Rating: 4 stars
Over in A Corner of Cornwall, Sandra’s recent Six Degrees post brought Willa Cather’s The Old Beauty and Others to my attention. First published in Britain nine years after Cather’s death, the volume brings together the last three short stories she wrote, each one a masterclass in how to write this literary form, each one containing an entire world within its pages.
Title story The Old Beauty begins with a man exiting a hotel in a hurry, his mind agitated. It is 1922, and we are in Aix-les-Bains. Quickly, the man is accosted by journalists, looking for gossip about a former socialite and famed beauty who has spent the summer at the hotel under a different name. In four short pages, Cather sets the scene and lets the reader know just enough to understand that a tragedy is about to unfold. The story has an air of E M Forster about it, in the English visitors to the Riviera, although tinted with the shadow of the First World War. There’s also something of Edith Wharton. I enjoyed the sense of leisure, and the way the Edwardian era is presented as a golden age in comparison with the frenzy and vanity of the Roaring Twenties. It’s a story about loss of innocence, the arrogance of youth, and the way the past becomes both a comfort and a source of pain. It’s also a beautiful meditation on how the First World War changed the world forever.
The Best Years was my favourite of the three tales. It’s similar to My Antonía in the way it depicts the rural farming communities of Nebraska and the strength found in the women of those farming communities. Cather’s love of the land shines through in her descriptions. Her portrayal of the people at the centre of the tale reminded me of L M Montgomery’s stories about Anne Shirley and Prince Edward Island. Family love and solidarity is the core of the story. I also liked the reflection of the changing times the characters were living through, the transition from horse drawn transport to automobiles (or ‘ottos’ as the Station Master calls them), the lack of amenities in the countryside compared with the towns and cities, where homes have ‘incandescents’ to dispel the gloom and running hot water to bathe in, and the improvement of opportunity through education.
Before Breakfast is also a cracking tale, about a successful businessman who is a bit of a curmudgeon because being a businessman isn’t what makes him happy. Neither is being married to a beautiful, accomplished woman, or being father to three fine sons, two of them brilliant. What makes him happy is solitude and losing himself in nature. He has a getaway on a small island near Nova Scotia. We join him on one of his regular escapes, and find him sleep-disturbed and upset. A geologist who is carrying out research on the island into its formation has shared too much in the way of scientific fact and made our protagonist’s island haven seem mundane. The writing style in this story made me think of Tove Jansson, who had a similar talent for capturing the grouchy and the cause lying just beneath the surface. Before breakfast, our hero sets out to reclaim his haven, to find again his solitude, to leave his cares and worries at the bottom of the trail that leads him to a horseshoe promontory with four waterfalls cascading to the sea. It made me want to head to the sea, too.
I managed to track down a first edition copy of the British publication through Manchester City Library. It had to be called up from the stacks, which seemed fitting for such a refined book. Everything about this edition thrilled me, from its beautiful cover, to the evidence of its library life, and typeface it’s set in.
It’s definitely an object of desire!