“…He is the second most delightful man in the world. His conversation is enchanting. If he weren’t so disreputable, I should make him my secretary. He could write all my letters for me, and generations would rise up and call me witty. Alas, however, he is so moth-eaten by disease and bad company, that I shall have to leave him to his underworld. He is not only like an ant; he is like a soiled pack of cards. And I doubt whether the whole Pacific could wash him sweet and fragrant again. But what divine Spanish he speaks and what exquisite things he says in it!”
This penultimate section of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, focuses on the character of Uncle Pio, who I couldn’t possibly describe more succinctly or scathingly than the Marquesa just did in that excerpt from a letter to her daughter.
He is a delight. His whole life is a poem, and I don’t want to say too much about it—I just want you to pick up the novel and read it. The central aspect of his life is the complicated relationship he develops with the temperamental actress Camila Perichole (a woman who is woven in and out of this novel, beginning with her mockery of the Marquesa on stage and the subsequent astonishing apology), who he looks on with—what? Love, yes, but what kind of love? The whole question of love and humanity is present in everything Uncle Pio does, and Wilder soars to real heights in this section. I haven’t quoted him extensively since he’s not normally turning phrases that demand to be shared, but he finds a rhythm and a style in this section. Just look at this paragraph describing a social gathering he and Camila attend—
“All night they talked, secretly comforting their hearts that longed always for Spain and telling themselves that such a symposium was after the manner of the high Spanish soul. They talked about ghosts and second-sight, and about the earth before man appeared upon it and about the possibility of the planets striking against one another; about whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death; they wondered whether at the second coming of Christ to Jerusalem, Peru would be long in receiving the news. They talked until the sun rose, about wars and kings, about poets and scholars, and about strange countries. Each one poured into the conversation his store of wise sad anecdotes and his dry regret about the race of men. The flood of golden light struck across the Andes and entering the great window fell upon the piles of fruit, the stained brocade upon the table, and the sweet thoughtful forehead of the Perichole as she lay sleeping against the sleeve of her protector.”
It’s not ornate like Fitzgerald (who would have taken far more words with this party, and forced me to the dictionary at least once), but it feels incredibly powerful to me. I think I’ve discovered what makes Wilder work, and what makes this novel so different from the others I’ve read. Wilder thinks that a person’s life moves at a much gentler pace than other novelists do. Most writers tackle detail with a passion, revealing character in the thousand tiny moments that make up a day, a conversation, an encounter. Wilder sees us as speaking our selves in the long cadence of our lives, an unbroken line of chant that arcs up and down over the course of years, of decades. Some writers gloss past details that they can’t quite make work, hoping we’ll follow the plot past the speed bump, and for a while it seemed like that was Wilder’s M.O.—a long sloppy plot that hadn’t been worked out well. But I see how this book works on me. He reveals the details of a life carefully, stacking the dominoes gently and slowly, until when we reach those rare moments of dialogue (written dialogue occurs perhaps 5 or 6 times over 40-50 pages on Uncle Pio) we can see all the threads of his life weaving together in the simplest of sentences. It heightens the tensions underlying every conversation because Wilder has established why that conversation matters.
There is more to say, but I won’t say it. How Uncle Pio comes to the end of his life, and the shock I felt when I read the last vignette before his plummet from the bridge, need to be experienced directly, not through the filter of this blog. The next post on this book will surely be the review—the last section is short, and will (I now trust) tie together these lives in a way that both clarifies and deepens the mystery. Wilder’s trying to get a good hold on life, deep in the marrow, and see it for what it truly is. I think he’s getting somewhere. Go get the book and read it.