I had promised myself that foray into US women writers with Elaine Showalter's book A Jury of Her Peers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx glowing bright orange at me from the little shelf on my desk and now I've got...well at this point I was about to do my usual medical thing and 'itis' it, but Catheritis sounds a bit too uncomfortably like a real condition for my liking so suffice to say I'm hooked.
Thanks to Virago I have a pile of Willa's books ready and waiting and it was just a case of which to pick up next, so I decided to let Elaine Showalter do the choosing,
' In her greatest novel, The Professor's House...'
That was easy, The Professor's House it was, except I have a feeling each successive Willa Cather novel I read might become my favourite, until the next one that is.
Professor Godfrey St Peter must be the fairest man in all of Christendom, often 'amiable but quiet' according to Willa Cather and displaying not only the patience of a saint with the demands of his family but also taking the time and effort to be a fair and non-judgemental listener to many others. Having been there for all and sundry, the Professor approaches his own mid-life crisis with few people there ready and willing to listen to him. Wife Lillian, preoccupied with the family, somehow knows him too well to be objective and young Tom Outland, who would doubtless have been his close confidante has tragically died on the battlefields of Flanders.It is Tom's legacy to the family that is causing so much heartache and conflict.
Tom's vacuum gas invention, patented and willed to his fiancee - the Professor's elder daughter, has now become a veritable mint of money, providing luxurious living and an enviable standard of life for Rosamund. With the funeral baked meats hardly cooled Rosamund announces her engagement to the enthusiastic but rather insensitive Louie Marsellus,
, 'a mackerel-tinted man' ...
and yet again, how wonderfully Willa Cather conjures up the imagery with such small detail. Louie busies himself with the money and commissions the building of a country house in the Norwegian manorial style with all the finest trimmings,
'We got our wonderful wrought iron door fittings from Chicago...none of your colonial glass knobs for us.'
Meanwhile younger sister Kathleen, with veiled hints of a love of her own for Tom, has to make do with a bungalow just 'glass-knobbed throughout' and the lesser Scott McGregor,
'Scott had a usual sort of mind, and Kitty had flashes of something quite different. Her father had thought a more interesting man would make her happier.'
The Professor, a lover of the familiar and the comfortable, introspective, astute and perceptive, a man who is, according to A.S.Byatt's introduction,
'both intensely drawn to civilized family life, and intensely drawn to fierce solitary contemplation'
is further disturbed by a new house of his own, having been dubiously blessed with the financial success of a vast academic work now in print. But his life is happy where it is, the change feels too great and he decides to sit out the summer recess in the study of his old house.
'The world was sad to St Peter as he looked about him; the lake-shore country flat and heavy, Hamilton small, tight and airless. The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man.'
and his mid-life crisis ensues.
Tom Outland's story of adventure and his discovery of an ancient cliff-side civilization on the Blue Mesa of New Mexico breaks into the book halfway through providing some respite from the Professor's reflections on his life, as well as offering a bridge between the material and the primitive worlds. A return to the professor's house is inevitable before the end of the novel, and I was holding my breath for good outcomes.
Willa Cather creates differing landscapes both of place and of the mind in The Professor's House and I was willingly drawn into them all but most especially the cliff-side civilization. A picture had fixed firmly in my mind which I just couldn't shift, of an old card I knew I had somewhere.
Found eventually, long after I had finished the book.
So long afterwards that I could quite easily have forgotten but you don't forget Willa Cather in a hurry and as I've sat to write my thoughts on the book that atmosphere rushes back into my mind. My apologies, I have no idea of artist or source (hopefully someone will know) and though I feel sure this is grander in scale and more utopian and classic in design to Tom's discovery on the Blue Mesa, somehow Willa Cather's descriptions still fitted my memory of it perfectly,
'Far above me...I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was a still as sculpture..it all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower.'
So much more that I could say about this book but hopefully that's sufficient to tell you it's been another of my favourite reads of the year...sorry did I say that about My Antonia too...and... and