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My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

April 12, 2018 11 comments

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (1926) (French title: Mon mortel ennemi.)

People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were.… A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other. Perhaps I can’t forgive him for the harm I did him. Perhaps that’s it. When there are children, that feeling, goes through natural changes. But when it remains so personal … something gives way in one. In age we lose everything; even the power to love.

I’d never heard of My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather before reading Guy’s review and this novella intrigued me immediately.

It’s the story of the unhappy marriage between Myra and Oswald seen through the eyes of an external observer, Nellie. Myra was friends with Nellie’s mother and Aunt Liddy. As a young woman, she fell in love with Oswald Henshaw and when her guardian and uncle heard about the romance, he threatened to disinherit her. She eloped from their small town to marry Oswald Henshaw and her rich uncle followed through. He left his fortune to charities. She chose love against fortune and in Nellie’s eyes, it’s quite romantic.

Nellie is our narrator and she had three opportunities to be in contact with Myra. The first time was at home, when she was a teenager and Myra was visiting. The second time was in New York, where she goes for a while with her Aunt Liddy. The third time is a chance reunion as the Henshaw and Nellie live in the same neighborhood in San Francisco.

The crux of the novella is: did Myra made a good decision when she chose love instead of her uncle’s money? How does she live with this decision? How does Oswald live with her sacrifice? How does their couple survive this strong beginning?

Myra is not a likeable character and Nellie’s not comfortable with her.

And I was never sure whether she was making fun of me or of the thing we were talking about. Her sarcasm was so quick, so fine at the point—it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one doesn’t know whether one is burned or chilled.

As a reader I don’t know what to think of her. She’s a complex character, nice in some ways and harsh in other ways. She feels that her marriage is not up to the sacrifice she made and she hovers over Oswald as if to sustain a fire of love that isn’t there anymore. She sounds like she’s working on persuading herself that she’s so happy, making a show of it.

she was clearly glad to see him—glad not merely that he was safe and had got round on time, but because his presence gave her lively personal pleasure. I was not accustomed to that kind of feeling in people long married.

She knows that by marrying her, Oswald also made a bet on their love. When they eloped, he was aware that she wouldn’t get any money. And yet, he did it anyways which makes me think he chose love as well, even if it meant a career he wasn’t fond of. Myra explains:

He doesn’t properly belong in business. We never speak of it, but I’m sure he hates it. He went into an office only because we were young and terribly in love, and had to be married.”

This is a story that reminded me of Edith Wharton and Henry James. Myra is a Whartonian female character and Oswald has something about Newland Archer in him. There’s a troubling episode about cufflinks that made me wonder about Oswald. Did he stay out of loyalty? Or is Myra like Catherine in Washington Square? In her young days, did she fail to see that her marriage with Oswald was doomed? Is Myra a victim of the romantic ways of her youth? Who is the mortal enemy? Each spouse for the other or themselves because they made the wrong choice?

This short novella is a real gem full of fascinating questions underlying Myra and Oswald’s story. I avoid spoilers in billets but there is much more to discuss about Myra and Oswald’s relationship. Cather’s strength is that she leaves the reader in the dark; it’s up to you to make up your mind about the two main characters.

It’s a text that raises questions about love and marriage that are still relevant today. How do we recognize true love, the one that was worth making the kind of sacrifice that Myra made? How do you live with yourself when your spouse had made a big sacrifice for you? It also shows that today’s freedom is great: in the 21st century, Myra and Oswald could have moved in together and see how things would go. In 1926, they had to get married.

If I were an English teacher, I’d put My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather on the syllabus. It’s short (around 100 pages, depending on the edition), it’s ambiguous and can lead to heated discussions between Team Myra and Team Oswald.

Highly recommended

Literature in relation to American paintings in the 1930s

November 5, 2016 29 comments

At the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, there’s currently an exhibition called La peinture américaine des années 1930. (American painting in the 1930s) It displays the trends in painting in America during the Great Depression according to several themes: rural landscapes and way of life, cities and their work environment, social issues and entertainment. It is an exhibition organized with the collaboration of the Chicago Art Institute. It was already presented in Chicago and it will next go to the Royal Academy in London. It is very educational about the times, explaining the economic situation and the different art programs implemented by the federal goverment. While I was watching paintings, some reminded me of books and I couldn’t help thinking that some of them would make fantastic book covers. I’ll start with the iconic American Gothic by Grant Wood that has been borrowed by advertising and other artists. I’ve heard it called the American Joconde.

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

American Gothic 1930 Grant Wood

It’s probably one of the most famous American paintings of the time, along with the ones by Edward Hopper. It made me think of Willa Cather because these farmers seem to come right out of the 19th century and to represent the hard working pioneers.

Totally different setting: a harbour, maybe in Saint Louis. This one reminded me of American Transfer by John Dos Passos (1925) because there were parts in the harbour in New York.

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Roustabouts 1934 Joe Jones

Exploring the social impact of the crisis, some artists protested against the ravages of capitalism and showed the life of the working class. This portrait of Pat Whalen, a Communist activist brought memories of I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) Alice Neel was a Communist herself and she portrayed several activists.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel 1935

Back in New York, I immediately thought about The Outing, a short story included in Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) or A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes, even if both were published after the 1930s.

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

Street Life Harlem by William H Johnson 1939

It’s hard to talk about literature during the Great Depression without mentioning The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) In the section about rural life, there was this striking painting to express the destruction of land due to severe droughts.

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

Erosion n2 Mother Earth Laid Bare by Alexander Hogue. 1936

In the room about the entertainments of the time, Philip Evergood’s Dance Marathon (1934) would really make a great cover for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1935), a book where a couple enters a dance marathon.

Dance Marathon by Philip Evergood 1934

Philip Evergood pictures the extreme fatigue of the couples who shuffle on the dance floor, the circus around this inhumane entertainment and the acute need of money of the participants if they were willing to enter that kind of contest.

There were about 50 paintings but I only picked up the ones that reminded me of a book. For readers who have the opportunity to go to Paris, I recommend going to the Musée de l’Orangerie, for this exhibition but also for the permanent collection of the museum. It will also be possible to see this exhibition in London at the Royal Academy, it’s entitled America after the fall: Paintings in the 1930s and it will last from February to June 2017.

Last but not least, I bought a book at the museum’s library: La Crise. Amérique 1927-1932 by Paul Claudel and it is an excerpt of the diplomatic correspondence between Paul Claudel and his Minister Aristide Briand when Claudel was ambassador of France in Washington (1927-1933) I’ll write another billet about it as it is a fascinating read after the 2008 crisis and the current presidential election in the USA.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

December 22, 2014 22 comments

My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918) French title: Mon Ántonia

 As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

Cather_AntoniaThis is Jim Burden’s first impression of Nebraska in the early 1880s. Jim is ten, his parents are dead and he was sent from Virginia to his grand-parents’ farm in Nebraska. He arrives by train at the same time as the Shimerdas who arrive directly from Bohemia. The Shimerdas settle in a farm not far from Jim’s grandparents’ and Jim befriends with Ántonia, the eldest daughter. She’s fourteen.

In My Ántonia, Jim relates his relationship with Ántonia. My Ántonia doesn’t mean Ántonia is mine but This is my perception of Ántonia. Jim recalls his first eighteen months on the farm, the first brutal winter he and the Shimerdas spent in Nebraska. His family helped the newcomers as well as they could but Mr Shimerda was more a literate fiddle player than a farmer. The move from Europe was initiated by his wife and he never recovered from it. Jim teaches English to Ántonia and her sister because almost nobody speaks their language. The beauty of that first part is in the description of nature…

JULY CAME ON with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day. The cornfields were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather’s to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerdas’ cornfields, or Mr. Bushy’s, but the world’s cornfields; that their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war.

and in the description of hard life in a new country.

After that, Jim’s grandparents decided to move to the nearest city, Black Hawk, because they were getting old for farming and also wanted Jim to attend school. The next part of the novel is dedicated to these years of his life, also filled with Ántonia as she came to town too. She became the hired help of Jim’s neighbours. And at last, Willa Cather came out of nostalgic recollection to offer a bit of social analysis of life in Black Hawk:

THERE WAS A CURIOUS social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school. Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.

That was my favourite part of the novel. I craved for more insight on the workings of the society there. How do you create brand new towns in the middle of nowhere? This passage describes the difference between the American settlers (people coming from the East to settle in Black Hawk) and immigrants. The American girls seem lifeless to Jim because they are not allowed to go out much. In winter, it’s too cold. In the summer, it’s too hot. They are educated like European girls in a book by Gissing: they’re too high on the social ladder to work, even if poverty lurks. The only acceptable job would be to become a teacher.

Then we follow Jim to college in Lincoln (founded in 1856). It’s a rather new university, established in 1869 and Jim says:

Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, stranded ministers of the Gospel, a few enthusiastic young men just out of graduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavour, of expectancy and bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted its head from the prairie only a few years before.

It is hard to imagine, isn’t it? Especially when you live in Europe.

He doesn’t study in Lincoln very long. After a year, he joins Harvard and stays on the East Coast. He comes back once in Nebraska to see Ántonia and know what has become of her.

My Ántonia is based upon Willa Cather’s experience. She moved from Virginia to Nebraska when she was nine, then moved to a city called Red Cloud, went to the University of Nebraska and then lived in Pittsburg and New York. Jim is following the same path.

I thought My Ántonia was a nice book but it lacks the depth needed to be a great book. It’s lovely to read about the prairie, the early settlers and everyday life in Nebraska at the time. But I would have liked a bit more of analysis of the living conditions, the political context, the integration of new migrants, the rules for agriculture, the economy and all. It lacked of historical content. Jim is an adult recollecting his youth, it was easy to insert insight and analysis in his memories. Willa Cather didn’t do it and it weakens her novel. However, it is an easy and pleasant read that can be pushed towards teens.

PS: I got a French copy at Christmas last year but I found a free English copy on my ebook so I read it in English.

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