Monday, June 22, 2009

Youth and the Bright Medusa

Willa Cather’s Youth and the Bright Medusa is a splendid collection of short stories - a literary page-turner which actually will help you forget the heat. (It’s so hot, or tropical, after weeks of rain, that the Christmas cactus is blooming. AND the flowers are white instead of pink....) I’m a harsh critic of short stories, which often seem less successful than novels, as less accomplished authors employ a kind of lazy shorthand to portray one-dimensional figures that fit the plot. The best short story writers are perhaps better than the best novelists: Flannery O’Connor, Roald Dahl, Katherine Anne Porter, Donald Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason...

Cather's novella Alexander’s Bridge was clunky, so I was a bit leery about the short stories. But Youth and the Bright Medusa is a perfect collection of stories about artists. Cather had obviously honed her talents - her characters and plots are fully devloped in Jamesian stories often 30 pages or more.

The protagonists in this collection are singers and artists, some sensitive, others ruthless, who struggle to balance professional and personal success. In “Coming, Aphrodite!”, a young, experimental painter, Hedger, falls in love with a midwestern singer who moves into his rooming house in New York. The singer, Eden, is an alluring, selfish woman who can use successful men to further her ambitions, and in the end the two fall out over different definitions of success. Years later, Eden, rich, hard, and unsentimental from years of pleasing audiences, returns to New York, and in a rare moment of emotion wonders what happened to Hedger.

Cather loved to write about music: consider Lucy Gayheart and The Song of the Lark. Two of the stories here are about a confident singer, Kitty Ayshire: in “A Gold Slipper,” a middle-aged man reluctantly accompanies his wife and friend to a concert and fumes about having to sit in a folding chair on the stage; he struggles against music that might make him feel. When Kitty, who had noticed him onstage, meets him on a train, she disconcerts him by asking why he disliked her performance. He doesn't like women - and it doesn't surprise her.

In “Scandal,” while Kitty is seriously ill, a friend entertains her with old gossip about Kitty. A department-store millionaire was seen all over New York with a woman who looked like Kitty - and it turned out he had dressed her deliberately to create this impression. Then Kitty remembers her own humorous encounter with Klein.

I wonder if the Kitty stories started out to be a novel. These stories were published after Song of the Lark. I'll have to check a biography...

My favorite story is “The Diamond Mine”: Cressida, a brilliant, middle-aged singer, must cope with parasitical relatives who spoil her personal life. Narrated by a friend, the story describes the ruin of Cressida’s happiness by the envy and schadenfreude of siblings and husbands. Cressida never pities herself, remains cheerful, and manages not to be bitter about marriages that fell apart. She still mourns the one that got away. She is a "diamond mine," and gives and gives, and this exhausts her, much to her friend's chagrin.

Very good, very sad, and Willa Cather's strong characters are always an inspiration. Her prose is lyrical and smooth.


Ellen said...

Back again and I did have a good time -- though the travelling itself was very anxiety-producing.

_Youth and the Bright Medusa_. What a beautiful way to spend a day. I remember liking it very much. I love her deep concern with the arts.

Tomorrow I'll recommend _Flying with Wings of Wax_ by Evelyn Hasler on the life of Emily Spryi-Kemlin.


Mad Housewife said...

I'm glad you're back!

Youth and the Bright Medusa is one of Cather's best.

I love the title of your book, Flying with Wings of Wax.

Lisa said...

I haven't read any of Cather's short stories. I'm only familiar with her more famous works -- My Antonia and O Pioneers. I may have to give these a try. I love your list of great short story writers. I have to agree with you completely -- especially on Flannery O'Connor.

Mad Housewife said...

Lisa, Cather's pioneer books are wonderful. Cather did write a lot of short stories. This collection is good: I'm shying away from her uncollected stories, though.