1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

Literary Style:

I’ve gone on at some length in previous posts about what works for Wilder, and why I wouldn’t have guessed it would work.  He finishes the book in that in-between place, where sometimes I can see why what he does is brilliant and emotionally gripping, and sometimes I feel a bit distanced from his platitudes.  Marianne Moore (I think it was) once said “a poem should not mean, but be”.  Not bad advice.  And I think it’s a good flashlight to shine on this book, since it’s at its best when Wilder doesn’t make it obvious what he “means”, but instead paints the landscape with light and lets us ponder the mysteries that lie in the shadows, or what may rest behind that ridge.  The Bridge of San Luis Rey is good at this in large part because he sets out to explain the unexplainable—why do some people die and others don’t?  What can make sense of the death of five people who were unfortunate enough to be standing on a bridge at the moment of its collapse?  Meaning is too hard to draw out of the situation, and I think he mis-steps (but only briefly) at the end when he tries to soar a bit, and explain what this all might be about.

Wilder has excelled at many aspects of the novel that I’ve found lacking in some other Pulitzer winners: perhaps most critically, he’s very good at creating engaging characters.  All of the characters we encounter, even the crueler ones, feel alive to me, and I would gladly have spent more time with each of them.  The Marquesa, in particular, has a charisma that I can’t deny—I don’t know what it is I like about her, but I could have read a whole novel just tracing her life.

Life-tracing is a good term, perhaps, for what Wilder does well: certainly the plot isn’t complicated.  We know everyone’s end before they begin.  But Wilder takes us along with them, slowly drawing the corners of their life together until we can see the whole thing with one sweep of the eyes, and even though we cannot explain why they die on that bridge on that morning, somehow we know that it came at the right moment.  There’s something about these lives that integrates death intelligibly: even those whose lives seem “interrupted” by death, who would not have said they were “ready to go”, go to their deaths in a way that gives peace (with tears).

I think Wilder’s to be commended for many things—he’s bold enough to choose a setting outside the U.S., to talk rapidly about Spanish court life and 18th Century Spanish drama without dumbing it down for an American audience, to tackle a huge issue (the problem of evil) without resolving it neatly and pleasantly.  It may be most bold of all to tell a story with no central character (though many recurring faces appear), no real central conceit other than that every main character will die (in the same manner) and that we want to know why.  It’s a strange novel…if he’d written it 40 or 50 years later, I feel sure he’d have stepped into science fiction, since his choice of 18th Century Peru was, I think, an attempt to free himself from his readers’ preconceptions in order to focus on the ideas (something I think is now very common in the best sci-fi) and let them drive the whole story.  But unlike a lot sci-fi authors, Wilder’s not prescriptive…it’s not obvious who he’s rooting for, or even whether or not he thinks these deaths are just ends for wicked souls (most of them have something to be sorry for, at least) or terrible, tragic losses of innocent life.  In the end, as a literary talent, I don’t know that a lot of other authors could (or should) emulate his approach in this novel, but I thought it was excellent.

Historical Insight:

I can’t give him high marks here.  It’s not Wilder’s fault—he didn’t know that I’d come along 80+ years later and want him to give insight into 1928 in the United States.  Nevertheless, it’s a criteria and one I can hardly see how to apply: perhaps the character of the flamboyant actress, Camila Perichole, connects on some level with the New Woman of the 1920s, but even that is a stretch.  And the meditative, thoughtful pace of this book, and its fixation on the very humble reality of death, really seem light years from the decadent, devil-may-care, last call year of 1928, where the U.S., perched on the brink of a precipitous depression, careened blissfully through the night towards the iceberg of Black Tuesday.  I expect the next few novels to reveal those cultural currents really starkly (I hope they will, at least), but Wilder doesn’t seem to have cared to engage with his society—not in this book, at least.


My ratings system is hard to fine-tune, but here’s my considered opinion: “I strongly recommend reading this book, in the right mood.”  I think it’s great—I really do!—but I also know that I needed to get about 20-30 pages in before I could tell that it was worthwhile, and I generally had to read it in moments of real peace, usually in solitude.  It’s not a great book for dashing through as you jostle elbows with folks on a crowded bus.  I’d rank this my 2nd favorite novel thus far, though, so if you don’t normally read in places with peace and quiet, find the place, make the time, and get this book.  Please.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

The Last Word:

It’s becoming a frequent complaint of mine that it’s hard to pick this last excerpt.  Maybe doing so is a bad idea?  I’m not sure.  At any rate, in this book particularly, it’s very hard to choose something from late in the book, since all the principal characters are dead.  So I’m going to back track (if that’s all right with you), and supply a piece of the last character’s section, Uncle Pio’s section, that I’d considered excerpting from in my blog post about him (but cut for considerations of space).  I hope you enjoy this little view into Uncle Pio and Camila’s work on her skills as an actress (and perhaps the view also includes Wilder’s own feelings about his art?), and I encourage you to vote in the poll just below this post!  And now, in conclusion, take it away, Thornton Wilder:

“The Perichole would fling her face and arms upon the table amid the pomades, caught up into a tremendous fit of weeping.  Only perfection would do, only perfection.  And that had never come.

Then beginning in a low voice Uncle Pio would talk for an hour, analyzing the play, entering into a world of finesse in matters of voice and gesture and tempo, and often until dawn they would remain there declaiming to one another the lordly conversation of Calderon.

Whom were these two seeking to please?  Not the audiences of Lima.  They had long since been satisfied.  We come from a world where we have known incredible standards of excellence, and we dimly remember beauties which we have not seized again; and we go back to that world.  Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole were tormenting themselves in an effort to establish in Peru the standards of the theatres in some Heaven whither Calderon had preceded them.  The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth.”

“My dear, Uncle Pio is the most delightful man in the world, your husband excepted…”

“…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.

“Love is inadequate to describe the tacit, almost ashamed oneness of the brothers.”

This section of Wilder’s novel is about twin brothers named Manuel and Esteban.  It is as powerfully symbolic as the scenes I’ve described already, if not more so (and takes on added significance for me, at least, as I read it during Holy Week approaching Good Friday and Easter).  I think the best place to start is by telling you part of what Wilder does with these brothers.

The brothers were foundlings abandoned at the door of a convent.  They were so identical that, even when grown, none could tell them apart.  They went everywhere together, almost completely silent except for the invented language they spoke to one another.  They were hard workers, sharing in labor together, eating meals together…their lives centered around each other.

But then Manuel met a woman, a beautiful woman.  She was so famous and beautiful and desired, and he so poor and simple, that he knew they could never be lovers.  Yet he was completely transfixed by her, and so he began doing work for her, secretly—simple work writing letters for her, mostly to men she conducted torrid affairs with.  He kept this life secret from his brother, until one night it all came out, disastrously. For Manuel had room in his heart to love two people, but Esteban could not conceive it; he could not imagine a world in which Manuel cared for someone else, lived to be in someone else’s life, and not his own.  Wilder doesn’t portray this as jealousy or possessiveness, but rather simplicity (almost inadequacy), as Esteban struggles to understand.  Esteban tells his brother to go, to follow his heart and be with the woman, to leave him behind.  Manuel refuses, sees the pain in his brother’s eyes, and announces that he will never speak to her or look on her again.

This he does, faithfully.  And then Manuel is injured and falls ill.  In his weakness he lashes out at Esteban, who tends him gently and with care for days without rest—Manuel accuses him of destroying his happiness, only to repent of these accusations whenever the pain subsides a little and he can think more clearly.  At last Manuel dies.

And here the strangeness really settles in.  For Esteban tells all he meets that his brother Esteban is dead.  No one can tell them apart, and all believe what “Manuel” is telling them.  The body of Manuel is buried under the name “Esteban”.  Esteban roams the streets.  He makes a name for himself as a hero who saved children from burning buildings.  Finally, having encountered two people who have borne awful griefs for those they loved, he admits to the second of them that he is no hero.  That he raced into the burning buildings so that he might die—he says that it is not permitted to seek one’s own death, but to risk it is not sinful.  He prepares to take a journey, to travel the oceans far from Lima where he will not be known.  And as he travels to the sea to embark, the bridge falls and Esteban is given into death.

I tell the whole story (or much of it, at least) because it is impossible to understand how powerful this is without seeing all these parts in concert.  Any one of them is not that distinctive or impressive—a brother who prevents happiness, a man mistaken for being a hero when he is really a taker of suicidal risks.  But the organic whole is a vision that caught me up completely.  I still don’t what to make of all these pieces—what does it mean that they spoke a language none could understand, for example?  But I can see the heart of the story.  Somehow, some way, Esteban seeks out death, by burying his name, by abandoning his reason to the flames of a burning house, and by leaving his only home forever, only to find death unexpectedly and abruptly.

Wilder promised at the beginning to make sense of the deaths of these people on the bridge—I don’t know…I just don’t know yet.  There is something that ties Esteban, the man who cut off his brother from love and then cut himself off from life, to the Marquesa who sent letters to a daughter who would not love her and forgave a woman who had not offended her, and to the Marquesa’s serving girl who would not risk herself by sending a letter admitting love and admiration.  There is something powerful behind the simplicity of Wilder’s writing (which is not ornate—I’m intentionally paraphrasing rather than quoting because his language doesn’t win you over in a sentence like Wharton’s….he’s playing a much slower and more patient game).  I don’t know where I’m being moved to yet, but I’m being moved.

“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.

“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.