December 19, 2006KR BlogUncategorized

Reading Notes

The writer’s notebook asks us to imagine the prehistory of a literary work: or perhaps its afterlife in the mind of the writer. How do we record (and do we record?) the prehistories and afterlives of our readings? For some, the essay is such a form; for others, teaching, lecturing, or discussing. One of my earliest teachers recommended starting a good novel over when you get to the end: perhaps to prepare to better appreciate its virtues but perhaps also to remember how one experienced the novel as one experiences it again. Lately, having stolen some time for pleasure reading (isn’t all pleasure reading stolen time–and would we want it any other way?) I’ve returned to Willa Cather’s luminous The Song of the Lark. Who betters understands literary voice than the writer whose subject is opera?I read greedily that night, staying up until 5am before teaching one of my final classes of the semester that morning. Here’s just a sample of what kept me: “He put one hand to the back of her throat and sat with his head bent, his one eye closed. He loved to hear a big voice throb in a relaxed natural throat, and he was thinking that no one had ever felt this voice vibrate before. It was like a wild bird that had flown into his studio on Middleton street from goodness knew how far! No one knew that it had come or even that it existed; least of all the strange, crude girl in whose throat it beat its passionate wings.”

The story (for those who haven’t had this particular reading pleasure) is the prehistory of an opera singer, growing up in quiet, rural Colorado before (in this passage) moving to Chicago to train with a pianist who recognizes her singular gift. I think the passage struck me because not only does one wonder about how artists’ voices develop but because talent, like a good line or a great idea, catches us unawares (when we’re lucky) and we hope to have the good fortune to have those in our lives who can guide us to ourselves. Cather’s Thea Kronborg travels in constant and unpredictable motion towards herself, like a bird beating about in the air. Coming to voice is no simple thing; it is mostly a painful thing, in part because voices exist in flux. We are never who we are, as people or as artists, because we have already passed ourselves going or failed to meet ourselves coming.

So, it’s Christmas: go on. Treat yourself (or someone else) to a little Willa Cather.