s a piece of formal experimentation on a par with Colette’s mischievous subversion of narrative authority when she was writing fictional autobiographies and autobiographical fictions. Cather and Colette were both literary pioneers in their way, and fascinated by people who refused to bow down to conventions or follow the stories dictated by their culture. They encouraged the reader to be brave in all sorts of ways, and I love that about them.