Tuesday, February 22, 2011

the last book I read

My Ántonia by Willa Cather.

Some novels grab you by the throat from the moment you read the blurb on the back cover. Hermaphrodite human-alligator hybrids storm a spaceship transporting Hitler's children into the heart of the Sun? The world's deadliest assassin gets sent on a top secret sex mission to the future to retrieve the Holy Grail? Sign me up!

On the other hand, a novel written in 1918 and describing the Bohemian immigrant experience against the background of a farming community on the Great Plains of Nebraska in the 1880s may be a bit of a harder sell, but bear with me.

Jim Burden has recently been orphaned, so he's been sent out to a farm near the settlement of Black Hawk, Nebraska (based on Willa Cather's former real-life home Red Cloud, Nebraska, apparently) to live with his grandparents. Also just arrived in the area are the Shimerda family from Bohemia (i.e. the modern Czech Republic), comprising Mum & Dad and the children Ambrosch, Marek (who is a bit, hem hem, "special"), Ántonia and Yulka. Jim soon strikes up a friendship with Ántonia and is charged by her father with the task of teaching her to speak English.

Jim and Ántonia's friendship persists as the years go by; it's not all beer and skittles though, for the Shimerdas in particular. Swindled out of a large portion of his money by unscrupulous locals, Mr. Shimerda retires to the barn and shoots himself in the face with a shotgun, as you do. Ántonia abandons her education to help Ambrosch out with the farm work, and, when Jim's family move into Black Hawk, gets a job with a local family as a maid.

Time passes, Jim grows up, and starts to get those icky feelings, you know, down there. Trouble is, all the town girls seem sort of anaemic and timid next to Ántonia and her immigrant farm-girl chums, including luscious Swede Lena Lingard, who catches Jim's eye. Eventually he realises that if he keeps up his habits he's going to go blind, so he heads off to college and thence to Harvard Law School and a successful career as a lawyer. Twenty years later he finally fulfils his promise to see Ántonia again, and finds her living back on a farm - abandoned by her first husband, she has married again and now supervises a raucous houseful of children (ten of them).

An obvious point of reference here is Sunset Song, with which this has a number of parallels: feisty female protagonist (for all that Jim is nominally the narrator Cather doesn't make him interesting enough to get in Ántonia's way too much) afflicted with various misfortunes including the early death of her father and a doomed first marriage, the novel's setting and landscape almost being an extra character, a firmly practical sort of secularism and egalitarianism and lack of religiosity. Sunset Song was a lot less coy about sex, though - there's nothing as unambiguous as Chris dragging Long Rob off to the hayloft before he heads off to war here; Jim's relationship with Lena Lingard is treated a lot more coyly, for instance (interestingly Cather herself was almost certainly a lesbian).

For all that this is a proto-feminist novel it doesn't deviate that much from the accepted order of things - at the end Ántonia has settled into her appointed role as a housewife and baby machine, while it's Jim who is the hot-shot big-city lawyer. Strangely, while Jim's head was turned early in life by the brown-skinned wiry farm-girls he grew up with, he seems to have ended up married to one of the strait-laced all-American girls he previously affected disdain for. No doubt there is some sort of compensation going on here for his previous unrequited love for Ántonia.

It's more a series of sketches than a novel with a rollicking plot (so no hermaphrodite alligators, sorry), but the evocation of the vastness of the landscape is good, as is the general precariousness of people's lives - if you trod in a gopher hole and broke your ankle you were, unless you were very lucky, fucked, likewise if an inopportune rainstorm took your potato crop you were going to be living (again, if you were lucky) on rats and twigs come springtime.

Like Sunset Song though, it's a good deal more cheerful and less grim than all that makes it sound: the bonds of friendship, the unbreakableness of the human spirit, all that sort of stuff. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, anyway, if that helps at all.

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