Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

My Antonia- Small People in the Large World

My Antonia, by Willa Cather, is partially set in the unique and rapidly disappearing phenomenon otherwise known as the Midwestern town.  The population is small; everyone knows everyone else (and likely their parents and even their most distant relatives- even those living far away that they have never even met).

Cather writes very convincingly about the closeness and the smallness of the small town.  Jim Burden grows up in rural Nebraska, first on his grandparents farm and then in town.  As a young man just ready to leave school he is restless, tired of the closed-in environment, the busy-body townspeople, the all pervasive boredom of living in one place with one cast of characters for too long.  He wanders the streets of the small town at night, looking (but rarely finding) amusement;

“These were the distractions I had to choose from [hanging with the local telegraph operator, the train station manager, or listen to the old men in the drug-store].  There were no other lights burning downtown after nine o’clock.  On starlight nights I used to pace up and down those long, cold streets, scowling at the little, sleeping houses on either side, with their storm-windows and covered back porches.  They were flimsy shelters, most of them poorly built of light wood, with spindle porch-posts horribly mutilated by the turning lathe.  Yet for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain!  The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip.  This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny.  People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed.  Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution.  The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their won kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark.  The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all”.

This smallness is merely an irritation to a young man like Jim, whose grandparents are old and respected citizens of the town.  It is more dangerous to others- especially the “hired girls”.  The “hired girls” are the daughters of the immigrant farmers who, to help make money for their families, move to the town to work as maids, waitresses, and shop assistants.  These girls were slightly outside of the town society.  More on them later.

Going Westward

As I am also going westward this weekend (although certainly not in an historic trans-Atlantic flight, like Beryl Markham) I chose my two favorite quotes from West with the Night.


The persistence of memories even in the face of reality- what you remember of your childhood, home, old friends, family, may  not have anything to do with reality;

“The Old Days, the Lost Days- in the half-closed eyes of memory (and in fact) they never marched across a calendar; they huddled around a burning log, leaned on a certain table, or listened to those certain songs”.


Ms. Markham gives a very accurate prediction of what will happen to aviation in the near future.  It can be extrapolated to extend to all technology- how it influences our lives, and how we lose old skills while learning new ones;

“One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills of the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life.  But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labeled buttons, and in whose minds knowledge of the sky and the wind and the ay of the weather will be extraneous as passing fiction.  And the days of the clipper ships will be recalled again- and people will wonder if clipper means ancients of the sea or ancients of the air”.

West with the Night

Beryl Markham writes a very lyrical, unconventional memoir.  She doesn’t give a linear narrative; I was born on this day here, and then went here, and then I did this, etc.  Instead she writes about being an aviator, then back to growing up on a farm in British East Africa, then becoming a horse trainer, then back to flying- ending her book, West with the Night, with a chapter on how she was the first person, man or woman, to fly solo from Europe to America (it had never been done before because the wind would blow against the plane the entire flight and many pilots were worried that the fuel tanks would run out before the plane reached a safe landing zone).

Ms. Markham claims a sort of unconscious provincialism, regarding her upbringing and early adult life;

“From the time I arrived in British East Africa at the indifferent age of four and went through the barefoot stage of early youth hunting wild pig with the Nanda, later training race-horses for a living, and still later scouting Tanganykia and the waterless bush country between the Tana and Athi Rivers by aeroplane, for elephant, I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss the boredom of being alive with an intelligence until I had gone to London and lived there a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic”.

I find it almost impossible to imagine that a woman who had done so much with her life, had several varied careers and lived a life of adventure among the leading adventurers of her day, could have considered her life boring!  But this is the charm of Ms. Markham.  She lays out her whole life as a series of happy accidents.  She worked very hard for everything she achieved, and recounts her story with a humility and grace that is both refreshing and appealing.

Five People Fall Off a Bridge

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder, begins at the end of the story.  Five people fall to their deaths when the old Inca plank bridge they are walking on breaks.  Each of the five is very different, yet connected.

The event leads a monk, Brother Juniper, who witnessed it to ponder- “Why did this happen to these five?” and attempt to recount their history and tally up the spiritual “worth” of each.  What follows is a history of the five.

Wilder’s gift for description is extraordinary.  His depiction of the local archbishop alone is priceless, and so good that I have to quote nearly the whole of it;

“He loved his cathedral; he loved his duties; he was very devout.  Some days he regarded his bulk ruefully; but the distress of remorse was less poignant than the distress of fasting and he presently found deliberating over the secret messages that a certain roast sends to a certain salad that will follow it.  And to punish himself he led an exemplary life in every other respect.  He read all of the literature of antiquity and forgotten all about it except a general aroma of charm and disillusion.  He had been learned in the Fathers and the Councils and forgotten all about them save a floating impression of dissension that had no application to Peru.  He had read all of the libertine masterpieces of Italy and France and reread them annually…”

Wilder lets the reader get to know the five, their individual stories, and showing how they were connected to one another and to the community.  He never answers the question posited by Brother Juniper- because the question is not really meant to be answered at all.  The book has larger themes of fate and the questions asked by humanity to itself and to the nature of existence.  I could go on, but it is better to just read it.

50 Classics

I have decided to join the Classics Club, a great blog which challenges its members to read a certain number of classics in a certain number of years.  I have chosen to read 50 classics in 5 years (unless I am in an unforeseen, tragic, disfiguring, horrifying, etc, accident).  The classics are listed under the “50 Classics” page that I hope to put up this weekend.  Wish me luck!

Monsters in Upstate NY

The bad thing about modern fiction is that sometimes it tries to be “modern fiction” so hard that it falls short of becoming a great novel.  I fear that this has happened to Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton.

I really wanted to love this work.  First- it is set in small-town upstate New York.  Groff has made her own hometown, Cooperstown, into the fictional Templeton.  Cooperstown being only a few hours from my own upstate origins, I felt that many of the descriptions about the town and upstate in general were true; fussy tourists invading, decaying farms seen from the road, glacial lakes, that odd mismatch of cosmopolitan and provincial.  Secondly the premise just sounded so interesting; a young woman researches her family history, and, oh yeah, a monster in the lake.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite come off.  The modern day characters are cut-outs, described to the readers as being this way or that way without really showing it.  The heroine, continually lauded as brilliant, neither acts or speaks as if she is.  The ex-hippie mother turned super-Christian has been done before.  The dialogue between the two is especially awkward, although none of the modern dialogue is inspiring.  This is very frustrating, because some of the historical characters are so great I would rather have read a whole book about them instead (especially Cinnamon Averell and Charlotte Temple, my personal favorites).

Groff adds elements of magical realism, which apparently everyone is trying to add into their books these days because they learned about it in a writing class once.  There are mixed results; I liked the monster and how it was connected with the town and its people, I would have liked to have learned more about the family ghost, and I certainly think Groff missed an opportunity with the whole family having various “gifts”- it was mentioned but never discussed and simply dropped at the end, without any connections being made by the main characters.

I am certain that this book will be liked by a certain set- because it is “quirky”, with its monster, photos in text, parts of journals, etc.  And it is a great idea for a book.  Unfortunately it fell a bit flat.

Italian Nostalgia

John Berendt writes an interesting, well-crafted work in The City of Falling Angels.  He sets out to create a portrait of Venice; the city, the art, the people, the politics.  He succeeds.

I am trying to branch out in my nonfiction choices (ie: not just history).  But I also have obvious preferences- one is for all things Italian.  And if you are going to choose to read a nonfiction book about Venice you couldn’t choose better than this engaging book.

Berendt uses the story of the Fenice Opera House fire and its aftermath to delve into the ancient political and social environments of Venice.  He meets with politicians, lawyers, wealthy ex-pats, art restoration charity leaders, craftsmen.  He discusses the fire with Venice’s most famous glassblower, a witness.  He speaks with the investigators of the fire and the construction workers that were doing restoration work the night the fire started.  He does a very good job of wading through the accusations, rumors, and cover-ups endemic in Italian political life.

Woven in the Fenice story are others.  I especially enjoyed the intrigue behind the “Ezra Pound Foundation” (the one his own heirs didn’t know about!), and the constant back-biting behind the “selfless” philanthropic association “Save Venice”.

This book makes me miss living in Italy.  Yes there is frustration, with politics and the seemingly endless bureaucracy involved in doing the simplest thing.  But there is also a universal zest for living that I have rarely seen.  Whether they are spray-painting horns on a poster of Berlusconi (though the poster was replaced with a clean one a few days later), haggling over fruit prices at a stand, or praising the merits of a particularly fine espresso, Italians love and hate- they are never indifferent.  They were also unfailingly kind to this American student stumbling through Medieval streets and asking directions in terribly accented Italian.



A Great English Novel

Middlemarch, by George Eliot, is a long novel of great scope.  Unlike some novels that just seem to go on and on however, there is always a point to Eliot’s writing, so the novel never feels slow.  Every sentence and paragraph is necessary to the story.  The reader is very aware that Eliot is a great writer, and has spent considerable effort to create a full portrait of an English village.

The full title of the novel is Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life.  One can get a full view of this particular village through the interwoven stories of many characters.  There are so many characters in the novel it can be easy to lose track.  Eliot includes examples from all strata of society; the clergy, landed gentry, laborers, tradesmen.  As if this were not enough, Eliot also uses her characters to introduce and discuss issues relevant to Victorian England.  Religion (and religious hypocrisy), the Reform Laws and other political debates of the Victorian Age, marriage, and feminism all play a role in the novel.

Eliot is fabulous with creating portraits of particular types of people, especially upper class people, clergy, and women.  The dialogue between her characters can sometimes be a bit clunky- Dorothea is so earnest and long-winded (I am sure she picked up the long-winded part from her uncle, Mr. Brooke)!  Despite this I cannot help loving Dorothea- her story arc includes her struggles with her own idealism and expectations, her desire to do good, and her disappointments that she takes with grace.

The novel also has that sort of nostalgic vibe (you know the one) when later Victorians look upon early Victorian England; before the smothering industrialization, rapid connections brought about by railroads, and visible poverty.  Victorians like to envision a time when the land was green, everyone enjoyed a bumpy carriage ride for a week to get from one part of England to another, and when all the poor people were tied to the land in a harsh tenant/landlord system and most upper class people did not need to see them (except when they themselves were the landlords).

But, overall, I enjoyed this book.  900 pages rarely go by so quickly.

Preconceived Notions in Books

We live in the “Information Age”, where any fact, opinion, summary is literally at our fingertips.  We have the ability to look up anything we could possibly need (and many things we would never have bothered to look up at all if it took any real effort).  Inundated with information such as we are, it is hard to form any opinion in a vacuum.  It is impossible to read a book without hearing at least one review, summary, sound-byte, etc.  This is especially true for older and/or “classic” works.

I recently read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.  Even without ever reading this book everyone knows that it is a detective story, one of the very first noir novel- a genre pioneered by Chandler and Hemmett, exemplified by hard-boiled detectives, sultry women, dark streets, mystery, sharp dialogue, etc.  To add to this cultural permeation, the book was turned into the classic 1946 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  I grew up watching the film, and long ago memorized the story.

So; how does one look at such a famous, genre-defining novel where you already know the characters, the story, the tropes?  Be constantly aware of the words.

Philip Marlowe is quick-witted, cynical, and caustic.  He is often short with people and tries to push their buttons.  Sometimes you cannot believe that he actually says the things that he does to the people that he says them to- he continually defies police orders and needles mobsters.  The dialogue is fun to read.  Scenes are described in much the same way.

Knowing the story also comes in handy here- the murders and their motivations become a bit twisted up.  Chandler later admitted that even he did not know who had committed one of the murders!

Overall a fun read.

Summer’s End

Almost four months ago I wrote on summer reading.  Driving back from Boston I saw the beginnings of fall; glimpses of yellow in green leaves, a chillier breeze, “pumpkins for sale” signs (please note, I did not actually see prosaic “pumpkins for sale” signs, I only imagined them- as I imagine cruising through back country roads lined with farms, as I curse the SUV going exactly 60 mph in the fast lane).  Now that the weather has been turning decidedly fall-like (and the official beginning of Autumn is next week) I feel that I should review.

I made a list of summer reads based on traveling and exotic locations.  I read almost all of them- I did not come across a copy of A Moveable Feast and I quit reading To the Lighthouse a third of the way through in a rare fit of childish dislike.  I read other books on the theme including a train journey across Asia and the history of Hawaii.  So, I guess I was successful?

Anyway, now that it is Fall I can think up new (likely unrealistic) goals for myself.  I have started reading Middlemarch.  I am always striving to read more classics, blah, blah.  I picked up too many new books wandering Boston’s fabulous used bookstores (which I love and highly recommend to any book lover, btw).  Maybe I will read all of them one day…