“Camila had intended to be perfunctory and if possible impudent, but now she was struck for the first time with the dignity of the old woman.”

There is a remarkable beauty to the scene that begins with the above quote.  The situation is this.  The Marquesa, an increasingly confused old woman (in part because of alcoholism she uses to blunt the pain she feels at the cruelty of her daughter), attended a theatrical performance in which the greatest performer in Peru acted and sang.  The Marquesa was so taken at the beauty of the actress, the quality of her voice, and the pathos of the play, she was oblivious to the fact that the actress, Camila, had added songs between scenes of a satirical nature.  These satirical songs took many verbal jabs at the Marquesa, mocking her age, her looks, etc., to the great amusement of the audience, until finally the Marquesa’s serving-girl convinced her to leave (with the Marquesa remaining blissfully oblivious that she was the target of the laughter).  The Viceroy, a powerful man who wants to stay on the good side of the Marquesa’s son-in-law, decides he cannot allow a middle-class actress to take such liberties with the noblewoman, and orders her to go to the Marquesa, dressed in black, to apologize.

This is where Wilder creates a scene that is almost philosophical.  Camila, the actress, is indignant—she cannot believe that she must humble herself to go apologize to this strange, ugly old woman who is a joke to virtually everyone in town.  But when she comes to the Marquesa, she finds a woman strangely serene—serene, of course, because the Marquesa is still unaware that Camila had been mocking her from the stage.  In fact, the Marquesa is extraordinarily kind to Camila, praising her talent, assuring her of how much she enjoys her performances.  This behavior fills Camila with shame, with real humility, at the graciousness of this elderly woman who will not so much as allude to the offensive way she had been treated.  And so as the scene unfolds, Camila expresses her repentance with the sweetest sincerity and the most genuine regret to a woman who does not understand it, while the Marquesa offers a benevolent forgiveness without even knowing it.  This ought to be humorous, as I describe it, and yet it isn’t—it feels like deep truth.  There is something real and honest about the idea that we often forgive more than we know; that we regret offenses that have offended no one.  I found the scene very moving in a way I’m struggling to articulate here.

And the whole of the Marquesa’s story affects me in this way.  I don’t have time to dig into this whole section of the book, but the relationship of the Marquesa to her serving-girl (a novice from a convent who is being trained by an Abbess who is wise to the world’s ways), and their respective relationships to the women they care about (the Marquesa’s daughter and the Abbess, respectively) as expressed through letters, are really wonderful to read.  And even though I’ve known from the first sentence of the novel that the bridge falls, the end of this section, with its simple conclusion that “while crossing the bridge of San Luis Rey the accident which we know befell them,” hit me with a sadness I’ve only felt once or twice in the Pulitzer journey thus far.  The only problem with Wilder’s approach, of course, is that all of the characters I’ve grown attached to are now either dead or irrelevant, as we move on to the next victims of the bridge’s collapse—I’m not sure he can sustain my emotional connection to the novel.  But if he can, this is shaping up to be a very solid reading experience and a book worth recommending to others.

“Henceforth letter-writing had to take the place of all the affection that could not be lived.”

I didn’t give Thornton Wilder much credit at the outset—I see that my initial post on The Bridge of San Luis Rey is honestly a bit disdainful of his talents (while praising the setting and theme, conceptually at least).  But I have to revise my assessment, because he really is drawing me in.

This “second part” of the novel (it’s in five parts, the first being a very brief introduction already covered in my first post) focuses on the Marquesa de Montemayor.  The conceit of this section is that we (the narrator and I, the reader) live in a world where the Marquesa is a famous historical figure—the letters she exchanged from Peru with her daughter in Spain are, if not as well-known as Shakespeare’s sonnets, at least on the level of Boswell’s Life of Johnson or the correspondence of John and Abigail Adams.  So the book explores her relationship with her daughter through casual references to letters we “already know well” but adding details and insights to flesh out the Marquesa as a real person.

And she’s fascinating.  The Marquesa is a physically unattractive (and fairly unpopular) mother of a beautiful and well-regarded girl, but of course the truth is that her daughter is a cruel and unfeeling person while the Marquesa’s affection for her daughter is seemingly unlimited.  When her daughter moves to Spain with her husband, their extended correspondence is a burden to the daughter, but a labor of love for the mother—the Marquesa devotes essentially all her conscious hours to finding delightful little stories to share, or phrasing wicked remarks about bloated political somebodies.  She’s whimsical, philosophical, and witty (though sometimes a bit acid with that wit).  There’s a strange distance from her, of course, because of Wilder’s convention about her as a historical character: it’s less like getting to know Elizabeth Bennett than it is like reading a good biography of George Washington.  No matter how vivid it is, somehow I’m always reminded that this happened a long time ago…that I’m not really there.

So, early on, I’m taken with the Marquesa as a figure but I don’t feel “alive” in her world.  As it happens, I’ve been reading on a ways, so I have more to say about her, but I think it’s best to leave that for a post later today.  Thornton Wilder, though, is starting to impress me….I don’t know why he’s chosen to focus so narrowly on this one woman at the outset, but I’m curious how all the lives of those lost on the bridge will ultimately weave together.

Poetry Friday: 1928 (part 2)

I know, I know, this is a blog about American literature, and so I ought to focus on American poets.  But some of these guys are just too good.  1928, among other things, was the year W. B. Yeats published The Tower, a little book that contains many poems of real note—”Leda and the Swan”, “A Prayer for my Son”, “Meditations in a Time of Civil War”—but perhaps none more moving (for me) than the following piece.  As we head for Palm Sunday, the Triduum, and beyond it, Easter, I think it’s a good night to envision a journey to a holy city—W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”:

I
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish flesh or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten born and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

II
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

III
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

IV
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Something brief to tide you over…

I don’t know why spring break is a time not to blog, but it’s certainly been slow!  My apologies to those few of you who look in on me.  I just have a brief chance here (leaving work and on my way to a dinner appointment) to say that the weekend will bring you many things—a poem later today (courtesy of the mad Irish bard, William Butler Yeats), and at least two blog posts (I’ve read ahead of myself) on The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which is gripping, beautiful, and strangely aloof all at once.  I have plenty of thoughts, and will make enough time to share them.  So, until a little later, au revoir.

Poetry Friday: 1928

I’m still dealing with this lingering cold (given how long this is taking, some might call it “malingering”, but I’m not faking, I swear!)—at this point, I can’t speak above a whisper.  Anyway, I hope to get some posting done on Wilder’s novel this week (as it’s break), but now it’s time for a poem.  I picked up Edna St. Vincent Millay’s The Buck in the Snow, published in 1928, and as I read more and more of her, I realize that she’s a poet who, when she “hits”, knocks it out of the park.  But when she misses….man, are we left with some uninteresting sing-song end rhyme.  This particular collection is, to my taste, mostly misses, but the following is a poem I thought had at least something going for it.  I’m curious how it goes over with all of you—without further ado, “Hangman’s Oak”:

Before the cock in the barnyard spoke,
Before it well was day,
Horror like a serpent from about the Hangman’s Oak
Uncoiled and slid away.

Pity and Peace were on the limb
That bore such bitter fruit.
Deep he lies, and the desperate blood of him
Befriends the innocent root.

Brother, I said to the air beneath the bough
Whence he had swung,
It will not be long for any of us now;
We do not grow young.

It will not be long for the knotter of ropes, not long
For the sheriff or for me,
Or for any of them that came five hundred strong
To see you swing from a tree.

Side by side together in the belly of Death
We sit without hope,
You, and I, and the mother that gave you breath,
And the tree, and the rope.

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

So begins the 1928 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder.  Yes, that Thornton Wilder, as in the author of one of the most performed high school plays ever, Our Town.  I’m afraid the authorial presence you get in Our Town surfaces early here, but more on that in a moment.

What I want to note first is that we have stepped outside of the United States for the first time in the history of the Pulitzer.  Okay, so Willa Cather took her hero for a stint overseas in World War I, and yes, some of the best moments in Arrowsmith consisted of an extended stretch in the Caribbean.  Before there has always been an American center to the novel—often a quintessentially American center—and Wilder at least has the daring to move outside that sphere for his setting.

The course of the novel is laid out pretty clearly from the beginning.  The collapse of the bridge was witnessed, we are told, by a Catholic missionary, Brother Juniper.  Brother Juniper is so convinced that God purposes all things that he decides to make a study of the five lives lost in the collapse of the bridge, since clearly their fates were foreordained.  He hopes, by careful examination, to prove God’s divine power to the “poor obstinate converts” he’s working with in Peru.  And, we are told, he believes he’s gotten to the bottom of the situation without ever understanding who the five people really were.  Our novel, then, will show what Brother Juniper did not see, and look into the question of whether human life is a fundamentally grim and pessimistic affair, or rather a beautiful (if subtle) mystery that connects us to a higher power.

This is a fascinating and promising premise for a novel—following five lives to a seemingly random and catastrophic death, seeking a clue in their details to the truth about the universe.  I’ll confess, it may be the best novel I’ve read yet, if we only consider how it plays as a paragraph (envision for a moment how The Age of Innocence would sound in a paragraph summary….I wouldn’t read it, on that basis—would you?).  But Wilder seems interested in writing this novel the way the Stage Manager narrated life in Grovers Corner.  The narrator refers to “you and I”, meaning me, the person reading the novel, and him—in fact he notes that a character doesn’t understand the things that “you and I” do.  We’re about one step from “dear reader” territory, here.  It’s possible to write an engaging story using that kind of narrator–the omniscient benevolent uncle, condescending slightly to the reader but in a good-humored way that makes you content with your cup of cocoa and the sweetly realized conclusions with their pinkish moral hues.  But I don’t think you can write a novel that examines the soul-scarring questions of mortality, fate, and free will in that voice.

I may be jumping the gun—Early Autumn, after all, began in not terribly promising fashion, and proved to be a really nice and well-constructed novel (in my opinion).  But I’m skeptical.  The novel at least has the merit of brevity (a little over 200 pages, and small, wide-margined pages, at that)….we’ll see how this goes.

Poetry Friday: 1927 (The Final Edition—I promise!)

I know, 1927 should have finished, but I haven’t picked up 1928′s novel yet, leaving me in the gap.  Besides that, I’m obsessed with the poetry of a cockroach named archy, and have one last chance to get it out there.  The moth is a strangely poetic subject—you may have read Virginia Woolf’s take on moths, though I personally prefer Annie Dillard’s—and archy (Don Marquis) gives it his best shot in this last poem I’ll give you from 1927, “the lesson of the moth”:

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

archy