It couldn’t have escaped my notice – the past four months I have been reading a lot of women authors. It was not intentional (which could? should? be seen as a bad thing). I never pay any attention to the gender of the author when I’m choosing what to read next. Maybe I should make a habit of doing so, but I don’t think I will since it doesn’t come naturally. Reading plans simply don’t work for me. Very often books find their way to me (rather than the other way round) and my role is to just accept them and read. So it happened this year with Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill, Carson McCullers and Maryrose Wood. And, of course, Willa. Of all these voices I found hers the most appealing one. (Have to be fair here and make a note: McCullers’ prose left a deep impression on me, as well. Hopefully, I’ll be either reading Reflections in a Golden Eye or rereading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter sometime soon.) It was the beautiful cover illustration of Death Comes for the Archbishop, done by Sally Mara Sturman, that initially drew me to Willa. At that time I was going through a tough period – not a single book I opened wanted to let me in.. Nevertheless, I had to be near them, had to keep visiting the library, had to be surrounded with as many books as possible. So, it happened that I checked the aforementioned title out of the library just to have it close, to carry it around, to spend minutes and hours enjoying its soothing presence and appreciating the overwhelming aesthetic of its scenery whenever I wished. (I didn’t think I would read it. Didn’t think it would let me read it.) Looking for the image to link to my blog I found a dozen other Willa’s novels dressed by Sally. I was thrilled! Every one of the artworks looked almost too beautiful to be put on the book cover. How is one supposed to admire them if they are to be placed on the shelves, squeezed with other books? I wished to have them all framed. I wished for some sort of a glass window box to arrange them in and hang on the wall… One more thing – I solemnly promise I will have no other editions of Willa’s novels in my possession but these!
Back to Willa. (I cannot call her Cather anymore. Now that we became so well acquainted, now that I grew so fond of her work she is to be called by her name and that’s that.) After Death Comes for the Archbishop I had to have more so I took the only other volume they had at the American Corner Library which, lucky me!, was her ‘Great Plains Trilogy’. The very first sentence of O Pioneers! made me smile and giggle with delight and satisfaction – I knew I would love it. And I did.
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.
What delighted me the most, not only in O Pioneers! but in every one of the three novels I’ve read so far, was the image of the World’s grandeur she’s giving. There’s something magically breath-stopping there, a “vision of the nature of things” as A.S. Byatt says in her essay about Willa’s prose, a sense of the omnipresent Truth. I love the connection the characters have with the surrounding ‘wild’ life. Every description of their encounter is a small masterpiece (as the below cited one, from My Ántonia).
I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.
There’s no need to accentuate (still, here I am, doing it) the ardentness with which I am looking forward to reading more. It is very satisfying to think the number of those small things that bring moments and hours of great pleasure is getting larger. And the prospect of building my own collection of Vintage Classics is making me profoundly happy.