Slim Paperback Three: The Professor’s House

First of all, I know I skipped Slim Paperback Two. Don’t worry, I’ll be going back for it. I just felt more like writing about this book first.

A couple weeks ago I read Litlove’s thoughts on Willa Cather (which as usual were inviting and perceptive) and though I didn’t act on it immediately, the thought of reading a Cather novel lodged itself somewhere in my head. Last week, when I found myself yet again flipping though my To Be Read pile, I came across The Professor’s House, and I shoved it into my bag with three or four other books before heading out to a favorite coffee shop. Then I sat for hours, reading, writing and talking with a couple of friends, The Professor’s House lying beneath my notebook on the table in front of me.

For some reason I found myself hesitating to pick it up and begin, likely worried it would disappoint me and that it wasn’t actually the book I wanted or needed. This was foolish of me. I started the book that evening, back in my apartment, and read the first hundred pages or straight through, and then finished the novel the next day. Last year, when I went through a brief and terrible stint of not reading any fiction, a Dover Thrift Edition of Cather’s My Ántonia (found in the English language section of a FNAC in Nice) mesmerized and reinvigorated my mind. I shouldn’t have doubted that anything of Cather’s wouldn’t be something I’d want to read. Of her extensive oeuvre, My Ántonia and O Pioneers! are the only two I’ve read. The Professor’s House is very different from both of those books, and yet it was so distinctly the product of the same writer that I felt while reading it very much on familiar ground.

Both O, Pioneers! and My Ántonia take place in the great plains, among immigrant families forming new communities in the broad, flat lands that make up the center of this country. The Professor’s House, on the other hand, takes place in a college town near Lake Michigan, and has a plot line featuring the cattle ranges and mesas of the American southwest. The characters in this book were different too—more erudite and more moneyed (the offspring, perhaps, of the characters who leave the farming communities at the end of her other novels) and yet many of this book’s concerns—Cather’s concerns, I suppose—remain the same: roots and rootlessness, solitude, nature, aging, death, and the effects that a single, wholly remarkable and magnetic human being can have on all of those around him or her.

What I love about Cather’s writing is the way its superficial simplicity and placidity overlays deep and dynamic tensions between people and within individual minds. The major conflict in The Professor’s House seems a relatively benign one: an aging Professor, Godfrey St. Peter, is loath to abandon the cramped attic room where he has written for decades, and he refuses to move himself into the spacious new house where his wife and all the rest of his belongings now live. But his refusal to move is not mere obstinacy. Rather, it is generated by a deep and intensifying misanthropy, connected to the Professor’s general disillusionment with human relations. This disillusionment springs in large part from the death of his one stellar pupil, Tom Outland, a young man from the Southwest who died fighting in World War I.

Cather has a knack for writing characters—particularly narrators—who are engaging and booksmart but whom I don’t really like…or at least, whom I don’t really like all that much. Often she uses these narrators as framing devices for other, more magnetic characters, as she does with Jim Burden, who narrates My Ántonia. St. Peter is such a narrator as well—definitely flawed, both as a man and as an observer of others. Funny for me to say this, I guess, but I had to come to terms with his solipsism, to focus on his fear of nearing the end of what he feels has been an partially un-lived life, and I had to find a way to sympathize with the loneliness he in large part brings upon himself, in order not to despise him a little for his stubborn passivity, his refusal to engage, his detached, almost entirely affectionless treatment of his wife and daughters.

But I did ultimately feel for St. Peter, in large part because of the things that Cather manages to impart through his narration but beneath the level of his own conscious awareness. This is another great gift of Cather’s as a writer, a little reminiscent of what Kazuo Ishiguro does in The Remains of the Day. There’s a slightly strange and beautiful scene at the beginning of the novel where St. John blocks the door to his attic workspace so that Augusta, his family’s seamstress, can’t remove the wooden and wire-frame forms she uses for dressmaking from the space he has shared with her for years. There’s something about the image of the handsome, greying Professor, in his cramped garrett full of books, refusing to let go of an empty and inanimate female figure, in the presence of a living, breathing woman for whom he has never expressed his love. It’s a moment so full of reserved and melancholy passion that I think it contains nearly as strong a declaration of love as when, toward the end of the book, St. Peter talks about the difference between his love for his wife and his love for Tom Outland. He says that “he had had two romances: one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and the second of the mind—of the imagination.” The pluperfect “had had” here is so repetitively final: both of these romances are over, and all St. Peter has left (or all he feels he has left) is the loss of them, particularly the loss of the latter.

I guess one of the questions this book made me consider is when someone you love a great deal dies, what happens to all of your affection for them? Where does it go? What do you do with it? And how does it change all of your other affections, perhaps particularly the more minor ones? What does it do to your ability to love less passionately, or your ability to love anyone else, including yourself?

The Professor’s House threatens one tragic ending, and then produces another quieter conclusion that is perhaps just as somber. There’s a lingering note of ambiguity to the book’s ending that for me, at least, strengthens the novel as a whole. But I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own, should you so choose.