Tuesday 30 October 2012

Willa Cather and her name

From attending one seminar by creative writing Ph D students at Massey University, a host of new authors or old authors to revisit. I had heard of Willa Cather. This time there was a connection with Eleanor Catton - I can't remember how, except that one of the characters in her award-winning book The Rehearsal (which I read since the seminar) is called Willa. I liked that: both that it is an uncommon name and that it refers to this famous Willa.

Willa Cather wrote My Antonia, which I read, avidly. I made myself turn off the light half-way through - it was after midnight . After two hours spent staring at the ceiling, I resumed reading. Two hours later: still not tired, but made myself switch off, to lie awake for yet another hour. My mind was not whirling, I was neither tense nor stressed, sleep was simply absent. Today will be no good for writing. I blame Willa and the people she wrote about.

The main character is young Jimmy: his parents have been killed off in the first chapter. No explanation is given nor does Jimmy appear to suffer from their absence. He does not miss them or refer to them at any later time. When Antonia's father dies, the shock and loss are visceral, though it is hard to understand - that he was so wonderful and disciplined in many ways, yet could give in to depression and inflict his suicide on his family.

It is a gripping book strongly anchored in a time and a place, among immigrants to America - the old world versus the new. In A.S. Byatt's preface, she writes about Antonia's tremendous energy. (I used to think about this kind of energy as a prerequisite to achievement: as a mother of young children I was tired all the time and felt doomed to fail. The children having grown up, the issue seems more a question of choices, application and timing.) Antonia works very hard her whole life and has many children. She is beginning to show a weakening towards the end, but her physical energy is one of the attributes which has helped her through the difficulties.

It is not, however, what we like most about her. What is attractive about her is that she loves people and she loves life. She is genuine and intelligent and also quite simply, as someone says towards the end, a good person.

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