Sunday 23 February 2014

Cather to Elkin

I recently finished reading Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop - a title that to English ears sound like a Golden Age whodunit. It is of course no such thing, but a historical novel about a Bishop (then Archbishop), Jean Marie Latour, and his great friend and fellow priest, Joseph Vaillant - both of them from the Auvergne - working to establish a Catholic diocese in the vast and hostile territory of New Mexico in the second half of the 19th century. The Bishop is a version of the real-life Bishop Lamy, who built the very French cathedral of Santa Fe (pictured). The novel is a kind of companion piece to Shadows on the Rock, which I wrote about recently: both books have similar virtues, and both deal with the bringing of the old gods to new places (though from the Mexican point of view, it would have been the other way round) and the concrete things that make a life - the careful preparation of food prominent among them (they are French, after all). It offers a fascinating account of its time and place, one that is sympathetic (in a realistic, unsentimental way) to the Indians and the Mexicans, as well as to the Church's endeavours. In a series of episodes spaced out across the years, Cather evokes the look and feel of New Mexico, traces events, and explores the characters of Latour and Vaillant and the deep, touching bond between the two men. There are even a few appearances by the legendary Kit Carson, one of the heroes of my boyhood!  It is a beautiful, accomplished and subtly achieved piece of writing - though, for myself, I warmed more toward Shadows on the Rock than toward this one.
  Having finished Death Comes for the Archbishop, I felt like a change, so I reached for a Stanley Elkin I'd recently bought - The Magic Kingdom. I've written about Elkin and The Dick Gibson Show before, and I should have known to expect the unexpected - but The Magic Kingdom is something else. It's essentially an exuberant black comedy about a man deranged by grief after the death of his young son - who hatches a scheme to send dying children on a dream holiday to Disney World. So far, so Elkin - but what I had not expected was an English novel, set (initially) in England, with an English protagonist and English characters all talking to each other in a bizarre Mary Poppins/ Swinging Sixties argot. The first chapter takes us straight to an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace - while finding time along the way for many a long jazzy Elkin riff, one of which could have won him a Bad Sex Prize any year. The chapter ends with the Queen signing a special Royal cheque for £50, which is not to be cashed but shown around a bit and returned to her:
'It isn't for keeps, Your Majesty?'
'Nothing is for keeps, Mr Bale.'
'You want it back? Fifty quid? You want it back?'
'Does the Pope shit in the woods?' asked the Queen of England.'
   This is going to be quite a ride...

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