Monday, 21 August 2017

'I decided not to "write" at all': Willa Cather's O Pioneers!

It took me a long time to get round to Willa Cather, and it's taken me even longer to get round to her first novel (the first in her own voice, after a Jamesian flop) - O Pioneers!
  The first of her Great Plains trilogy (My Antonia is the last), it recounts the struggles of a Swedish family - led by the redoubtable Alexandra Bergson - as they try to make a living on the hostile prairie land of Nebraska. These struggles pay off handsomely, thanks to Alexandra's vision, but at a terrible human cost...  It's an extraordinary book, one that leaves you - well, left me - stunned, shaken and wondering, as always with Cather, how on earth she pulled it off.
 On the face of it, there is so much wrong with O Pioneers! - the faults of the first-timer, perhaps. An uncharitable reader could identify passages of stilted dialogue and lumpy exposition, a thinness of characterisation (as if the characters were in danger of being overwhelmed by those mighty Nebraska landscapes), a wild unevenness of tone, veering between intense lyricism and the plainest of plain speaking, between something like sentimentality and the starkest realism, and an under-writing of key events as if they were incidentals.
 However, I fancy that it is in these very faults (if you can call them that in the context of such a powerfully effective book) that the strength of the novel resides. Cather keeps you guessing, wrongfoots you, softens you up, then lands the punch that takes your breath away. It's a risky way of writing - you'd better be some kind of genius to try it - but, heavens, it comes off in the case of O Pioneers! It's not nearly as assured a performance as the equally remarkable My Antonia, but I'm sure it will live with me for just as long.
 Willa Cather said of O Pioneers! that 'I decided not to "write" at all, - simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I'd forgotten'. And that's how it reads - 'like a memory, almost,' to quote a New Yorker centennial review, 'rather than a representation'.


  1. I don't know if it is a good thing or a bad, but following your enthusiastic remarks I decided to buy some Willa Cather on the Amazon. Do you know you can get the Complete Works on the Kindle for 45p? I hope Willa is deceased and doesn't need the mony because she sure isn't going to make much.

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