"Under the moon, under the cold, splendid stars, there were only those two things awake and sleepless; death and love, the rushing river and his burning heart."
Finally, I've begun my Comprehensive Cather Quest, and what a lovely little first book for its beginning was Alexander's Bridge. I'm not entirely sure why this novel appealed to me as it decidedly does not meet my normal criterion of happy or uplifting, but at this particular moment in time, it is striking me as one of my favorite of her novels. The characterizations are wonderful, and the plot of this short, moral tale is quick and tight.
Alexander's Bridge ostensibly is about one man's mid-life crisis and the extra-marital affair resulting from his attempt to re-capture his youth. Like every other Cather novel I've ever read, however, the plot only scratches the surface of the novel's substance. At novel's beginning, Bartley Alexander is just becoming aware of the depth of his quotidian disquiet. On a trip to London, upon reflecting on his life, "He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape." When he soon crosses paths with the love of his youth, his life veers in a direction he didn't anticipate but probably should have. That's what lack of self-awareness gets us, I think. We don't know ourselves well enough to realize we're miserable until we do something drastic, like stray from a marriage.
Given the author's age at the time of her writing this novel, I wonder if she were beginning herself to feel the "dulling weariness of on-coming middle age." Maybe the approach of the "dead calm of middle life" is what prompted her after the publication of Alexander's Bridge to embrace herself as a novelist and shrug off the interference of the daily grind. I do think we all come to a time in our lives when we have to start living our true selves, letting go of social expectations, and accepting that our own path very well may not follow the "accepted" way. Thank goodness for the bravery Willa Cather found to follow her path, which allows us today the gift of passages like this one:
"After all, life doesn't offer a man much. You work like the devil and think you're getting on, and suddenly you discover that you've only been getting yourself tied up. A million details drink you dry. Your life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don't care a rap about. I sometimes wonder what sort of chap I'd have been if I hadn't been this sort; I want to go and live out his potentialities, too."
As I learn about Cather's life, I begin to suspect that the variance in her work is a reflection of her complex, complicated personality. In the prologue she wrote to Alexander's Bridge, she seems to be apologizing for its not being like her later work. I love My Antonia; it's one of my favorite novels, but some of her other work...not so much. While Alexander's Bridge isn't in the same vein nor of the same caliber as My Antonia, I found it to be much more enjoyable than some of her other work (The Professor's House, for one). Maybe a re-read of those novels will help me understand what I missed the first time. I wonder if I was just disappointed in them because they weren't My Antonia, and then I went into Alexander's Bridge expecting to be disappointed and was thus pleasantly surprised. I'm a perverse person that way. Don't tell me I'm going to like something, or I won't, and vice versa. I'm going stop trying to analyze it and just be thankful for a such a good experience to kick off my quest to know Cather more fully. Next up are her first three short stories and then on to O Pioneers! Read along if you'd like!