“The Professor’s House” by Willa Cather

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I first discovered Willa Cather last year during my annual short story reading project. Her short story “The Old Beauty” was probably in my top ten favorite short stories of 2012 (and the competition was tough, let me tell you!). Last month, when I found out that a local library branch was reading one of her novels for its February discussion, I thought that a good enough excuse to read it myself. (The discussion isn’t until Monday, but I’m hoping to make it)

The Professor’s House is a different kind of novel than those I’m used to. About two-thirds of the way through, it fractures into an elaborate first-person narrative of the backstory revolving around the character Tom Outland. Up until that part of the book, we are familiar with Tom only through his former interaction with the title character and his family. One of Professor Godfrey St. James’ daughters was even formerly engaged to Tom, who had died tragically in The Great War (that’s World War I for those unfortunate enough to be born later and to know there was more than one “world” war).

Tom was also the inventor of a machine, the patent for which brings in a considerable amount of income, which he willed to the professor’s daughter (since married to another man). We also learn that, in all his years of teaching, Tom was the one student who truly stirred the Professor’s intellect.

But what does all this have to do with a Professor facing a middle age crisis? This is, after all, what the novel is ostensibly about: at about age fifty, the professor and his wife are finally moving to a nicer house. Problem is, he doesn’t want to leave the old house, which includes an “attic” workspace, cold and drafty and dangerously heated by an unreliable gas stove – not to mention the room is shared with the family’s part-time seamstress and her dressing forms. It is in this attic that the professor has pursued his true passion – writing a multi-volume book, “Spanish Adventures in North America.” He eventually, against the advice of others, decides to continue renting this old house so that he will not lose the use of this cherished “office.”

When he declines to go on a European trip with his wife, daughter and son-in-law so that he may continue his work, he decides to work on the “diary” of Tom Outland. Outland, while working in New Mexico on a ranch, was actually a co-discoverer of some old native american ruins in the cliffs of the remote “Blue Mesa.”  The diary is more of a journal of Tom and a partner’s discoveries there, but it is at this point the novel switches gears and launches into “Tom Outland’s story.”  (I have since heard that this story was originally an independent work of Cather’s and that “The Professor’s” parts were later added as a framing story) Outland’s story was easily my favorite part of the book, with its magical descriptions of the southwest (a favorite region where I have often traveled and vacationed) and of the discovery of the ruins.

I’ll admit to being somewhat confused initially about how everything ties together with these two stories, or rather story within a story, but I think I’ve found a passage where Cather comes close to explaining it:

 “He (The Professor) had had two romances: one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and a second of the mind – of the imagination. Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along came Outland and brought him a kind of second youth.”

So, for me, not too different in age from the Professor, this book is about the possibility of awakening a second childhood in oneself, and immersing oneself in its enjoyment.  And I love that phrase “when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off”…

(Below: Ruins of cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in New Mexico.  I’ve actually been up there! Canyon de Chelly was also used as a backdrop for a somewhat cheesy western movie, “McKenna’s Gold,” starring Gregory Peck and …Omar Sharif(!) – have you seen it?)

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Have you read any of Will Cather’s novels or stories?  Which are your favorites?  Which would you recommend I try?

Below: Willa Cather (one of the few pictures I could find of her smiling!)

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A Short Story Steeped in Nostalgia – Willa Cather’s “The Old Beauty”

I’m so far behind in posting about my recent reading. Since reading is generally easier for me than writing, I’ll attribute this to a general laziness on my part. I’ll try to catch up with a few posts this weekend…

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Saturday I read the 46th Short Story of my 2012 reading project. Willa Cather’s “The Old Beauty” seemed to match my ’mood of the day’ quite well. Poignant and nostalgic, I found it to be a great introduction to an author I’d never read before. Sure, I’d heard of Cather from the acclaim of her books “My Antonia” and “O Pioneers!” and the latter of these was even Indianapolis’s “One City, One Book” selection several years ago but, alas, I did not participate.

(Below: Willa Cather immortalized on a postage stamp)

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I enjoyed  the chronological structure of this story, which had the effect of allowing a delicate, deferent approach to the title character of the story, Madame de Courcy. I found this quite appropriate since the character herself was somewhat distant and unapproachable.

The protagonist of story is really Mr. Henry Seabury. After a successful business career in the Orient, he has returned to Europe a few years after World War I to find it a very different place. He selects – as his place to “settle back in” – Aix-les-Bains in Eastern France because he thought it was “a spot that was still more or less as it used to be.” When the story begins, the title character is “in the news” and intrusive reporters are troubling Seabury for comment. The story then steps back a couple months to when he first arrived in Aix-les-Bains. In this episode, he meets some tourists from Devonshire, and, while dining with them, espies “the Old Beauty” Madame de Courcy, who he knew many years before as Gabrielle Longstreet, originally from the island of Martinique. She was “discovered” there by a yachting English nobleman, and carried off to London where she made quite an impact:

“Gabrielle was not socially ambitious, made no effort to please. She was not witty or especially clever, had no accomplishments beyond speaking French as naturally as English. She said nothing memorable in either language. She was beautiful, that was all. And she was fresh. She came into that society of old London like a quiet country dawn.”

Seabury, in yet another leap back in time, then recalls her history and their meeting so many years ago. It is only after this that we return – almost – to the present, and he renews his acquaintance with her.

She is painted as a tragic figure – she had eventually parted from Longstreet and remarried the frenchman, de Courcy, who is later killed in the war. The war has further disturbed her equilibrium as it has left the world she knew greatly changed. Her traveling companion explains to Seabury at one point, “You see she thought, once the war was over, the world would be just as it used to be. Of course it isn’t.”

Just as the world has changed, so has she. She is no longer the young, beautiful exotic she once was. This is another adjustment she found difficult. Cather treats the reader to a couple great quotations. She says of Seabury:

“Plain women, he reflected, when they grow old are – simply plain women. Often they improve. But a beautiful woman may become a ruin.”

Then also notes- on Gabrielle’s not wearing make-up of any kind:

“Cheap counterfeits meant nothing to a woman who had had the real thing for so long.”

I’ll not reveal any “major” spoilers regarding the eventual fate of The Old Beauty and her reunion with her friend. I will say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and that it was a great vehicle by which to contemplate the transience of not just “beauty” but also the world that one grows comfortable in. One final quote below, which I think is representative of the mood and tone of this story:

“Perhaps the few very beautiful women he remembered in the past had been illusions, had benefited by a romantic tradition which played upon them like a kindly light… and by an attitude in men which no longer existed.”

Have you read this story by Willa Cather? What else of hers have you read? Where should I turn next among her works…?

(Below: The beautiful Aix-les-Bains on lake Bourget <picture from Wikipedia>)

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