Friday, March 25, 2011

A Surge of Something Fine - #22

STORY: "'A Death in The Desert'" - If you want to read this story, friends, google it …Also, I don't know what the deal is with the quotes. In my book, this story has quotation marks around it, as though the title is an allusion or quotation. I like to be accurate about these things.

FROM: THE TROLL GARDEN (Signet, 1961, originally pub. 1905)

BASICALLY: A man who is continually mistaken for his famous composer brother chances upon one of the brother's former students, dying of tuberculosis in the Wyoming desert. He'd been in love with her himself when he was young--though like everyone else, she sees in him only his resemblance to his brother. But she needs him, precisely for this resemblance, and so he stays.

I'm having a little trouble getting started on this Willa Cather story. A part of me doesn't seem to want to analyze it. Don't know why, exactly. Maybe because while it's odd and flawed, there's also something thrilling and great running around inside of it. Maybe something fragile. Cather herself didn't care for "'Death in the Desert'"—in a letter, she referred to it as "such a weak story!". Which is true. But it's not bad in the same way it would be in the hands of a lesser author. If I poke at it too much, will I still be able to like it?

The story is built around a simple coincidence: Everett Hilgarde alights from a four-hours-late train in Cheyenne and happens to be spotted by a woman in a phaeton at the crossing of the tracks. That woman happens to be Katharine Gaylord, a former student of Everett's brother Adriance and, before her devastating illness, successful in her own right as a singer (mainly thanks to her sheer determination). So, that's a thingrandom coincidence is kind of a weak foundation. But it only bothered me a little.

Adriance, the renowned composer brother, possesses a magnetic, charismatic, mercurial personality that draws admiration and love to him everywhere he goes. A pretty believable characteristic, maybe a bit dramatic. In a piece of fantastically overwrought dialogue (which I kind of like anyway), Everett explains to Katharine that 

People were naturally always fonder of Ad than of me, and I used to feel the chill of reflected light pretty often. It came into even my relations with my motherShe did her whole duty by each of us, but it was sort of generally understood among us that she'd have made burnt offerings of us all for Ad any day. I was a little fellow then, and when she sat alone on the porch in the summer dusk she used sometimes to call me to her and turn my face up in the light that streamed out through the shutters and kiss me, and then I always knew she was thinking of Adriance. 
 "I used to feel the chill of reflected light pretty often"? Come on. Even the most wonderful, gifted, sensitive person doesn't utter sentences like that. Not even in 1905.

In this vein, there are lots of speeches that go on forever and convey huge chunks of backstory. Katharine's brother, for example, appears only to ask for a visit from Everett on her behalf and to explain her psychology and history and prognosis in succinct and eloquent detail.

Okay. Yes. But. Despite the clunky placement and clunkier emotions, several of those speeches did actually make me interested in the characters Cather was trying to interest me in. (That is a Pretty Big Deal, authorial abilities-wise. Think about it. Even though elements of the story grated, the story itself drew me in and kept me hooked, so I kept reading. And we're not talking about a story with lots of distracting action.) I was glad that Katharine's brother explains so much about her character, because it happens to be interesting. Later, Katharine reminisces about her time with Adriance with the same thoroughness, but it's actually very lovely in parts, and heartfelt, and the whole thing is so dramatic but I just sort of floated along, enjoying the heightened-yet-authentic triangulation of emotions between Katharine and Everett and the absent Adriance.

And Cather, even in this early story, puts her sentences together in such a measured but energetic way. You feel them as you follow them. At first, I thought the sentences themselves were gorgeous, but actually they're not always anything special on their own. It's the flow, the way the sentences surge and move even as they're describing emotional states or physical traits. Here's an example, and it's what I'll leave you with. It's such passionate writing that maybe it almost borders on purple prose occasionally (though in other places it's restrained), but I like it a lot.  It's a great reminder, I think, that even with all the dismantling of texts that goes on around here at the Year of One Hundred Stories blog, the thing that really matters is the writer's ability to evoke feeling in a reader.

The question which most perplexed him was, "How much shall I know? How much does she wish me to know?" A few days after his first meeting with Katharine Gaylord, he had cabled his brother to write her. He had merely said that she was mortally ill; he could depend on Adriance to say the right thing--that was a part of his gift. Adriance always said not only the right thing, but the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing. His phrases took the color of the moment and the then-present condition, so that they never savored of perfunctory compliment or frequent usage. He always caught the lyric essence of the moment, the poetic suggestion of every situation. Moreover, he usually did the right thing, the opportune, graceful, exquisite thing--except, when he did very cruel things--bent upon making people happy when their existence touched his, just as he insisted that his material environment should be beautiful; lavishing upon those near him all the warmth and radiance of his rich nature, all the homage of the poet and troubadour, and, when they were no longer near, forgetting--for that also was a part of Adriance's gift.


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