Thursday, September 17, 2009

Great Book #15: Death Comes For The Archbishop

This book—the physical book—is quite special to me. My grandmother was a voracious reader, but she owned very few books; the public library was her library. Death Comes For The Archbishop is one of the few books she kept a copy of (writing her name on the fly), and I distinctly remember her saying that Willa Cather was one of her favorite writers. I would have been too young to read her then, but I'm certainly appreciating her now. Willa Cather wrote my all-time favorite ghost story, and I've enjoyed Death Comes For The Archbishop almost as much.

I imagine it is extremely difficult to write A (Good) Novel In Which Nothing In Particular Happens (the only other example I can think of is John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun). A story without a plot (or an episodic plot as in this case) has to compensate in other ways, with memorable characters and an extraordinarily vivid sense of time and place.

This novel follows the life, work, and travels of Father Jean Latour in 19th-century New Mexico. Death Comes For The Archbishop continually reminded me of Georgia O'Keeffe—but Cather paints the American Southwest with words, from the perilous mountains and ravines the priests must traverse to the eerie mesa towns perched high above the desert floor. Take this sublimely simple description of dusk:
They relapsed into the silence which was their usual form of intercourse. The Bishop sat drinking his coffee slowly out of the tin cup, keeping the pot near the embers. The sun had set now, the yellow rocks were turning grey, down in the pueblo the light of the cook fires made red patches of the glassless windows, and the smell of piñon smoke came softly through the still air. The whole western sky was the colour of golden ashes, with here and there a flush of red on the lip of a little cloud. High above the horizon the evening-star flickered like a lamp just lit, and close beside it was another star of constant light, much smaller.
And like her landscapes, Cather is brilliant at nailing a character in just a few words:
Don Manuel Chavez, the handsomest man of the company, very elegant in velvet and broadcloth, with delicately cut, disdainful features—one had only to see him cross the room, or to sit next him at dinner, to feel the electric quality under his cold reserve; the fierceness of some embitterment, the passion for danger.
The electric quality under his cold reserve. Gives me chills! Conversely, here's a splendid encapsulation of the Bishop's assistant, his dear old friend Father Vaillant: He added a glow to whatever kind of human society he was dropped down into.

The other remarkable aspect of this novel is its abiding respect for Catholic missionaries. Desert life is a constant hardship, yet the Mexicans to whom Father Latour administers lead richly spiritual lives. They may have only the plainest, most serviceable clothes to wear to Mass, but they take great pleasure in arranging what little finery they have on their Madonna statues. Cather writes admiringly of their complete lack of materialism and the strength of their faith in the midst of unthinkable cruelty, so it's quite difficult to believe the author wasn't a devout Catholic herself (she was born a Baptist and later joined the Episcopal Church). My grandmother was a devout Catholic, but I'm sure that's only a small part of why she loved this novel.

Here are a few more of my favorite lines (I'm not giving anything away—it is in the title, you know!):

The old man smiled. "I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived."

During those last few weeks of the Bishop's life he thought very little about death; it was the Past he was leaving. The future would take care of itself.

Sometimes, when Magdalena or Bernard came in and asked him a question, it took him several seconds to bring himself back to the present. He could see they thought his mind was failing; but it was only extraordinarily active in some other part of the great picture of his life—some part of which they knew nothing. When the occasion warranted he could return to the present. But there was not much present left...only the minor characters of his life remained in present time.

1 comment:

Kate said...

I never knew that this was one of Grandma's favorite authors. I'd like to borrow it from you sometime.