Saturday, March 31, 2012

my Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

How apropos is this?

Last night one of the library's regular patrons, a Chinese man who often has us explain English idioms or figures of speech that have confounded him, came by to ask if I'd participate in a one-question survey he was taking.

Sure, I said.

Do you, he said, regard your spouse as a friend or an enemy?

And I, who'd finished My Mortal Enemy less than 24 hours before, startled him by ducking underneath the desk for my purse, then brandishing my Cather before him, telling him he had to read this book.

He wrote down Cather's name, then told me 70 percent of married Chinese consider their spouse their enemy while 70 percent of Americans consider them their friend. He didn't understand why there was such a wide swing in perception between the two nationalities. I suggested it might be because Americans generally divorce a spouse they regard as an enemy.

But now, today, I'm thinking about how my own parents would have fallen into the enemy camp, and they were married for more than 61 years.

My mother remained angry at my dad throughout my life, for more than 40 years, because of something he'd done before I was born (I was a midlife accident; they'd eloped when she was 17 and he was 22 and no one --i.e., my sister-- told me what he'd done to get in her bad graces until I was 22, a month or so shy of marrying myself). Then, during  the final months of their lives (they died five weeks apart), thanks to the Alzheimers, she either forgave him, or more likely, forgot that she had ever been mad at him. Unfortunately, my dad remembered that anger and while the series of strokes he'd endured left him unable to communicate with anyone very well verbally, his demeanor made it clear he had not forgiven her.

What a mess we can make of our lives if we put our minds to it, huh?

I can't remember if I connected my parents' relationship with that of the characters in My Mortal Enemy when I read it in '83. My suspicions are that I probably speculated more on how a particular friend would grow to regard her husband as her mortal enemy if he failed to provide her with the level of material success and social standing she desired--back then another friend and I were quite intrigued with her machinations and expressed desire: I want more. We couldn't figure out how she always managed to get it. Shouldn't the universe at some point say no?

So, now that I've gotten all that out of the way, on to an the actual  Willa Cather novella.

It is, as you may have surmised, the story of a marriage gone awry. Myra Driscoll falls in love with Oswald Henshawe, the son of a man her wealthy uncle, who's raised her, holds a grudge against. Myra's uncle gives her an ultimatum: marry Oswald and get cut off without a penny. "It's better to be a stray dog in this world than a man without money," he warns her.

With the help of her friends, who are thrilled with the secret romance, Myra chooses love over money, and elopes with Oswald, never once returning to attempt reconciliation with the uncle, who leaves his fortune to the Catholic church. As our narrator Nellie Birdseye tells us (Nellie is the daughter of one of Myra's girlhood friends), "[H]er life had been as exciting and varied as ours was monotonous." But Nellie finds it disheartening when her aunt Lydia, who remains in touch with Myra over the years, reports that they are only "as happy as most people." Nellie's opinion is that "the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people."

At the age of 15, Nellie finds herself spending the Christmas holiday in New York with the Henshawes and her aunt. She observes Myra at her best--when she is with her artistic set of friends--and at her worst--quarreling with, then leaving Oswald, who is expected to come to her in Pittsburgh to win her back. Although ample evidence is presented that Oswald has a secret life and may very well be conducting an affair, Myra's conduct keeps her from gaining much sympathy from either Nellie or her aunt:

Aunt Lydia was very angry. "I'm sick of Myra's dramatics," she declared. "I've done with them. A man never is justified, but if ever a man was. . . "
Ten years later, on the West Coast, Nellie finds the Henshawes living in the same hotel as she. They have fallen on hard times financially and are, as Myra calls it, "in temporary eclipse" from their friends. Myra is in fact dying, and consumed by regrets for how her life has turned out, questioning why she in the position to die, "alone with my mortal enemy":

She smoothed his hair. "No, my poor Oswald, you'll never stagger far under the bulk of me. Oh, if youth but knew!" She closed her eyes and pressed her hands over them. "It's been the ruin of us both. We've destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We've thrown our lives away."

"Come, Myra, don't talk so before Nellie. You don't mean it. Remember the long time we were happy. That was reality, just as much as this."

"We were never really happy. I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman; I wanted success and a place in the world. Now I'm old and ill and a fright, but among my own kind I'd still have my circle; I'd have courtesy from people of gentle manners, and not have my brains beaten out by hoodlums. Go away, please, both of you, and leave me!" She turned her face to the wall and covered her head.
While Oswald remains devoted to her (although simultaneously enjoying the admiration of another young woman living in the hotel), Myra becomes focused on Catholicism, literature and nature. She misses her long-dead uncle, thinks he wisely left his money where it was needed and would do good, and claims how like him she really is:

"We were very proud of each other, and if he'd lived till now, I'd go back to him and ask his pardon; because I know what it is to be old and lonely and disappointed. Yes, and because as we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forebears put into us. I can feel his savagery strengthen in me. We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeleton."
Myra calls on the savagery within herself to face death on her own terms. Nellie is left to comfort Oswald, and come to grips with the hard lesson learned from the woman who uttered "such a terrible judgment upon all one hopes for."

I wonder if Myra had lived longer, if she would have managed to forgive her husband for his transgressions, the way she came to  forgive her uncle. Or would she have continued to believe that she couldn't forgive him because of the harm she'd done to him? Even Nellie, earlier in the story, had sensed that Oswald's life "had not suited him; that he possessed some kind of courage and force which slept, which in another sort of world might have asserted themselves brilliantly."

What a mess we can make of our lives even if we don't put our minds to it.

Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy is an unlikely choice for my first experience of Willa Cather - it's obscure enough that the Americanist colleague I hit up for a copy to borrow not only didn't have it and hadn't read it, but hadn't even heard of it, and the only copy in our university library is a 1926 edition so old and fragile it is stored in a box because it is considered too flimsy even to restore. Apparently, then, My Mortal Enemy is not the go-to Cather text.

Because I haven't read any other Cather, I'm not in a position to say whether that's because it's anomalous or in some way not up to her usual standards. The introduction to the Vintage edition I finally opted for as an e-book has a long introduction that holds it up as exemplary, particularly of her prose style, which has, says its author, 'a relentless purity of style' which is 'never so pure and never so relentless as in My Mortal Enemy . . . the novel makes a raid on all amplitudes, all mere pleasantness, and all sloppiness.'

As I was reading it, I can't say that I was noticing any particular purity of style, but I did feel the absence of pleasantness. The novella tells the story of Myra Henshawe, an heiress who abandons her father's fortune to marry for love. Her elopement has taken on an almost mythical quality in her home town, where the narrator, Nellie, grows up hearing about her. When Nellie finally meets her, she feels 'quite overpowered' by her, and Nellie is indeed overpowered by Myra throughout the novella - she is a narrator of almost no interest herself, as far as I can tell, serving only as a device to present and contrast with Myra's more showy and emotionally intense character. Myra lives life loud, but her sacrifice for love has not brought her happiness, and the love itself has not proved lasting: when Nellie goes to stay with Myra and her husband Oswald in New York, she eventually sees that despite their superficial displays of unity and affection, the reality is more complex and even sinister. The realization appalls Nellie in a way that would seem disproportionate if it weren't for the status marvellous Myra and her magical marriage have had in Nellie's youthful imagination:

This delightful room had seemed to me a place where lightheartedness and charming manners lived--housed there just as the purple curtains and the Kiva rugs and the gay water-colours were. And now everything was in ruins. The air was still and cold like the air in a refrigerating-room. What I felt was fear; I was afraid to look or speak or move. Everything about me seemed evil. When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.

When Nellie next meets Oswald and Myra, they are living in a dingy apartment-hotel where she, having fallen on unspecified hard times, has also taken up residence. Myra is an invalid tortured beyond reason by the clattering and thumping and shrieking of their unsympathetic upstairs neighbours (actually, having lived in basement apartments, I understand how crazy this can make you!). There's nothing left of even superficial glamour in their lives, only bitterness and defeat. Is it tempered at all by the Henshawes' love for each other? Oswald waits on Myra faithfully, even devotedly, and she responds with occasional tenderness, but seeing them now and knowing what she knows, too, Nellie cannot see this as the last phase of a great passion.

Myra's death is clearly meant to be climactic, but I had trouble discerning the precise nature of the conflict to which it is the crisis. "Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?" cries out Myra. But I didn't understand what she meant or why (or whether) I was supposed to rebel with her or judge her. I wasn't enthralled by Myra's character, and I don't think we are meant to be: there's nothing truly grand or heroic about it, and there's something unpleasantly melodramatic about the way she plays her own part. She's more interesting than anyone else in the novella, though, which I suppose is, indirectly, a critical reflection on the roles people usually play. She's not a tragic heroine--if there's any tragedy, I think it's in the gap between our (or at least Nellie's) expectation that love is worth everything else and the sordid culmination of Myra's life story, in which her grand gesture has done nobody any good.

After finishing the novella I turned to the introduction for ideas, and its author argues that Myra's enemy is 'friendship and love, human relationship itself.' He reads her angry cry as a pun that refers also to her husband, who is 'her enemy because he is the source for her of human relationship, of that which passes without fulfillment, of mortality.' That is, I guess, her husband is standing in for all the false hopes and promises that human relationships bring meaning, and for the inevitable collapse of that beautiful dream in the face of mortality. That sounds plausible enough when he explains it, though it seems to me to take quite a bit of reading into - perhaps, quite a bit of bringing to - the novel what isn't obvious to someone encountering Cather's ethos for the first time. I didn't feel like I was reading My Mortal Enemy very well: I couldn't seem to get oriented in it, and then it was already over. What I'm left with is an interest in reading something more expansive of Cather's, something that gives me a better chance at understanding her for myself.

(cross-posted to Novel Readings)

My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather is even short for a novella. It took me about two hours to read it, give or take. The story is about Myra, an outgoing, ambitious, woman who elopes with her boyfriend Oswald and runs away to New York City with him, leaving small town Parthia Illinois behind. In eloping, Myra gives up all claim to her inheritance from the wealthy great uncle who raised her. But Oswald is up-and-coming. When the story begins, Myra accompanies Oswald on a business trip in which they stop off in Parthia for a visit. It is the first time Myra has returned to Parthia since she and Oswald left it. She has become somewhat of a legend. Oswald has been successful and Myra is glamourous and fashionable and sophisticated in the eyes of her former friends in Parthia.

Myra and Lydia rekindle their old friendship. Lydia makes sure her niece, Nellie Bridseye, who is, with such a name, also the narrator of the story, meets Myra. And before you know it, Lydia and Nellie have been invited to spend the Christmas holidays in New York with Myra and Oswald.

The visit is a great success. New York is exciting and exotic and Myra is the most generous host. But all is not well in paradise. When Lydia and Nellie are on the train to go home, Myra appears as well. She has had a big argument with Oswald and she is going to stay with a friend in Pittsburgh until he apologizes to her.

Ten years later Nellie is living in a shabby flat on the west coast. The economy was not good and Nellie's family had not weathered it well, so she went west for a teaching job. Imagine her surprise when she runs into Oswald and discovers he and Myra also have a flat in the building. Oswald did not fair well in the economy either. He lost his good job and his money and now Myra has a terminal illness and he has an enough-to-get-by kind of job with the railroad.

That's enough plot, yes? So who is the mortal enemy of the title? Myra herself. For all of Myra's ambitions and upward striving, deep down she was insecure and jealous. Her insecurity and jealousy pretty much destroyed her marriage. She and Oswald still loved each other to be sure, but it was more of a mutual affection and a holding on to what we once had that kept them together and kept them going. And then, of course, there is Myra's terminal illness, never named, but it is slowly killing her. Not only did she undermine herself but her body betrayed her too. In spite of everything, Myra is a wholly sympathetic character and I could not help but feel for her.

My copy of the novella is in a Library of America edition I borrowed from the library. I hoped it would have an introduction about Cather and her work, and I figured since it included essays and stories and some other things Cather wrote it would be fun to read a few of those pieces as well. Unfortunately, there is no introduction in the book at all. That was disappointing. However, I found several short and interesting essays Cather wrote about writing that I thought illuminated Cather's style a little.

I've read Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and My Antonia in the late 1990s. Loved them both. But haven't read anything by her since. What really struck me about Cather's style is how crisp and clean it is. It is very modern feeling. She also has a keen eye for telling details. I was not surprised then, when I read her essay "The Novel Démeublé" that begins:

The Novel, for a long while, has been over-furnished.

She goes on to say that too much detail of material things in a novel takes away rather than adds. Novels are not journalism, novels are like art:

Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present it must select the eternal material of art. There are hopeful signs that some of the younger writers are trying to break away from mere verisimilitude, and, following the development of modern painting, to interpret imaginatively the material and social investiture of their characters to the present scene by suggestion rather than enumeration.

Cather follows her own advice. There is very little in the story that sets it in a particular time other than the main form of long distance travel was by train. The story therefore lends itself to a certain feeling of timelessness. We know Myra is wealthy and her apartment is lavishly decorated, not because it is described in great detail but because it isn't. But its sumptuousness is given away by mention of the long, heavy plum-colored velvet curtains "like ripe purple fruit" lined with "that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs." Do we need more than that? We meet these same curtains later hanging across the windows in the shabby west coast flat, a last vestige of better days.

Cather also not big on describing physical sensations so we get no spine tingles or blushes or faintness or chills. In the essay "The Novel Démeublé" she says,

How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre, or as that house into which the glory of Pentacost descended; leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little - for the nursery tale, no less than the tragedy, is killed by tasteless amplitude.

In My Mortal Enemy Cather does just that. What matters most is not the scenery but the characters and what drives them. But even the characters are carefully drawn, expertly picked out; they do not suffer from "tasteless amplitude" either. It's a pitch perfect story. I am definitely not going to let another 10+ years go by before I read another Cather novel.

Cross posted at So Many Books

'My Mortal Enemy' - Willa Carther (Bookgazing)

Willa Cartha’s ‘My Mortal Enemy’ is split into two parts. In the first the narrator, Nellie, recalls being introduced to Myra Henshawe, a rebellious, exciting character from the history of Nellie’s hometown Parthia, Illinois. Myra broke with her rich father when she was young and left her wealth behind to marry Oswald Henshawe. Nellie’s aunt Lydia was Myra’s close friend, a guest at her illicit wedding and makes sure that Nellie meets Myra and Oswald when the couple briefly return to Illinois.

Myra is the kind of character who naturally fascinates a fifteen year old ingĂ©nue from the country, like Nellie. When they first meet Myra is dressed in velvet, with amethysts at her neck and she radiates a commanding poise, but also a charming lightness. I got the feeling that she wins people’s admiration by fashioning herself into a shape that is deliberately calculated to impress, holding her chin just so and standing still when Nellie enters so that her young visitor must go to meet her. Nellie is quite flustered by her ‘formality’ and verbal prodding, yet she also finds herself desperate for the older woman’s approval. She is dazzled by Myra, but sure she doesn’t have a hope of winning her favour, but instead of despising her for their difference (which seems to one common reaction in literature to feeling inferior to another woman) Nellie very much wants Myra to like her.

Unfortunately, although Nellie likes Myra she can never be quite sure ‘whether she was making fun of me or the thing we were talking about’ and feels that ‘Her sarcasm was so fine, at the point—it was like being touched by a metal so cold one doesn’t know whether one is burned or chilled’. She also describes Myra’s special, hard edged laugh, which is held back for addressing foolishness:

‘ “How good it is,” my mother exclaimed, “to hear Myra laugh again!”

Yes it was good. It was sometimes terrible, too, as I was to find out later. She had an angry laugh for instance, that I still shiver to remember. Any stupidity made Myra laugh for instance, that I still shiver to remember. Any stupidity made Myra laugh—I was destined to hear that one often! Untoward circumstances, accidents, even disasters, provoked her mirth. And it was always mirth, not hysteria; there was a spark of zest and wild humour in it.’

Myra is the kind of woman that many want to befriend, because she gives off an impressive, confident feeling that makes those around her aspire to be worthy of love from such a fabulous, thrilling person. Of course, when friendship is based on the desire of one person to be made worthy by another’s love the desperate fear of rejection is always present in that relationship. Myra appears well aware of the fact that she is free to criticise others and appears to enjoy inspiring the fear of disapproval in those she meets. People want her good opinion, partly because her bad feeling is so hard to endure and partly I suspect, because it is better to be laughed at by Myra than to be part of the dull set away from Myra (the book does not explore this idea, I’m just extrapolating subconscious feelings based on other books I’ve read about fascinating, well dressed women who have a rather harsh streak – literary scholars would strike me down for this I’m sure).

There's no denying though that an enduring and heartfelt attitude to friendship sits alongside this nettling aspect of her nature. When Nellie describes the special way that Myra says her friend’s names her words conveys the feeling that Myra is devoted to the people she cares about:

‘When she but mentioned the name of some one whom she admired, one got an instant impression that the person must be wonderful, her voice invested the name with a sort of grace. When she liked people she always called them by name a great many times in talking to them, and she enunciated the name, no matter how commonplace, in a penetrating way, without hurrying over it or slurring it;…’

If more evidence of Myra’s loving nature is needed then the first time Nellie sees Myra and Oswald together she observes that they seem genuinely interested in each other’s current state, even though they have been apart for perhaps an hour, in fact she notes that they seem to have an unusual amount of active affection for each other, compared with other long married couples. When Nellie and her aunt go to visit the Henshawes in New York for Christmas Myra sends a large Christmas bush to an actress friend who will be spending the season alone, which seems like a generous offering (although Oswald manages to hint that there may be less altruistic motives behind this gift). All of these details suggest that while Myra may partially rule her circle through fear and inequality, she can react with genuine, spontaneous love towards the people she likes.

The novella skilfully plays directs the reader to both like and dislike Myra, just as Nellie constantly changes her opinion of the central character. This direction is not just intended to show Myra as a human character, both flawed and wonderful, but to set up a very clever trick at the end of the novel that revolves around the hidden truth at the heart of the Henshawe’s marriage. So, many episodes which produced a conflicted feeling about Myra and Oswald’s relationship, as well as conflicting portraits of Myra, are included, for example while Nellie and Lydia are visiting at Christmas Oswald asks Lydia to present him with a pair of topaz cufflinks as a Christmas gift. They are from a young woman who admires him, he says and although their friendship is perfectly innocent Myra won’t let them in the house, unless they appear to come from someone more respectable. Lydia agrees, but it is clear to the reader (although perhaps not to Nellie as narrator) that Myra has spotted the trick right away, as she makes an incredible fuss over how lovely the cufflinks are, practically forcing her husband to wear them out, while he is seems suddenly unhappy and unwilling to have them.

This episode can be read as a re-enforcement of the idea that Myra rather controls her husband and that she prefers manipulative laughter and underhanded slights, to more straight forward talk. Perhaps, the reader is led to think, it is Myra’s fault that Oswald strays, or at least keeps gifts from young women, because she is so petty and poisons their marriage by refusing to fly into a rage, or react normally. Perhaps she is too hard on him and people in general. These thoughts may be supported by other evidence for this idea that appeared earlier in the novel, such as the way that Nellie first describes her, the story of her leaving her father and an incident when Nellie first met the couple where Myra exercised extreme control over her husband’s choice of clothes. When Nellie arrives at their apartment one day to find them arguing over a key: Myra assuring him she will go through any door she likes; Oswald with what seems like a rational explanation, she feels sorry for the man and thinks she will never like Myra so well again. As she and Aunt Lydia leave for home Myra throws a last barb at her dear friend, which provokes Lydia to exclaim that ‘ “A man never is justified, but if ever a man was…” '. Perhaps, the reader may think, Lydia is right.

Still, the novel makes it clear that all may not be as simple as it seems. In the second part of the novella Nellie meets the Henshawes again. Ten years have passed and Nellie has moved into a wretched apartment hotel and is looking for work. The Henshawes also have an apartment in the building. They have fallen into financial difficulties and Myra is incapacitated by illness. Oswald cares for his wife and Nellie finds no fault in his behaviour, in fact she still feels sorry for him because Myra appears to treat him worse and worse as her illness progresses. Eventually, in a fit of openness and wandering provoked by the illness she seems to pronounce him her ‘mortal enemy’.

Although Nellie re-interprets this line and comes to believe that Myra is speaking of herself, a woman undone by her own jealousy, pride and controlling nature, there are signs that Oswald may not be as easy to vindicate as Nellie thinks. He takes pleasure in speaking with a young woman, although everything about their relationship seems innocent to Nellie. Myra appears to grow more afraid of him as the days go on, although Nellie attributes this to the illness. Perhaps most significantly Oswald still openly wears his topaz cufflinks, the ones given to him by a young admirer. And when that detail is revealed easily and without apparent concern by Nellie, it is hard for the reader not to think back on the small details that reveal Oswald as a more complicated man than the sweet, saintly carer Nellie sees now. Suddenly, I was reminded of the man who flashes his wife a look containing ‘amusement, incredulity and bitterness’ when she gives away his new shirts.

The final question for the reader, once Myra succumbs to her illness, is whether Myra was at fault in this marriage, or was she a woman trapped by a husband who forced her into bitter and petty reactions? Was Oswald really hiding a Sir Percival Glyde personality, underneath a clever facade? Or is there something even more complicated at the heart of their marriage, something to do with Nellie’s feeling that Oswald’s life ‘had not suited him; that he possessed some kind of courage and force which slept, which in another world might have asserted themselves brilliantly.’ while Myra is clearly such a strong personality, but perhaps one confined to too small sphere. Are there people who should never marry for fear of drowning each other out and bringing out the worst qualities in their partners? When Nellie finally separates from Oswald after Myra’s death, she takes the necklace of amethysts that Myra wore when they first met, but she can never wear them, ‘they are unlucky’ and when she wears them she hears ‘that strange complaint…: “Why must I die alone like this, alone with my mortal enemy!” '. By the end of the novel I think Nellie is unsure who that line refers to and so was I.

‘My Mortal Enemy’ tells a simple story although, but often it’s the simplicity of the way a book lays out a situation, the precise nature of its descriptions and the fluent, uncluttered nature of the way a story is told that makes it strike the heart, rather like Myra’s laugh of ‘cold metal’. Thanks to the Slaves of Golconda and litlove for providing me with an opportunity to read it (litlove actually sent me a photocopy of her own book so I could take part in the readalong). I know there are a lot of themes under the surface of this story that I haven’t dipped into and I’m so looking forward to hearing what everyone else has to say.