December 19, 2014

The Art of the Novella challenge 7: Alexander’s Bridge


alexanders-bridgeTitle: Alexander’s Bridge

Author: Willa Cather

First published: 1912

Page count: 116

First line: Late on brilliant April afternoon Professor Lucius Wilson stood at the head of Chestnut Street, looking about him with the pleased air of a man of taste who does not very often get to Boston.

This was my first Willa Cather, something that might seem unlikely to well-read Americans – and that to my shame is in part due to the fact that, in the UK, she is published by Virago, a feminist press that I was always happy to accept would show up more on my sister’s shelves than my own. This was my first Cather, and it wasn’t what I expected. My view of her was bound up with the reputation of books like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia: i.e. that she was outdoorsy writer, spacious and Big Country-esque. Here, by contrast, was something indoorsy and rather stiff.

Alexander’s Bridge was Cather’s first published novella (or novel – it sits very much in that particular grey area), after many short stories and poems and plenty of journalism. It clearly shows the influence of Henry James, whom she revered as a master. Now a master James certainly is, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a useful model. The patience and concentration needed to unspool the thread of psychological insight through a labyrinth of ever-descending clauses is something not given to many other writers to carry off. I spent plenty of Alexander’s Bridge lamenting the fact.

A good Jamesian sentence, or paragraph, if you’ll allow me the digression, is like one of those school fête games of skill in which you’ve got to guide a wire loop on a stick along a longer wire twisted into a pattern either tortuous or elegantly serpentine without letting the two touch, closing the circuit and earning an ugly buzz. It takes the skills of concentration and hand-eye co-ordination for the player/reader, but it takes other, more architectural and dextrous skills, on the part of the writer, to make the thing in the first place.

(Another digression: I’m reminded of the squiggles used by Laurence Sterne to characterise the narrative lines of the various parts of Tristram Shandy. At the school fête my school would give, those would be the shapes the wire loop game would take!)


Back to Cather, though.

There’s the title, too. Let’s think about the title. The main character is Bartley Alexander, an architect-engineer who at 43 is the foremost maker of bridges in the world, and destined for glory with the completion of a new bridge in Moorlock, Canada, which will be the longest cantilever on the face of the planet. But he is not happy. He hates the bureaucratic trappings of success, and is slightly bored by delightful wife, Winifred.

Then work takes him to London, where he can’t help but look up a former lover, Hilda Burgoyne, who is now finding success as an actress. Of course, she offers him exactly the adventure he lacks elsewhere, and he keeps returning to London, carrying on a double life.

He is stretched, in other words, between two lives, and of course the tension starts to tell. Cather drops into the narrative hints that there are problems with the Moorlock bridge, that presumably are meant to be subtle enough to be subconsciously assimilated, but which I’m afraid clang into my reading brain like a monkey wrench dropped onto a metal walkway:

He was cramped in every way by a niggardly commission, and was using lighter material than he thought proper.

That Moorlock Bridge is on my back all the time. I never had so much trouble with a job before.

To adapt the wire loop analogy to the longer stretch of the entire narrative, rather than a single sentence or paragraph, hints like this can’t help but close the circuit – BZZZZZZZZZZ! THE BRIDGE IS GOING TO COLLAPSE! THE BRIDGE SYMBOLISES HIS INABILITY TO STRETCH HIMSELF BETWEEN TWO LIVES! WE GET IT!

The bridge does collapse. I make no apology for imparting this fact. If that is a spoiler, then, I’d argue, the title itself is a spoiler. As per Chekhov’s rifle, if it’s not going to fall down, what’s it doing there, swinging above the novella like an anvil on a rope.

To this extent, the novella does evince a slightly reductive approach to narrative. Will the bridge collapse? Yes. Who will he choose/which way will he fall? Hilda, and passion? Or Winifred, and stability? Well, that I won’t tell you, but the zero-sum game-ness of the situation does make for a slightly hemmed-in reading experience, not helped by a fourth character, Alexander’s one-time mentor – the Professor Wilson of the opening sentence – who sort of acts as a reflector/focaliser for the sorry romantic-tragic mess, but not consistently. (Hints here that this could have worked well as a longer, more developed novel, where characters like Wilson and Winifred might have plot lines of their own.)

In passing, may I add that the novella includes lines such as this?:

He took her roughly in his arms.

Is that the mark of a writer still learning her trade? Or is it a mark of the times? Did Henry James ever write “He took her roughly in his arms”? Did Wharton?

All this sounds terribly negative. But there’s more to Alexander’s Bridge than this. I was particularly struck by this line, on only the second page, which comes courtesy of Prof Wilson:

Always an interested observer of women, Wilson would have slackened his pace anywhere to follow this one with his impersonal, appreciative glance.

Thus showing that Cather had basically anatomised The Male Gaze decades before anyone else: the glance that Wilson throws the way of this woman (Winifred, in fact) is not just appreciative, but impersonal: he’s looking at her without desire, but with the judging of every man there is. He is looking on with all men’s eyes.

And there’s more, and something more solid.

Towards the end of the book, as we are heading towards the collapse of the bridge, and the sundering of Alexander’s overstretched loyalties, Cather produces a stretch of writing that raises the novella’s game entirely. Having sent him hither and thither on his yoyo-ing journey of adventure and remission over the preceding hundred pages, she now sits him in a train, heading towards the fateful, titular, Damoclean bridge, and has him reflect. He thinks of the two women, of the forces pulling him in each of their directions, of boys he sees from the train window, sitting around a fire, reminding him of his own childhood – and the sense of life waiting to be lived, of how from the outside he might have attained everything he as a boy might have ever dreamed of, but, on the inside, how unsatisfactory all of that actually was.

This rumination goes on for six pages. It can’t all be quoted, but here is some of it, for its tone:

And always there was the sound of the rushing water underneath, the sound which, more than anything else, meant death; the wearing away of things under the impact of physical forces which men could direct but never circumvent or diminish. Then, in the exaltation of love, more than ever it seemed to him to mean death, the only other thing as strong as love. Under the moon, the cold, splendid stars, there were only those two things awake and sleepless; death and love, the rushing river and his burning heart.

My note, scribbled across the top of the page, read thus:

The grand abstractions of the world passed through the lens of an invented personality, so as to illuminate a person’s soul.

Then, two pages on:

It makes you think, not just that this soul is worth fighting for, but that it even exists.

This is what James does, so often, and what Cather, in the end, achieves: the sense, in the reader, that, having carefully followed the rises and dips of the narrative wire, they more fully appreciate the turns it takes as the story nears its conclusion.

The writing, already dense, thickens further with its reincorporation of what came earlier. There is clearly something musical here – the sense that a novella, or a novel, in recombining elements from earlier in its process, can achieve a deepening and rising up of sensation unavailable to shorter forms.

A tweet, of mine, from a few weeks back:

This heightened writing, recalling and readdressing themes from earlier in the work, has something of the aria about it, something of the fugue. It is multi-dimensional. If I find it, in Alexander’s Bridge, entirely wonderful, after finding so much of what went before underwhelming, then clearly this begs the question of means and ends. Do I mean that the meaning, or value, of the novella is contained in those few pages, and the stuff that came before mere material, fuel to power the engine, when it kicks into gear?

It is a view I’m partial to: works of art as engines for the production of states of consciousness. Particular sections are designed to produce those states, while others – whole paragraphs, scenes and pages – are only there for the effect that is made from them in retrospect.

To return to the question of the novella as form, I suppose what I am on the lookout for is the suggestion that the novella offers a particular model of efficiency. Cather delivers that, in the end, in spades. What is missing is the sense, earlier in the process, that it is going to be all worth while.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.