Sunday Shorts is a series where I blog about short fiction – from flash to novellas. For the time being, I’m sticking to prose, although it’s been suggested I could expand this feature to include single episodes of anthology television series like The Twilight Zone or individual stories/issues of anthology comics (like the 1970s DC horror or war anthology titles). So anything is possible. But for now, the focus is on short stories.
This month I read what I think is my first Willa Cather work. If we read anything by her in high school or college, I don’t remember it. I know, I know. As an English Lit major, how have I never read O Pioneers! Or My Antonia? I need to rectify that one of these days.
In the meantime, one of this month’s arrivals from the Melville House Art of the Novella series is Cather’s novella Alexander’s Bridge. The book is a strong character study. Bridge architect Alexander, his wife Winifred, his ex-girlfriend and eventual mistress Hilda Burgoyne are all well-drawn and multi-dimensional, their friend Professor Wilson perhaps a bit less so. They are all recognizable as people we might know, although I can’t say any of them are particularly likeable; I never felt like I could be friends with any of them in real life, or anything more than an acquaintance. This is not necessarily a bad thing; characters who are not completely likeable can be more interesting to read about. It’s not that any of them are despicable or evil. They’re ordinary people going about their lives, making the good, bad, and questionable decisions we all make.
The plot is a pretty straight-forward depiction of the development of an affair. Although we’re never explicitly shown it, Alexander seems to have been a bit of a wild child in his youth, but eventually he met Winifred, and as he settled into happy married life, his professional career also took off. A trip to London re-introduces him to an ex-girlfriend turned noted young actress. As they become reacquainted, their passion re-ignites. Over multiple trips between the US and London, Alexander vacillates between commitment to one woman and the other, each representing some part of his personality … parts he cannot easily assimilate. Keeping secrets from his wife, trying to distance himself from Hilda -- Alexander’s slowly deteriorating security in his own self-image ends up reflected in the slow crumbling of his professional career as more and more of his projects, including a major one in Canada, hit snag after snag. It’s all neatly balanced, and the end is, if not predictable at least not completely unexpected. The question for the reader ultimately becomes: which will destroy Alexander first? Will it be the revelation of / the guilt of his affair? Or will it be the collapse of his grand bridge project?
One part of the story that I’m not sure completely worked for me was the Professor. He comes to visit Alexander and Winifred at several key moments, including the very start of the book. Cather makes much of how taken with Winifred the Professor is, how much he enjoys spending time with her – but this narrative thread never plays out into anything that affects the story as a whole. Winifred seems flattered by the Professor’s attentions, the attraction mutual, but nothing is ever explicitly stated or acted upon. It felt as if it went nowhere for all the emphasis placed on it in the early pages. I’d have liked to have seen the attraction addressed, even if it was a simple “Winifred was flattered, but loved her husband too much” type of statement.
I have to say that I enjoyed the character work enough to be glad I read the novella, even though I don’t feel like it was anything cutting edge in terms of story.