i felt some hesitation before i left bringing a book that would so strongly evoke America as does Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918). it seemed almost perverse, but i justified it in part on the rationale that it was an America in all its newness – not only seen through the eyes, but made by the hands of, Swedish, Norwegian and Bohemian pioneers,¹ and all of these are countries that we are visiting on tour. i could claim that it would give me some better, or some stranger, reference point, to be traveling through the Old Countries that haunt or are longed for by all of the characters in the book, but that is not an argument of much force.
America looms so large in the book, the characters and the landscape are deeply intertwined. i become romantic and wistful, and wish in that untrustworthy nostalgic way that it was there that we were touring, but of the course the “there” is not one that exists any longer, or that can be recovered:
If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made . . . I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside of man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
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seemingly more appropriate, i also brought along Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin (1939), which i read over the course of our couple of days off in Berlin. it is quite good, but it in its own way sort of reaffirms and reproduces the strangeness of reading an American novel in Europe. Goodbye To Berlin is so much a historical snapshot, Berlin now is all Turkish food and punk rock. where must one go, what must one do, to connect with that world that it represents? it is as alien and lost to me as is Cather’s America while in Europe, and as would be Cather’s America be to me were i -in- America now. what is the right novel to capture the spirit when all is myth and nostalgia, layer upon layer?
of course, Coming Through Slaughter i didn’t wait until i was in Louisiana to read, but did wait until the heavy, humid pall of August settled upon Montréal, and that i do not in the slightest regret.
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they also have these Flips things here, which are basically peanut-butter flavoured cheesies (no cheese, i mean), and are awesome. they are sort of like the essence of PB+crackers, elevated out of mediocrity. through deep-frying, of course. deep-frying and corn, i should think. why don’t we have these? i want.
¹ i say “newness” and “made by the hands of” in full cognizance of the dangers of tacitly endorsing the mythological “discovery” and “founding” of America by Europeans, and use the terms advisedly. i’m talking about an America that is mythic, a myth that did not exist prior to colonization, and continues to inform our engagements with the land and the nation.