Wednesday 27 March 2019

Cather: What's to Say?

Some weeks ago, I finished reading Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, the middle novel of the so-called Prairie Trilogy (and the last of the three that I've read). I realise now that I haven't posted anything about it, except to quote a passage. But then what is there to say about Cather? I find it hard to say anything much about her, other than that she is a quite wonderful novelist, who seems more wonderful to me with each of her works that I read. And I don't know quite why, still less how she does it. Though there is clearly great strength in her narration, characterisation and scene-painting – but there seems also to be some kind of magic at work...
  Some critics, and indeed Cather's first publishers, have found a problem with The Song of the Lark – a lack of believable continuity between Thea Kronbog, the Nebraska girl we meet in the early part of the book, and Kronborg, the formidable opera star that she becomes in the course of the latter parts. Some feel that, as she ascends into the musical firmament by way of Chicago, Germany and New York, she is somehow less present, her character weakens and becomes less convincing. I sometimes felt that myself, in passing, but by the end the transition from the one Thea Kronborg to the other seemed to me entirely believable: the seeds of what she was to become – the fierce determination, the ability to harden her heart, the romantic urges, the soaring aspirations – were all present in the young girl. The later Thea is certainly at times unsympathetic, but that, for me, is one of the strengths of Cather's heroines, that they are always portrayed in the round, with all their faults – and yet they are in the end quite extraordinarily lovable. That's part of the magic.
 In general, I simply cannot explain how Willa Cather achieves the powerful effects she does, how her novels hit home with such force. But there's no denying they do.
 Leon Edel said of Cather that 'the time will come when she is ranked above Hemingway'. That time has surely come already – and I feel sure her star will rise yet higher.

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