Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Antonia--Part 3

Book II, Chap. XII "One dream I dreamed many times, and it was always the same." Wasn't this line in the movie Risky Business? The dream was about Lena Lingard, incidentally.

Chap XIII. The narrator gives the oration at high school graduation and the pretty immigrant girls stop him on the street and say kind things about it. One embraces him with genuine emotion. "I have no success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one." That is an honest sentence. It's not cool to have many feelings, especially warm ones, towards people one grew up and went to high school with--the necessity of moving on and all that. In a way I am sympathetic to the susceptibility to strong and sweet emotions which one has in those years, but there is also the case to be made, and which is made by most of the top people in all societies, that succumbing to such emotions distracts at least intellectually promising youths from developing properly, part of which proper development consists of mastering all manner of weak and unmanly attitudes and sentiments such as continually molest one in the teenage years.

I wrote a largely incoherent note about this being one of the most detailed depictions of the nature of the United States in literature that I have read, though I will add, that I have not read a lot in that vein. The sense of the winter, the bees, the flowers, is very easily and unobtrusively done. There is no great trick in the writing, the author seems to be just marking down what she has seen, it is just that she has seen more and seen better, and in a more seemingly natural way, than is usual.

Book 3, Chap I. We are now at the University of Nebraska. The narrator has for a mentor "a brilliant and inspiring young scholar...Gaston Cleric" who "introduced me to the world of ideas". This is a common passage in books generally, but always pleasant and comforting to be reminded of.

Chap II. Those immigrant girls don't stray far from his mind though. "It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry." To be honest, this is really a pretty middling insight. What works is that the setup, the setting, the backstory, the general movement of society at the particular time, prepares you to feel something of the exhiliration that would have incited this particular chacracter to say and feel this.

Book 3 was short. Already we go to Book 4, and Chap II of that. This chapter begins with a rather extraordinary paragraph about the youth's returning to the old town either just after college, or perhaps a few years out, and being inspired by all the development, industry, taming of the land, civilization, and so on. "The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea." This was to be the purest distillation of the contrast between what goes on in the minds of a people or a nation in its youth, and that when it is hitting or perhaps starting to move a little past midlife, as the descendants of the kind of people depicted in this book are doing now. It is this genuine, totally unself-conscious, totally unstraining affection for the other members of the community, and belief in their abilities, not to mention of the common civilization, that is so jolting to the contemporary reader. There is a tone, a generosity of spirit in this that, while I won't say people don't have it now, it isn't something they seem readily eager, or even able, to show, in writing or otherwise.

This was the book I was thinking of when I wrote in a previous post about relentless sexual pressure on young, attractive women being a fact of life. This is one of those cold truths about life that grows bigger and bigger to me as I get older and realize more and more what kinds of things other people have done in their lives. Since I haven't done much in my own life in any way, getting some kind of grasp on these sorts of things and understanding their place, proper and improper, in the world, is one of the main issues I am dealing with at this time in trying to go forward with my writing, or really, anything else of an intelligent nature. A very thorough alternative intelligence can cover for the lack of a seducing nature well enough in most artistic areas to salvage something, I suppose, although the level of it that is needed to do so is a lot higher than I had allowed myself to believe.

Is this the best book ever written that is set in Nebraska? I am inclined to think so.

Oddly, I haven't written anything or made many notes about the character of Antonia, who is supposed to be the center of the whole story. She never quite emerged for me as the supreme person she is depicted as being any more than Lena Lingard, who had a much smaller part in the story, did. Among other things, Antonia always came across in print as just a little too sturdy and robust. I even like sturdy and robust to a degree, but she went a little past that degree.

Book 5, Chap I. "There wasn't a tree here when we first came. We planted every one, and used to carry water for them, too--after we'd been working in the fields all day." My wife is fond of planting trees, and then, after a year of two of their getting bigger, of deciding she doesn't like them where they are and transplanting them. All this requires my assistance. The project delineated in the story sounds like hard work to be dreaded to me, though I am sure it is nothing to most people.

Chap II. Antonia's husband "was still...a city man. He liked theatres and lighted streets and music...He liked to live day by day and night by night, sharing in the excitement of the crowd. --Yet his wife had managed to hold him here on a farm, in one of the loneliest countries in the world." This almost sounds like me. Except nobody takes me for a city person, let alone a cosmopolitan who really should be living in Paris. That would be way too flattering an impression to hold of me. I did once have somebody inquire of one of my acquaintance if I were like Forrest Gump or someone like that (i.e., retarded).

I got the feeling at the end of this book that I was really leaving the particular world in it forever. I probably won't ever read it again, and I doubt very much that my reading will ever bring me back to Nebraska circa 1890 the way I can always count on returning to Edwardian London or some manor house in the 18th century English countryside. It was a little sad.

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