The Mortal Enemy & Obscure Destinies – Willa Cather
Though this will result in the best coming last, I’m reviewing Enemy and the stories that make up Destinies together because, though they were published separately, each volume must have been under a hundred pages. The setting for the first part of the novella is New York, a place Cather knew well – as an adult she was quite cosmopolitan. In it she has a first person narrator observe Myra and Oswald Henshawe. This couple lead a comfortable, cultured life (operas, etc.), but Nellie is perplexed by the dynamics of their marriage – something is amiss – and she remains perplexed right to the end. The problem for me is that I also remained perplexed right to the end. Though Cather seems to value – or be fascinated by – the quicksilver nature of Myra (she even grants her a romantic death), no one in Enemy got to me emotionally; it was merely a fairly interesting read. The three stories in Destinies are set in the plains of Nebraska, where the author was born and spent her early – and impressionable – years. They’re peopled not by sophisticates but by rural folk. In “Two Friends” she again has an outside observer tell the story; and, like Enemy, it was merely pretty good. But then – drum roll – we come to two gems: “Neighbor Rosicky” and “Old Mrs. Harris.” Here Cather enters the minds of her characters, and she does so with depth and sensitivity. Beyond the events that occur, the stories are about what matters in life. Rosisky and Mrs. Harris accept their lives because they live in accordance with their values. They also accept approaching death – the inevitable ending. With these “simple” characters (Rosicky has “one taproot that goes down deep”) I was more than emotionally involved; I was moved.
A Life in Letters – John Steinbeck
A collection of letters has a main character and a plot (the character’s life), but it can’t be reviewed the way a novel would. It comes down to a purely subjective consideration: was the person interesting? In the case of Steinbeck, for me the answer is yes and no. On page 356 he meets the woman who will become his third wife, and from there on my interest began to wane. And, since this is an 860 page book, there was a lot of waning going on. What also began to wane was Steinbeck’s creative output. After his last marriage, at age forty-eight, the only thing he published of consequence was East of Eden. He died at age sixty-five, so we have an artistically fallow period that lasted for almost twenty years. It’s important to note that the co-compiler of this collection was the third wife – Elaine – and she devotes about 500 pages to the period in which she’s involved. Maybe – since he became famous with The Grapes of Wrath – there were more letters available. And he was often writing to people who were of consequence (he was friendly with Adlai Stevenson, Elia Kazan, Oscar Hammerstein, etc.). But Elaine Steinbeck might have wanted to place preeminence on his years with her. At any rate, I found his early letters more engaging. During his first marriage to Carol Henning he was a struggling writer (sometimes struggling to buy food). He made a breakthrough with Tortilla Flat, followed by Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony (my favorite of all his work). And then came Grapes in 1939. Two years later he met the woman who would become his second wife. It’s interesting that in his letters written during the twelve years he was with Carol he never writes a word that suggests any problem in their marriage. She comes across as a stalwart trooper, holding two jobs, typing his manuscripts, etc. Yet in post-divorce letters he writes about how mismatched and miserable they were. Maybe he was revising history to justify his actions; I felt that he moved on, and in doing so discarded the shopworn wife for an aspiring Hollywood singer (from whom he would break after five years). Do you detect a note of disapproval in my choice of words? But John Steinbeck was only human, and he was too damn likable and decent a guy to dislike. As to why he lost the ability to produce work of note, one factor could be that in his later years (especially after receiving the Nobel Prize) his life became way too complicated – too many people, too many demands on his time, too much traveling. He was never comfortable with the status of celebrity and often expressed a desire for a life of anonymity. I don’t think he’d be bothered by the fact that my spell checker doesn’t recognize the name “Steinbeck.” He might have gotten a laugh out of it.
The Eustace Diamonds – Anthony Trollope
This novel first appeared in twenty monthly installments of the Fortnightly Review. No doubt it was eagerly awaited – how else were those in the upper crust of British society supposed to entertain themselves back in 1870? Trollope offers up a cynical look at the values of that very society, but this aspect is somewhat masked by the light, comic tone he employs. Because she’s primarily a caricature made up of moral deficiencies, no one would see themselves in Lizzie Eustace (Lady Eustace – for she is so elevated in status by having married into money and a title). The plot revolves around a Eustace family diamond necklace valued at ten thousand pounds that her husband – who died shortly after their marriage – had given her as a gift. Or so she claims. Whether he did indeed give her this gift is the matter that is hotly disputed for over 700 pages. The diamonds represent what is valued by society. Love and virtue are insignificant for Lizzie and many others. Marriages are made not on the basis of love (in one notable side story the engaged couple despise each other), but to enable the parties involved to garner economic and/or social advantages. This is not true for everyone – Trollope has some characters who are virtuous and for whom love is meaningful. But the flawed ones are more vivid. The novel has the feel of having been written in haste, and is not one of Trollope’s full-fledged successes. One-dimensional Lizzie is not that interesting in the long run, and I began to get mighty tired of those damned diamonds. Also, the book’s many disparate parts don’t coalesce, and the result is a sprawling, sloppy mess. But it’s a delicious mess, and I never faltered in my reading. In his presentation of a greedy and willful woman, Trollope injects a cautionary note. Because Lizzie is false to the bone – unable to have sincere feelings for anyone, not even her infant son – she’s destined to be alone and loveless. And at the end she may have met her match in the greasy cleric she marries, for he’s as avaricious and devoid of morals as she is. Since Trollope takes up moral issues, he has something to answer for in his depiction of Jews. They are, without fail, loathsome creatures (Lizzie never elicits loathing). The cleric is actually a Jew, and I used the word “greasy” to describe him because that’s the word Trollope uses whenever a Jew makes an appearance. You’d think a writer of his genius would have been able to come up with other terms (well, actually, at times he does resort to “oily.”). His anti-Semitic attitude must have been sanctioned by the people for whom he wrote. Which is another fault of that society, but one which Trollope was also guilty of.