“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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February Reading – The Month Ahead

I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile, but I thought I’d share what’s in store for me, reading-wise, in the month ahead…

Starting with my “required reading,” I have two books and one short story I’ll be reading for book clubs or discussion groups.

First, for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club, we’re reading “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.” This will be a re-read for me, as I read it last year “immediately” upon discovering it was the only one of Vonnegut’s novels that I hadn’t read. I look forward to giving it a deeper reading this time, though, in hopes of being better prepared to “discuss it intelligently” with the largely erudite membership of that group…

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I’ve also just started today in reading Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House,” which is the February selection of a discussion group at a local library whose last meeting I crashed when I learned they’d be discussing Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.” I became hungry for more Willa Cather after reading her wonderful short story, “The Old Beauty,” as part of my annual short story reading project last year.

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Speaking of short stories, I’ll be re-reading Isaac Beshevis Singer’s classic tale, “Gimpel the Fool,” for a local discussion group/chapter of the Great Books Foundation. It’s been so long ago that I read this one the first time, though, that it will be practically the same for me as reading it for the first time. (Memory problems…)

(below: Isaac Beshevis Singer)

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Other, non-required reading includes Lloyd Alexander’s “The Prydain Chronicles” of which I began a “nostalgic re-read” of last month. I first read these books when I was but ten or eleven years old. The fact that they were written for younger readers has not diminished my enjoyment of them this time, though. I’m already on the third book (of five), and they’re quick reads so I also am padding my book total for 2013 (heh, heh).

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I’ll also have four short stories for my 2013 short story reading project that I’ll Knock off this month. In fact, I finished the first one yesterday (Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry,” which I had never even heard of before today.) but there will be three more, decided – as always – by the turn of (hopefully) a friendly card.

What else? Oh, I’m considering reading Anna Karenina for a discussion at a bookstore in March, and it’s so long I’d better get started on it in February if I’m to have a chance at finishing it in time. Dale at Mirror With Clouds has said he’ll consider reading it along with me too – any other takers?

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One other book I’m intrigued with is “Generations of Winter” by Vassily Aksyonov, a novel that I first learned about via Ana’s review at Ana the Imp. I’m a long-time pushover for “anything Russian” (perhaps a relic from all those years playing chess, that favorite of Russian pastimes…) so this would be a natural choice for me too.

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That’s about it for me, although I’m sure I’ll read some other random short stories as well. But what about YOU? What books and stories are in your reading plans for February 2013?