Wednesday 11 September 2019

A House of Many Mansions

I've just finished reading Willa Cather's The Professor's House, a novel that tends to get overlooked even by her admirers. It has been described as 'fragmentary and inconclusive', 'broken' in structure, psychologically ambivalent and (more pompously) 'morally and psychologically unachieved'. All those supposed faults are, it seems to me, the actual strengths of a book that never spells anything out, never (as it were) makes up its mind, but lays out the elements of what it is made of and invites us to put them together ourselves. And there is a fine abundance of elements for a book so small in scale – Professor St Peter's inability to leave the old house where he has lived the most productive part of his life and move into the smart new one; his daughters and the sons-in-law, representatives of the modern world, who are now the focus of his wife's passion; Tom Outland, the gifted and beloved should-have-been son-in-law who died in the war, leaving behind a fortune that has proved a deeply troubling legacy; Outland's first-person narrative of the discovery of an ancient cave city and a lost culture in the Southwest desert (shades of The Song of the Lark); the Professor's reflections on the course of his life, on science, home (a great Cather theme), civilisation and the modern world...
 It's easy to read, or rather deconstruct, the novel as composed of unresolved oppositions, mostly revolving around the modern world of 1920s America and older civilisations, older values, each element embodied in one or more characters. Which is fine, if that's how you want to read, but personally I'd sooner enjoy (the crucial word) this novel in the way you might enjoy a three-movement sonata, or a painting – or rather a set of paintings, domestic interiors contrasted with the vibrant plein air of Tom Outland's narrative, the central section of the book that some blame for breaking the novel's structure. Which, it seems to me, makes about as much sense as saying the middle movement of a sonata breaks its structure. The Professor's House is a richly rewarding book, replete with far more than appears on the surface (as always with Cather, it's 'the heat under the simple words') – a book to be read, slowly, on its own terms, and enjoyed.


  1. It was the first Willa Cather I read, simply by virtue of being the only one in the library, and I was hooked from then on!

  2. Yes, there's something addictive about her novels, isn't there? The most benign addiction...

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