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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927) 212 p.
Death Comes for the Archbishop. That’s a heavy title: it sounds like an ominous proclamation, something whispered by monks in the hallways of a remote monastery, or the last sentence in the scrolling text at the beginning of a Gothic fantasy movie. In my mind it summons up the image of a skeletal spectre stalking through the night, coming to reap a soul. The Archbishop has sinned, yea, and he shall face the ultimate reckoning. But Death Comes for the Archbishop is actually nothing like that at all – it’s a wonderful, beautiful, heart-warming novel. Death does indeed come for Father Jean Marie Latour, Willa Cather’s fictionalised version of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy. But death comes for us all, in time. We can only hope that our lives have been worth the living.
Father Latour’s certainly is. In 1851 he is a humble young priest in Ohio, surprised to learn that he has been reassigned as bishop for a fledgling diocese in the newly-acquired American territory of New Mexico; or, as a priest in Italy puts it, a land of “countless canyons and arroyos,” a harsh country which will “drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain.” But Father Latour is a devout Catholic and a faithful servant of the Church, and he loyally sets forth into this strange new land which will become his home for the rest of his life.
Cather was not a Catholic, and was largely renowned as a writer of stories set in the American West rather than anything overtly religious. Death Comes for the Archbishop is not so much a Catholic novel – although it certainly touches on matters of faith and God – as it is a story about the intersection of different cultures, of Native Americans and European Americans and Mexicans mixing together on the frontier of a new society, of the relationships and friendships formed over the course of one man’s long life. There is no plot, no structure; Death Comes for the Archbishop is a series of vignettes and notable experiences over the course of many years, just as any life is. When Father Latour dies at the conclusion of the novel, as indeed he must, it’s without any sense of loss or sadness. We only hope that we, too, might life a life as rich and satisfying as his.
Cather’s prose is excellent. It’s too early for me to tell whether it’s the kind that will grow stronger in my mind as time goes by, or whether her writing is the sort that breathes joy and colour in its own moment, like a lived experience, and then fades into memory. All I know is that as I read it, I had no doubt I was witnessing a great artist in action. Death Comes for the Archbishop is small and simple, yet refined and beautiful – like a poem or a tapestry or a stained glass window. One of the best books I’ve read this year.
In those days, even in European countries, death had a solemn social importance. It was not regarded as a moment when certain bodily organs ceased to function, but as a dramatic climax, a moment when the soul made its entrance into the next world, passing in full consciousness through a lowly door to an unimaginable scene. Among the watchers there was always the hope that the dying man might reveal something of what he alone could see; that his countenance, if not his lips, would speak, and on his features would fall some great light or shadow from beyond. The “Last Words” of great men, Napoleon, Lord Byron, were still printed in gift-books, and the dying murmurs of every common man or woman were listened for and treasured by their neighbours and kinsfolk. These sayings, no matter how unimportant, were given oracular significance and pondered by those who must one day go the same road.
– From “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather
Kristie and I have left London. I meant to post this a while ago, but we’re travelling through Europe on the way home and amidst all the last-minute planning it fell by the wayside. We’re currently in a sunburnt little village somewhere in the cicada-droning scrubland of Andalucia, which reminds me strongly of Perth.
Leaving London in July fairly neatly marked our time there as a year, or just over that, although we decided that we’d leave this summer back around Christmastime, or about halfway through our time there. There’s no one reason for leaving, just as there was no one reason for going there in the first place. We went there partly from a desire to live and work in Europe, partly from an urge to seek work in the publishing and writing field in a larger job market than Australia offered, and partly because we (or at least I) had a need to do some more uprooting and travelling while still young, before settling down. On the work front I had absolutely no success, and spent the entire year doing the same job for the same company I worked for in Melbourne. It was certainly more lucrative than a lot of other jobs would have been, but also deeply antisocial, since I spent most of the day sealed inside a soundproof booth, and it didn’t exactly made me feel like I’d made a worthwhile career move. Kristie, on the other hand, was successful in landing a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house – but she ended up hating it, because it was mostly admin drudgery.
It’s probably not a coincidence that we made the decision to leave during the depths of winter. It was actually a little sad to leave during summer, when everybody is keen to do things, to go out and get drinks and have dinner and soak up the sun, instead of trudging home from work in the freezing dark and pulling the covers over their heads until morning. Seasonal affective disorder was undoubtedly in play. But even at the height of summer, I think we both preferred our old lives, and our friends back home.
There are aspects of England that I’ll miss. The sense of history and heritage, and the ability to travel only a few hours and be in a wonderful town or city that you’ve barely ever heard of, both within England and abroad in Europe. We’ve had some wonderful weekend breaks here, and I’ve learnt more than ever (and this is a sentiment that leaked into my brain when I first properly visited Sydney while reading Oscar & Lucinda) that cities are so much more than dots on a map or letters in a word or photos on Google image search: they all have their own smells, their own flavours, their own character. Paris is not just a French version of London: it’s an achingly beautiful city of splendid architecture, possibly the only large beautiful city in the world, which curiously enough always looks very dull and generic on film. Stockholm is not just the capital of Sweden and the place where Stockholm Syndrome comes from: it’s an ancient maritime trading city spread across hundreds of islands, with gaily-painted houses, in the cold blue light of midwinter, the sun sinking beyond the ocean at half past three. Barcelona is not just the second-biggest city in Spain: it’s the capital of the distinct Catalonian region, with a baroque Gothic old quarter, and an artistic scene and ease with its status as second city that reminded me of Melbourne.
I’ve enjoyed my time scratching the surface of Europe, and regret that I will not spend my life in a place that has hundreds of worthy cities within a $150 return flight. But it’s also telling that my favourite memories of London are the times I spent outside it. I should mention that I quite like Britain itself. I’ve enjoyed my time rowing a boat in Stratford-upon-Avon, wandering the canals in Cambridge, tramping about the Chilterns, drinking tins of convenience store beer on the pebbly beach at Brighton at sunset. I just don’t like London.
It’s indisputably a grand old city. It’s big, it’s powerful, it’s second only to New York as the nexus of the human universe. (And I will miss that – that feeling of hustle and bustle and importance, the sense that you might not matter but the place you live does, an extended sequel to the feeling I had when I moved from Australia’s west coast to its east coast.) London was a great place to live once, and perhaps it will be again. But at this point in its history, on financial terms alone, London is not a good place for ordinary people to live. I was sick of flicking through Time Out and looking at all the awesome shit happening that I couldn’t afford to do. I was sick of living precariously, saving nothing, being ripped off on literally everything from housing to food to transport. When it came down to it, my day-to-day lived experience was far, far better back home than it was in London.
And beyond that, I think maybe big cities aren’t for me. We lived on the edge of Zone 1 because I was determined to live as close to the heart of the city as possible, without realising that this was a hangover from my university days in the suburbs of Perth, when I vowed to be quit of a such a dull and quiet place. 26 is hardly old age, but I quickly grew weary of the soot and the sirens and the screaming outside my bedroom window every night. I don’t want to move back to the Ballardian suburbs of Perth, but jeez, there’s a healthy middle ground. (It’s called Melbourne.)
Among the many things I learned living in London, mind you, was that it’s utterly impossible for anybody to objectively judge any city, ever. I will happily het my blood up and stride into the comments section whenever the Guardian publishes an article about the merits or disadvantages of Perth or Melbourne or London. But the truth is, the circumstances of your life are influenced by far more than the objective qualities of the town or city you live in. I moved to London and did not find success: I paid extortionate rent to live in a shitty neighbourhood in the East End, commuting clean across the city for an hour each way to work at the same dead-end job as I did back home, but for $12,000 AUD less per year. In an alternate universe, perhaps I landed a dream job with a publishing company. Perhaps I worked for a cool magazine in Bloomsbury with a generous paycheque and a clear path for progression in my career. Perhaps I lived in Hampstead, and only had a twenty-minute commute. Perhaps I earned 25,000 pounds a year and regularly hung out with a tight circle of friends at a charming Old World pub like in a Richard Curtis film.
That’s stupid, but you see what I mean – if things had gone a different way in London I very well could have had a brighter opinion of it. Conversely, if things had gone differently in Melbourne, I might not love it as I do. Your opinion of a city is coloured largely by your circumstances within it. I’ve met many people in London who hate living there but do so for the career opportunities; also several who only live there because all their friends moved there after university, so if they moved to a smaller city they’d have no social life. I’m glad, I must say, that Australia has two large and equally competitive cities, instead of one monstrous beast squatting in the corner which sucks up all the talent and energy.
Anyway, cities are big and complex and contain multitudes. I can fairly and truthfully say that I believe London is a grand, pulsating, fascinating and important world city, and also a polluted garbage pile which erupts from the skin of England like a cancerous mole.
So we’ve left. Maybe I’ll be back one day; who knows what might happen in life?
I’ll miss: Hampstead Heath, The Holly Bush, The Spaniards, Gordon’s Wine Bar, the Idea Store on Whitechapel Road, northern hemisphere seasons properly aligning with the months that popular culture has led me to expect from childhood, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, a sense of history and heritage, proximity to Europe, passenger trains in all directions to the countryside (and the best train network in the Western world, despite what the British think), the book market under Waterloo Bridge, the West End plays and musicals, the way that landmarks like the Shard or Big Ben have a way of creeping into your view down the edge of a street, the National Gallery, the Word on the Water, Galaxy chocolate, the Ship and Shovel, Foyle’s and Hatchard’s and the Piccadilly Watermark’s, broadcasters which actually commit themselves to ethnic diversity on the TV screen, the endless parade of human life that is the London Underground, the feeling of sheer joy when the long winter is over and spring begins to bloom, frozen puddles and the constant hope of snow in winter, English Christmas, Halloween.
I won’t miss: the depressing manner in which the streets have become a scrolling cartoon backdrop of the same Pret/Boots/EAT/Tesco outlets, overcrowded and sweltering tube rides with your face in a stranger’s armpit, paying 500 quid a week for a room the size of a prison cell in a house with five other people in London’s poorest neighbourhood, a failing and weirdly authoritarian healthcare system, the summer pollen count, the horrendous tabloid newspapers, David Cameron’s punchable face, the pervasiveness of the world’s dullest sport, dickheads high on ecstasy on the Central line on Saturday night trying to engage people in conversation, people getting stabbed outside my bedroom window at 3:00am, not being able to afford a motorcycle, constantly being accosted by homeless panhandlers and ignoring the twisting feeling in your gut which tells you that you’re only a few paycheques away from ending up like them, London’s horribly bleak yet frustratingly snowless winters, the worst air pollution in the EU, diesel fumes seeping through my bedroom window from a truck idling outside for twenty minutes, the infuriatingly slow walking speed of the average London pedestrian especially in the tube, endless fucking ear-splitting sirens, stifling summer heat which happens every year and yet nowhere has air conditioning because they don’t think it gets hot (which to be fair is much like Australian cities not having central heating because they don’t think it gets cold), and – more than anything else – a persistent sense of instability, of endlessly treading water and living paycheque to paycheque, knowing that in fiscal terms, like in so many others, you are going nowhere in life.
It has been an educational year. I don’t regret it, but I’m glad it’s over. All my memories get rose-tinted anyway, so in a few years I’ll probably look back on it warmly.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) 110 p.
The problem with reading Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the modern day is that we all know the twist. The novel is structured as a mystery, with a London lawyer investigating his client Dr Jekyll’s decision to leave his fortune, in the case of his disappearance, to the notoriously brutal and unpleasant Mr Hyde. I can imagine that a 19th century reader going into it blind would be drawn into a what is, objectively, a well-written and engaging mystery with a supernatural slant. Modern readers don’t have that luxury, because of course we know that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person: a monstrous transformation putting Jekyll’s baser instincts into physical form, indulging in all manner of crimes across London while Jekyll’s reputation remains unimpeachable.
Of course there’s all kinds of interpretation and analysis you can make of it, about the duality of man and the repression of darker instincts and the nature of good versus evil, et cetera. For the most part, though, it struck me as more of a potboiler. Stevenson was, after all, mostly a writer of adventures like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would have been a pretty decent supernatural mystery novel back in the day – for us, unfortunately, popular culture has spoiled it.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865) 182 p.
It’s the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so it seemed an appropriate time as any to read this classic of literature. It’s once again one of those novels which people know all about even if they haven’t read it, because it’s been copied and referenced and parodied so many times that all its elements have become famous: the grinning Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter, the footmen who are living playing cards, the bottles labelled “eat me” or “drink me,” et cetera.
It’s also an absolutely nonsensical book without much reason or purpose to it – but then, that’s sort of the point, since Carroll wrote it as a silly children’s story to amuse his friend’s daughters on a rowing trip. (He also clearly had a creepy infatuation with 10-year-old Alice Liddell, the progenitor of the character Alice.) It’s not a novel you should feel particularly compelled to go out of your way to read, since you’ll get about as much out of it as any of the countless adaptations, or general cultural osmosis, as you will from the random silliness of the book. It’s fairly short, so I didn’t really mind burning through it just to have read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless, like me, you’re trying to check off all the classics.
Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung (1899) 231 p.
The concept behind the Raffles stories is basically if Sherlock Holmes was a criminal rather than a detective. Hornung was Arthur Conan Doyle’s friend and brother-in-law and the book is even dedicated to him as “a form of flattery.” The format mimics the famous stories of Holmes and Watson quite closely, being narrated by the hero’s sidekick, who is constantly in awe of his friend’s amazing abilities – although the Raffles stories tend to link together more closely than I recall the Sherlock stories doing.
Raffles is a fairly likeable roguish character, and Hornung has an ahead-of-his-time take on why it’s not immoral to be a thief in the corrupt and exploitative system of the British Empire. There’s also a decent story set in Australia, a location often ignored or forgotten by Victorian novelists, since Hornung spent some time there in his youth. But it wasn’t, overall, a hugely engaging book. It’s readable enough, and worth checking out as the genesis of the “gentleman thief” archetype which has influenced hundreds of other works, but I couldn’t say it was as compelling or well-written as any of Doyle’s works – and I’m not exactly a Sherlock Holmes fan either.