Sunday, November 24, 2013

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop
by Willa Cather
read: 2013
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #61

I like to think of myself as an enlightened person, but occasionally I find myself humbled. I didn't know anything about Willa Cather and assumed basically every female author from the early part of the 20th Century was writing novels about romance or family. I was surprised to pick up Death Comes for the Archbishop and find myself reading a Western. I was also blown away; it's an amazing book, one of the most beautiful, inspiring, multi-layered, and poignant novels I've ever read.

There are lot of different lenses through which to view Death Comes for the Archbishop. The friendship between Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant runs like a backbone through the novel and the scene where the Latour sends Vaillant away for the last time rings with poignancy. The two men display different models of faith, with Vaillant's unwavering while Latour struggles with doubt at times. The story is also an examination of the Southwest, with Cather painting the physical beauty of the environment and also the cultural landscape, as the various Spanish, Mexican, Native American, and American influences shape society. And while the story isn't a Western in the sense of cowboys and gunfights, the priests are portrayed as heroic, overthrowing corrupt priests and helping the poor and needy with little regard for themselves.

The most interesting thread running through the novel was the role of tradition and legacy and how it differed between the Indians and the Europeans. Bishop Latour observes the European tradition early on the novel, when sampling Father Vaillant's onion soup:
"I am not deprecating your individual talent, Joseph," the Bishop continued, "but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup."
The Bishop observes tradition in the Native American people, too. But while the Europeans share their gifts with the world, the Indians hide theirs:
It was said that this people had from time immemorial kept a ceremonial fire burning in some cave in the mountain, a fire that had never been allowed to go out, and had never been revealed to white men.
Bishop Latour learns this difference between the cultures, judging that "it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it," while "it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything." On returning to France late in his career, Latour decides he will spend his final years in the Southwest where "the wind made one a boy again." But while he notices that this pure, unspoiled quality "vanished after they were tamed by man," Latour is still a man of the European tradition, and in his great act as Archbishop builds a Cathedral in Santa Fe even though few seem to appreciate it. Is this a noble act for the future good of the Church and the people of the Southwest? Or is a selfish act for Latour's personal legacy, emblematic of the way the white man is destroying the unsullied nature of the land? Or both? The ambiguity reflects the complexity of the novel and Cather's empathy for all viewpoints.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Women In Love

Women In Love
by D.H. Lawrence
read: 2013
Modern Library #49, Guardian 1000 Novels

Women In Love is a sequel to The Rainbow, I guess. Strictly speaking, it picks up where The Rainbow left off, following the adventures of Ursula Brangwen in her quest to find love and meaning. It's quite a bit different in scope, though; while The Rainbow spans three generations, Women In Love all takes place in a year or two.

The first part of this book reminded me of the HBO show Girls, where the characters - all successful, employed, intelligent, attractive people - nevertheless find ways to make themselves unhappy. The later part of the story took a darker turn though.

Of the four major characters, we probably get inside Gerald's head the least, but I didn't appreciate his importance until the end. Gerald has the most interesting history - he killed his brother accidentally as a child, though the novel never directly addresses his feelings around that incident. His decision not to accept Rupert's love is really the moral turning point of the story and the most heartbreaking missed opportunity, and eventually results in his death. But during the tale he feels like the least-important of the four major characters. Perhaps there were subtle things I missed along the way, but I don't especially feel inclined to go back and read it.

Friday, November 1, 2013


by Stephen King
read: 2013

Professor Corey Olson, "The Tolkien Professor," talks about how Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for the British Isles, feeling that the lack of mythology was a cultural void for the English. If that's a gap in British lore, it's certainly a massive hole in American culture, which exists (except for the American Indians) entirely in the era of recorded history. If there's little English mythology, there's even less American.

I don't know if Stephen King imagined It as an attempt to fill in that gap, but there are certainly some elements. Despite the cover photo, it's not about a killer clown; it's about an alien force that's been there since "[t]wo hundred years ago ... that long, and only God knows how much longer." When the first settlers arrive in Derry, Maine, where It lives, they are wiped out in a mysterious event reminiscent of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, only the history books don't tell of this disappearance. Every 27 years or so, It returns, killing children and provoking men into acts of violence. It feeds on the faith of children: "... [T]he source of power is faith, not food. ... In Derry, power seems to be perpetuated and renewed by periodic ritualistic acts ..." It takes various physical forms, usually assuming the shape of Its' victim's greatest fears.

The novel posits a sort of American mythology, a timeless force of evil that lives in an undiscovered country "since the beginning of time ... since before there were men anywhere ..." and becomes the essence of the town itself. There is a good force that helps the protagonists, The Turtle, which created the Earth and "is the oldest thing anyone could imagine." It is a horror novel, but the mythological background makes it more interesting than your typical creature feature.