Friday, December 18, 2009

Willa Cather--My Antonia (1918) Part 1This is a real good one. If one is the type with whom reading carries some influence, and is suicidal or even just in an advanced state of despair about all aspects of existence, I would especially recommend it to him. This is as genuinely optimistic, as attuned to the rhythms of life, of people, of societies, as anything I have read in the last five years. I was completely taken in by its interpretation of the various phenomena it is concerned with. I would rate it as one of my ten favorites, maybe even one of my five favorites, of all American novels. If we lived in a country where a sense of such an idea as a national literature held a more prominent place in day to day life I would think it ought to be part of the collective memory of the educated portion of it at least (that's the country with 40+ million university graduates where Twilight novels comprise 16% of all book sales in the first quarter of this year. I don't like going off on Harold Bloomesque denunciations of the general public's infantilism, but that is really a sad statistic). This book is largely about the creation of the nation and citizenry that emerged around the turn of the twentieth century, of which the demographic that is depicted here often seems on the whole an awful lot stronger and surer of itself, not to mention more hopeful, than that which has succeeded them in the 21st. It has a lot in common actually with the Little House on the Prairie books; both convey a similar sense of exhiliration as something both widespread and frequently experienced--afforded, I presume, by the equally frequent, though never constant hardship that also accompanies pioneer life. I don't imagine I would have cared much for that sort of life myself, though most things of this sort are easier borne if you happen to be born into them. And I don't think I could dispute that I would be any worse of a person overall, body and spirit and mind, if I had had this upbringing, than I have turned out with the one I got.

Among other things, this book has helped immensely to shore up my faith, which had been waning I must admit, in the novel as a valuable human activity. For the recording of memory and human experience in all its most glorious minutiae it is perhaps the form that has been the best developed and most fruitfully employed, and I think this is pretty important; at any rate when done skillfully it is one of the things I derive most enjoyment from. One of the reasons for literature's being devalued is language's being devalued, or, what I suspect, people's unconsciousness of language's importance and possibilities. For the typical modern American, spoken and written English are so ubiquitous, expressions and speech patterns so standardized, that these possibilities, even language itself, are taken for granted. He fails to trace his unhappiness and frustration with life to his inadequate mastery of it; or perhaps it is only me who does this: for plenty of contemporary people have a very good and often delightful mastery of speech, writing, or, in some cases, both, and while many of these people perhaps consider themselves unhappy I don't see how they could be compared to a person who can't write or talk or think anything that is interesting. What is any human pain compared to that?

I think moving forward in my literary career I am probably going to have to ditch any idea of working in shorter mediums, or even writing shorter novels. I am too fond of my digressions and descriptive passages and lingering over my characters until the last possible moment. I think the form I should really concentrate on is the multivolume superwork published in 10-12 somewhat short novels over a 20 year period, in the tradition of Proust, of Powell, of Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, which is a book I am reading currently that is almost nothing but a recording of impressions, of snippets of conversations, of representative days chosen out of hundreds exactly the same, of views out windows and bus rides and feelings while smoking cigarettes. Almost nothing conventionally interesting ever happens in these books, but I find myself liking them a lot. Indeed, the author in many ways relates to the world and other people in a similar manner to myself, not that that is a compliment to her apart from her ability to write effectively about it. I would think myself to be more than usually well-suited to this kind of undertaking in other ways as well. I have literally nothing better to do with my time. I am patient almost to the point of absurdity. My familiarity with the peculiar characteristics and needs of the form as opposed to other literary options I think are pretty good. Since nothing ever happens to me, it seems likely I will live the 20-25 years necessary to see the project through to completion. Unlike poetry or the short story, the multivolume novel actually appears to favor people who never had much sex, either in quantity or with a much varied, let alone dizzying, array of partners (people who don't have much sex in their teens and early twenties have to burn off enormous amounts of energy, which many do by wandering about and observing minute details about all manner of things, for which knowledge one of the few uses is to stuff 3,000 page novel sequences with). In each of the books mentioned above the main character is always the author's self, and the vast majority of the volumes focus on the period of the author's youth and early adulthood up to 35-40 or so, with perhaps the final 1 and a half volumes (in Powell by far the weakest ones in the whole series) bringing the author into what is usually a modestly but not spectacularly successful middle age, which also sounds to be right in the range of my writerly strengths. It also appears one does not have to coneive of the whole saga before beginning. The first volume of Powell was published in 1951, while the last is clearly intended to be set in the hippie/free love era of the late 60s. Likewise Proust began writing his series of books in 1905, and much of the last volume is set during World War I. Getting the style and tone just right from the beginning in this kind of undertaking is everything of course. One must create an interest out of nothing, in a way. I think I could do that, with as much expanse as this form allows, by the fairly reasonable standard of the pre-internet age, though I accept now that that counts for little in the time in which we actually live.

In case you are wondering why I have two copies of My Antonia, my wife decided after we got to Florida that she should like me to recommend a book for her to read there, and I suggested this one; but not having anticipated to bring the copy we already had, we had to buy a second for the beach.

Well, with regard to the actual book, what can I say. We know from the very first paragraph, as the train from the east rolls across miles of wheat fields, that we are in classic America, before the landscape and everything else was ruined by sprawl (there were people denouncing the ravaging of the landscape by settlement, industry, railroads, etc, before 1945, but most writers, including me, seem to attribute the major damage to the national soul to have been inflicted in the developments since that time). The life years of the children in this story are approximately those of my great-great grandparents, of none of whom anybody I ever knew remembered anything; so it is in human terms getting to be kind of a long time ago.

p. 27--"All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autumn." I still have similar feelings of my own about the first autumn I was in Portland (Me), back in 1986. Nothing of great moment actually occurred, but for a sixteen year old who was really not progressing in any direction where he was the sense of having escaped, and to a beautiful, in certain ways civilized city with a history and civic spirit, where he was able once more to feel possibilities to exist for himself, made for a very intensely lived couple of months. Many times I have started novels or long stories about this general period, though none have come off right and all have been quickly abandoned. In the last few years, with the aid of my wife and other sober, clear-viewed adults, I have also come to see that the place of my imagination was far grander than the actual place ever was, and to temper some of the more extravagant sentiments I had cultivated. Still, the effect of the original impressions remains a powerful, and on the whole benign force in my life, and I still think there is a story of some kind in it.

Folksy anecdotes: I can't include them all. I liked the story about the Mormons scattering the sunflower seeds on their route across the plains so that the next summer their followers would know the way they had taken.

p. 28 "Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons." These are such simple sentiments and images, but I think they are so beautiful. Think not that these pioneers were wholly depraved and evil people.

p. 30 "Russia seemed to me more remote than any other country--farther away than China, almost as far as the North Pole." To me Russia always seemed much farther than the North Pole. Half of the Arctic Ocean, at least, was ours--well, Canada's, but, you know what I mean. Russia was absolutely forbidden and foreboding territory to my childish mind, that if one were to be somehow dropped into the midst of it it would be impossible to get out of, and you would be captured and tormented and generally made very unhappy forever. This is how I used to feel about all the countries in the Soviet sphere when I was eight. I was totally afraid of them.

Reading this book the physical and temperamental differences between individuals before mass culture began forming everyone more or less from a similar cast is especially striking. The impression is that people are by nature intended to be more unique in contrast with other humans than we give them credit for being.

It is indicated that back in the day immigrants to the U.S. were allowed to bring certain kinds of guns, especially for hunting, with them from the old country. I am guessing this is not still the case today.

Not My Picture. Willa Cather once resided in this building "in the east Village near the West 4th st stop" (as did Richard Wright 33 years or so later). This does look like it would be a pretty awesome street to live and smoke cigarettes and hang out in the window and do writing on. Yeah, man. Yeah.

I'm beat, man. I'll try again in a few days. Between Christmas and everybody being out of school for two weeks, this means no writing time whatsoever until I've already been up for 14 hours and am exhausted. Maybe I get 1 post in this week and 1 next. I know I just need to go to bed early and get up at 3am and be one of those kinds of writers doing a strict daily quota from 3 to 6, and success will be inevitable. I think I might be one of those people who is actually afraid of success, though. It doesn't fit in with my long-developed persona. I mean, you want to talk about a guy being out of his comfort zone? That's the prospect of me enjoying success.

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