The Song of The Lark by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! (1913) was the first book of Willa Cather’s that I read, probably in some sort of feminist press edition in about 1976. I read it at someone else’s house, didn’t make a note of it and then could never remember it properly. Only this: it was a wonderful book. The feeling of it – open and fresh – stayed clear in my mind.

Much later I found My Antonia (1918), one of the finest novels to come out of America: loving, quiet, unassuming, radiantly human. I have read it three or four times in the past twenty years. Not all books will stand that. I think somewhere in between O Pioneers! and My Antonia I may have read The Professor’s House (1925) because the title seems familiar, but I can’t remember the story and am perhaps be confusing it with Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor, which I also can’t remember.

I picked up this secondhand Virago edition of The Song of The Lark for 75p in a charity shop sometime after Christmas and thought – I will read this over Easter. And here I am. My daughter, mother of a four year old saw it on the kitchen counter and picked it up wonderingly.

‘Imagine reading a book this long,’ she said, part mocking her own hard-to-get-reading-time state. There are different stages of reading in a life.

That’s why I’d had to save it for the Easter holidays. I work long days at The Reader and am often asleep by 9.30 at night. Reading in bed is barely an option. So I’ve been creating reading time by getting up at 6.00 and reading in the bath for half an hour. But to get going with a big 560 page novel like this I need a long run up, a head of steam, otherwise I keep forgetting what’s happened.That happened in the winter when I tried to read The Eustace Diamonds. In the end I had to abandon it after about 500 pages.

And so, having had some reading days, I’m currently on page 238 of The Song, nearly half way through. It’s as good as anything of hers I’ve read, good enough to make me laugh out loud with pleasure, and last night to cry, in the chapter where Ray, who has secretly loved Thea, realises, as he dies, that she could never have loved him back. I’ll maybe quote that tomorrow. I wanted to start earlier in the book, with Thea’s first piano teacher, Wunsch, an itinerant alcoholic musician, realising she’s got, as they say, talent:

Wunsch sat motionless in the arbor, looking up through the woolly vine leaves at the glittering machinery of heaven.

“Lente currite, noctis equi.”

That line awoke many memories. He was thinking of youth; of his own, so long gone by, and of his pupil’s, just beginning. He would even have cherished hopes for her, except that he had become superstitious. He believed that whatever he hoped for was destined not to be; that his affection brought ill-fortune, especially to the young; that if he held anything in his thoughts, he harmed it. He had taught in music schools in St. Louis and Kansas City, where the shallowness and complacency of the young misses had maddened him. He had encountered bad manners and bad faith, had been the victim of sharpers of all kinds, was dogged by bad luck. He had played in orchestras that were never paid and wandering opera troupes which disbanded penniless. And there was always the old enemy, more relentless than the others. It was long since he had wished anything or desired anything beyond the necessities of the body. Now that he was tempted to hope for another, he felt alarmed and shook his head. It was his pupil’s power of application, her rugged will, that interested him. He had lived for so long among people whose sole ambition was to get something for nothing that he had learned not to look for seriousness in anything. Now that he by chance encountered it, it recalled standards, ambitions, a society long forgot.

I thought this was terrific writing. Almost every sentence made me think about things or people or experiences I know. How frightening it is to start to believe in something, to remember lost aspirations, to find lost bits of oneself coming back to life. The awful responsibility of belief.


Poem for today

I read ‘And Yet The Books’ by Czeslaw Milosz, a poem I know well, and admire, and often read. You can find it here

5 thoughts on “The Song of The Lark by Willa Cather

  1. doctor d April 30, 2011 / 11:58 am

    Great to have access to your thoughts about books in this way Jane! I recently read Willa Cather and was struck by her ability to jump into my memories. Her voice sounded just like my grandmothers. Simple writing can usually be very profound if we have time to contemplate it. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Heather May 1, 2011 / 6:39 pm

    I shall certainly read some Willa Cather after reading this.
    But…..reading in the bath? I have never been able to overcome my inbuilt librarian's horror of damp or soggy pages!

  3. readerjanedavis May 1, 2011 / 7:09 pm

    Well, in a long career as a reader I must admit I have a few times got the the book wet… once or twice falling asleep, sometimes just clumsy. But with a little chair next to the bath, or one of those handy metal bath shelves… no problem. I recommend it!
    Have not yet dared to try this with a Kindle yet, though I understand people do…

  4. lou May 2, 2011 / 2:57 pm

    wiilla is something for me to look into although like Heather not reading in the bath although have tried it and is not as relaxing as what it seems on t.v
    I have great difficulty in choosing what to read as will not be happy til devoured everything !the only off putting thing about reading long books is I like to carry books around me , I have recantly been having terrific shoulder pain which my dad says I insist on carrying so much allover the place but I say I grab every opportunity to read just a little bit more!

  5. neverwasontime May 15, 2011 / 11:41 am

    Having read above quoted passage 'The Song' is now winging its way to my letter box – thanks!

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