Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Review: Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather

Alexander's Bridge, published in 1912, is Willa Cather's first novel and her third published volume, after a book of poetry and another of short stories. Though it would be swiftly followed by a series of masterpieces, beginning with O Pioneers! in 1913, The Song of the Lark in 1915, My Antonia in 1918, on until the end of her life in 1947, Alexander's Bridge is clearly the work of a novice, still working through the challenges of long-form construction and characterization.

The plot is an old one, a standard love triangle in which no one is entirely to blame. Bartley Alexander is an engineer, famous and world-renowned for his bridges (he has been decorated by the emperor of Japan for his advances in the field). His wife Winifred is a wealthy, refined woman and their marriage is a happy one. When on business in London, Alexander meets Hilda, an actress and the love of his youth, who has rejected all other suitors out of deference to her first love. The remainder of the story can be easily surmised from the scenario I've given; it cannot be said that the story is revitalized by any innovations to the conventions of the love triangle. However, plot is rarely the most essential element in a good work of literature; where characters compel, plots may be as conventional, or not, as an author chooses. The difficulty lies precisely here. Cather's characters might as well be made of pasteboard.

Though each character is given a fairly distinct physical description, all fail to take on shape even as emotions run high and tragedy inevitably plods its way forward. Alexander is intended to be a strikingly attractive man, talked about, admired, fascinating, while Winifred is intended to be a paragon of beauty, elegance, and romance, and Hilda is intended to be tantalizing, alluring, and irresistibly passionate. The impression we are meant to have is clear from what is said by peripheral characters who seemingly cannot tear themselves away from these enticing figures. If only that were true for readers! Even such a great writer as Cather is not exempt from the hackneyed old adage, admonishing us to show, not tell, and Alexander's Bridge demonstrates precisely why we have not yet rejected that old chestnut. Alexander, Winifred, and Hilda act their roles obediently, like marionettes employed in the service of a Victorian melodrama, but at no moment do they take on depth enough to convince the reader to feel for their plight.

This is not to say that the book fails completely, as it certainly does not. Cather's prose is consistently beautiful, particularly in her evocative descriptions of London. For example: "It was one of those rare afternoons when all the thickness and shadow of London are changed to a kind of shining, pulsing, special atmosphere; when the smoky vapors become fluttering golden clouds, nacreous veils of pink and amber; when all that bleakness of gray stone and dullness of dirty brick trembles in aureate light, and all the roofs and spires, and one great dome, are floated in a golden haze." Cather's evocation of the interior thoughts of her characters are similarly lovely, but they lack a specificity that links them to particular personalities, emerging rather as beautiful, but decidedly general, reflections on love, fidelity, and purpose. In many ways, these passages are the most worthwhile in the whole novel, but they do not belong to a novel and would be far more at home in a book of essays, or perhaps even in poetry. The same could be said of the rather labored metaphor of the title. Alexander has built his life as he builds his bridges and a miscalculation can bring the whole thing tumbling down. It is unfortunate that with such fine materials, Cather's bridge, like her pasteboard protagonist's, must come tumbling down. But, only a year later she would be busy building new ones, most, if not all, of which stand firmly and without cracks as much as a hundred years later.

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