Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy is an unlikely choice for my first experience of Willa Cather – it’s obscure enough that the Americanist colleague I hit up for a copy to borrow not only didn’t have it and hadn’t read it, but hadn’t even heard of it, and the only copy in our university library is a 1926 edition so old and fragile it is stored in a box because it is considered too flimsy even to restore. Apparently, then, My Mortal Enemy is not the go-to Cather text.

Because I haven’t read any other Cather, I’m not in a position to say whether that’s because it’s anomalous or in some way not up to her usual standards. The introduction to the Vintage edition I finally opted for as an e-book has a long introduction that holds it up as exemplary, particularly of her prose style, which has, says its author, ‘a relentless purity of style’ which is ‘never so pure and never so relentless as in My Mortal Enemy … the novel makes a raid on all amplitudes, all mere pleasantness, and all sloppiness.’

As I was reading it, I can’t say that I was noticing any particular purity of style, but I did feel the absence of pleasantness. The novella tells the story of Myra Henshawe, an heiress who abandons her father’s fortune to marry for love. Her elopement has taken on an almost mythical quality in her home town, where the narrator, Nellie, grows up hearing about her. When Nellie finally meets her, she feels ‘quite overpowered’ by her, and Nellie is indeed overpowered by Myra throughout the novella – she is a narrator of almost no interest herself, as far as I can tell, serving only as a device to present and contrast with Myra’s more showy and emotionally intense character. Myra lives life loud, but her sacrifice for love has not brought her happiness, and the love itself has not proved lasting: when Nellie goes to stay with Myra and her husband Oswald in New York, she eventually sees that despite their superficial displays of unity and affection, the reality is more complex and even sinister. The realization appalls Nellie in a way that would seem disproportionate if it weren’t for the status marvellous Myra and her magical marriage have had in Nellie’s youthful imagination:

This delightful room had seemed to me a place where lightheartedness and charming manners lived–housed there just as the purple curtains and the Kiva rugs and the gay water-colours were. And now everything was in ruins. The air was still and cold like the air in a refrigerating-room. What I felt was fear; I was afraid to look or speak or move. Everything about me seemed evil. When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.

 When Nellie next meets Oswald and Myra, they are living in a dingy apartment-hotel where she, having fallen on unspecified hard times, has also taken up residence. Myra is an invalid tortured beyond reason by the clattering and thumping and shrieking of their unsympathetic upstairs neighbours (actually, having lived in basement apartments, I understand how crazy this can make you!). There’s nothing left of even superficial glamour in their lives, only bitterness and defeat. Is it tempered at all by the Henshawes’ love for each other? Oswald waits on Myra faithfully, even devotedly, and she responds with occasional tenderness, but seeing them now and knowing what she knows, too, Nellie cannot see this as the last phase of a great passion.

Myra’s death is clearly meant to be climactic, but I had trouble discerning the precise nature of the conflict to which it is the crisis. “Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?” cries out Myra. But I didn’t understand what she meant or why (or whether) I was supposed to rebel with her or judge her. I wasn’t enthralled by Myra’s character, and I don’t think we are meant to be: there’s nothing truly grand or heroic about it, and there’s something unpleasantly melodramatic about the way she plays her own part. She’s more interesting than anyone else in the novella, though, which I suppose is, indirectly, a critical reflection on the roles people usually play. She’s not a tragic heroine–if there’s any tragedy, I think it’s in the gap between our (or at least Nellie’s) expectation that love is worth everything else and the sordid culmination of Myra’s life story, in which her grand gesture has done nobody any good.

After finishing the novella I turned to the introduction for ideas, and its author argues that Myra’s enemy is ‘friendship and love, human relationship itself.’ He reads her angry cry as a pun that refers also to her husband, who is ‘her enemy because he is the source for her of human relationship, of that which passes without fulfillment, of mortality.’ That is, I guess, her husband is standing in for all the false hopes and promises that human relationships bring meaning, and for the inevitable collapse of that beautiful dream in the face of mortality. That sounds plausible enough when he explains it, though it seems to me to take quite a bit of reading into – perhaps, quite a bit of bringing to – the novel what isn’t obvious to someone encountering Cather’s ethos for the first time. I didn’t feel like I was reading My Mortal Enemy very well: I couldn’t seem to get oriented in it, and then it was already over. What I’m left with is an interest in reading something more expansive of Cather’s, something that gives me a better chance at understanding her for myself.

My Mortal Enemy is this month’s choice for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. More comments and discussion can be found at the Slaves blog.

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