Finished in March:
1. O Pioneers by Willa Cather
Cather’s second novel, not quite as good as Death Comes for the Archbishop, but still a good read. Alexandra Bergson is a Swedish immigrant whose father takes up a homestead in Nebraska, despite knowing nothing about agriculture. We meet her when she is a child and watch her grow up and take control of the family’s farm after her father’s death. Alexandra has a talent for farming and a deep understanding of the land and an almost uncanny ability to foresee what business decisions will pay off in the long run. She is successful, she has a vision that few others in the community have and it pays off so that she becomes one of the wealthiest farmers in the region. And her older brothers totally discount her talents and her vision, trying to take the credit for themselves— we’re the ones who actually did the hard work. Alexandra is too busy to think about marrying. That and the boy who is her best friend, Carl, who grew up on the neighboring homestead, has gone off to seek his fortune in the world. The novel takes a turn and climaxes with a tragedy involving Alexandra’s youngest brother, Emil who falls in love with a married woman, Alexandra’s neighbor and friend Maria.
I can see Cather’s sympathy for and attraction to Catholic people and practices which really shines in Death Comes for the Archbishop in her fond portrayal of the French Catholic settlers.
2. Piranesi by Susanna Clark
“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.”
“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”
Leah Libresco Sargeant described Piranesi as a restful book to read and she is absolutely right. She also said she felt like she was gentler while reading it and I definitely know what she means. I’ve seldom felt so beautifully at peace in a novel. Especially in one that were you to describe the plot with all the spoilers would sound rather more hair-raising than peaceful.
As far as the unnamed narrator knows he has always lived in the House. The House is a benevolent presence that provides him with all he needs. The House is a world of wonders, a universe of enchantment, a place of beauty and tranquility. The House is endless. The House is his universe. As far as he knows there have only been fifteen people in the world. Himself, the Other, and the remains of thirteen people who have died and whose bones he cares for as tenderly as any mother could care for her child, as tenderly as any pagan priest could reverence his divine charges. They are spiritual ancestors, even if they are not physical ancestors and the narrator’s religion could be loosely categorized as House-worship first and then ancestor-worship.
It quickly becomes clear that our narrator is unreliable. The reader is put into the queer position of knowing more than the narrator, seeing more clearly, Spoilery: This is a story told by an amnesiac madman who is trapped in this alternate world by a cruel psychopath. Through most of the story our narrator thinks of the Other as his friend. But we the reader realize early on that there is something very sinister about the Other. The narrator thinks the Other is noble, that the Other is his friend, that the Other cares about his good. But we shortly see that the Other is using the narrator as a tool to help him on his quest— rather like Uncle Andrew uses Digory and Polly in The Magician’s Nephew (which book is quote in the novel’s epigraph). The Other is looking for Great and Secret Knowledge that might include the secret to immortality, telepathy, transmogrification into flying or swimming animals, telekinesis, snuffing out the stars, dominating lesser intellects. It is a frightening list of powers and it doesn’t smack of altruism but of a desire to dominate and control. Is the Other already dominating and controlling our narrator, the reader is led to wonder. Most assuredly so. The name that the Other gives to the narrator— which the narrator is sure is not his own name, even if he cannot remember what his name is— hints at the nature of their relationship. The other says that Piranesi is associated with labyrinths. But really Piranesi’s drawings that most apply are those of prisons, not labyrinths. I suppose the original labyrinth was a type of prison for the Minotaur, but the explanation most certainly conceals his true intent: it seems pretty clear that the narrator is being imprisoned by the Other who occasionally provides him with goods, but not enough and not our of any seeming real concern for his well being.
There is an innocence and even naivite about the narrator. If he is mad, it is a joyful and mostly serene madness. His amnesia works to protect him from that which would alarm and upset him and challenge his view that the world of the House is essentially good, kind, benevolent. He loves the House— and the House seen through his eyes seems truly worthy of love. A beautiful place or simplicity and enchantment. He is deluded about the Other, forgetful of his own history, but his connection with the House feels genuine and genuinely Good. Even if the reader remains unconvinced that the House is genuinely sentient and kind, we don’t find those beliefs ridiculous. Rather, at worst, they seem innocuous delusions, at best they are protective. The House is beautiful, mysterious, enchanting. Perhaps because we see it through Piranesi’s eyes, there is no malice about it, nothing sinister. Even though it is sometimes dangerous, it isn’t malevolent. Indeed his intuition about its Goodness does not seem as ill-founded as his delusion that the Other is benevolent. The House does protect him, shelter him, feed him, and is for him a haven despite the Other’s intention.
And even as the mystery of the narrator’s identity— and the Other’s— unfolds, the essential goodness of the House remains. In this Piranesi reminds me very much of Charis in the World of Wonders. Charis’ world is often dangerous, but the worst danger is Man. The world itself, the natural world, might be dangerous but it is also wonderful, enchanted, mysterious and beautiful. Charis is sane in a world that goes mad, the narrator is mad in a world that is perhaps also mad? But both take us on a journey through an enchanted landscape.
The statues seem to reflect the narrator’s self and his experiences. But not in an allegorical way, rather they have profound meaning to him because of their beauty because they represent something more, deeper, mysterious, aspects of himself?
1. Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz
A historical novel about ancient Rome at the time of Nero by a Polish novelist who won the Nobel Prize in literature. This is really good, but I’ll write more in next month’s post when I’ve finished it.
2. Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson
Reading with a Facebook group, you can check out posts by Mrs Darwin and Bearing who are guiding our merry band. (Mrs Darwin has edited and published a new edition, available both in Kindle and paper form. I highly recommend.) This is a very good Lenten read. Highly recommended. The chapters are short and easy, but there’s so much to think about. I’ve fallen behind, but plan to catch up this weekend. I hope.
3. Memoirs of Saint Peter by Michael Pakaluk
a new translation of (and commentary on) the Gospel of Mark.
This is a delightful translation. It captures the feel of St Peter talking, it’s fun to read aloud. And the notes are excellent.