Saturday, March 31, 2012

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


Rohan Maitzen said...

These comments by her are so illuminating! The introduction to my Vintage edition was quite extensive but I like hearing her own words better. You liked Myra better than I did, but I can see that there's something compelling about her decline. I just had a hard time finding her sympathetic because she didn't seem at all nice!

Jodie said...

I love hearing her words about throwing out the furniture. That seems to tie up with litlove's comments on Carther's modernism. She was trying to re-invent the novel and looking at your analysis of what she leaves out that we might expect to see in a story, she seems to have had some success in purging elements from her own writing.