What I’ve been reading (December 2020)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: I deserved a break from the tomes I’ve wrestled recently – just a light novella about the nature of madness and evil, you know. Actually, its detached style of narration did make this a breezy read. For me, the story’s impact came partly from the contrast between the sober prose and the fever-dream content: an arduous trip up the Congo River through way stations held together by the barest of mercantile infrastructure and the questionable motivations of the men who while away their time there.

I was compelled to finally read it because the story was (heavily) adapted for the screen as Apocalypse Now, which I revisited last month in the context of Alex Ross’s new book Wagnerism. I’m interested in the tangle of references that link film and book, such as the parallels between the settings, the Vietnam war (in the film) and African colonialism (in the book). Alex hints that Wagner could be another link because of Conrad’s repetitive use of the word “darkness”, which looks a bit like a Wagnerian leitmotif if you squint – I end up not quite buying this. Aren’t recurring themes and symbols a feature of most storytelling? To some degree, all artistic output of an era is influenced by the enveloping culture of which, in the case of Conrad, Wagner was a towering figure. I would say, Conrad was inspired by Wagner in the same way that Zadie Smith was inspired by Beyoncé – true but also a truism, for which Gen X’er hasn’t been touched by Queen Bey’s gesamtkunstwerk?

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark: This is more fallout from Wagnerism – Cather being a consummate Wagnerite, tracing in this novel the life of Thea Kronborg, from preacher’s girl in rural Colorado to rising star soprano singing Wagner in New York. Most of the book is given over to Thea’s formative beginnings, her rural childhood and a few years of young adulthood. This part reminded me more than once of a 19th century spiritual ancestor: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, apparently a book with enough enduring appeal to fuel a recent new film adaptation (written and directed by by Greta Gerwig). Of the March sisters in Little Women I’m mainly thinking of the budding writer Jo. Her and Thea, as young girls, share a tomboy attitude and harbor complex interior worlds that don’t quite find an outlet in the simple places they are born into. For all the daring focus on female self-actualization, Alcott’s women ultimately follow a conventional path. Jo marries a bore who tone polices her writing, and she seems to drop her ambitions as a writer.

Cather’s vision is a lot more radical, even if couched in genteel language that sounds like Alcott’s at times. An early suitor of Thea’s is killed off; he might have reined in her free spirit and tethered her to small town life. (That older suitor had his eye on her since her early teens – creepy from my vantage point, but I cannot make out whether Cather is sanctioning or subtly satirizing this 19th century trope.) The next suitor is a wealthy beer heir and a temperamental match for her, plus he fully recognizes her potential as a singer. We are meant to think he is the one for Thea, as a traditional narrative demands it, but then it is revealed he is already married. She rejects him and his financial support. Appealing instead to an old hometown friend for financing, Thea makes it to Germany to study singing in earnest. She sacrifices much for the sake of her career – once launched into the world she never returns home to Colorado, not even when her mother calls for her on her deathbed. She remains unattached to any man, other than her crypto-gay platonic companions, up to a point in the epilogue where she has already reached the height of her success.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico

Apart from this forward-looking conception of a woman’s life as well as an artist’s life, what stands out is how Cather uses a classic Western landscape not to tell a classic Western tale of rugged men but as a conduit for self-discovery. (She does something similar in the other novel of hers I’ve read – Death Comes for the Archbishop.) After two years of toiling in Chicago trying to ignite her musical career, Thea escapes for a summer to Arizona and camps out alone in a canyon, in cliff dwellings abandoned by a native people centuries prior. Cather’s description of that luminous place is a high point of the novel, and Thea’s stay there marks the turning point in her commitment to a life as an artist. In recent years I have roamed around New Mexico enough that I intuitively connected with the idea that solitary time spent in a Southwestern wilderness would inspire such epiphanies.

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