Monday 19 August 2013

Willa Cather: 'The heat under the simple words'

It may still be Silly Season, but it's high time I knuckled down and wrote about a book. So here goes...
 Since my belated discovery of the wonderful Willa Cather, I've been reading more - recently a bumper collection of short stories (Virago, edited by Hermione Lee), and just now the novel Shadows on the Rock. The short stories show, among other things, her extraordinary range as a writer, and Shadows on the Rock is further evidence - a historical novel set in the late 17th-century in the city of Quebec. Essentially it's a series of scenes from the life of a widowed father and his daughter, with a few other Quebecois - from the Count and the Bishop down to others far less fortunate - coming and going in the narrative. Cather herself described how, when she first visited Quebec, she responded to the city as to 'a series of pictures remembered rather than experienced, a kind of thinking, a mental complexion inherited, left over from the past, lacking in robustness and full of pious resignation'. Which would almost serve as a description of her novel, though there is no lack of robustness, in her characters or her writing.
  Cather's novels of pioneer life demonstrate her toughness clearly enough. She knew - and knew that she knew - more of life in extreme conditions than any other novelist - 'but,' as she wrote, 'I could never make anyone believe it, because I wear skirts and don't shave'. Shadows on the Rock is a pioneer novel too - her characters are French exiles in effect, making a life on an exposed rock on the far side of the Atlantic. As with the pioneer novels, her theme is the Virgilian one of bringing the old gods to new places:
'Inferretque deos Latio. When an adventurer carries his gods with him into a remote and savage country, the colony he founds will, from the beginning, have graces, traditions, riches of the mind and spirit. Its history will shine with bright incidents, slight, perhaps, but precious, as in life itself, where the great matters are often as worthless as astronomical distances, and the trifles dear as the heart's blood.'
  And the gods are no abstract deities; they are things too, the stuff of daily life, of a way of life transplanted and maintained, a life made in a strange place:
'These coppers, big and little, [reflects Cecile, the daughter] these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days, - the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life.'
  Shadows on the Rock is full of wonderfully vivid descriptions of Quebec through the changing seasons (I'm glad I visited last year, and that so much of the old city is still recognisably there). Cather's great capacity for tenderness is amply evidenced, as is her rare ability to portray simple goodness convincingly (as in such great late short stories as Neighbour Rosicky and Old Mrs Harris). Sometimes she can seem to teeter on the brink of sentimentality, but she is always far too tough-minded and clear-sighted to fall.
 Quite why and how such seemingly simple writing as Cather's packs the punch it does remains, at least to me, a mystery. It's like a kind of close-up magic, where you can see exactly what's going on - nothing special, no tricks, see - and then suddenly... Hey presto! Something amazing has happened and you've no idea how - you're simply left reeling. Perhaps the key is in something she herself wrote in a letter:
'It's the heat under the simple words that counts.'


  1. A lovely tribute to Willa Cather; I will checkout that book. I know of her writings of pioneer life in the prairies and sensual descriptions of grasses. In another, in a series, of coincidences, I dip into (after a long hiatus) your very good blog and find a Nebraska link.

    I've just completed Volume I of Nebraska By Dummies: A Definitively-Incomplete Compilation of Conjecture, Misinformation and Enlightenment About the Factual Blur That Is: Nebraska. I've asked over 125 people what they know --nothing, pretty much. What an intriguing, beguiling state. We have planned a visit in September.

    Quebec City is gem. My favourite quote from the 18th century Quebec is during a heat wave: "There is but a sheet of brown paper twist this room and hell."

    Congratulations on the safe and miraculous delivery/event of your second grandchild. :)

  2. Thanks very much Barbara - and welcome back!
    I love that quotation too. Bizarrely, we hit a heatwave on my visit there - in April. More humid than hellish, that one...