Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review: My Mortal Enemy

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: My Mortal Enemy

Author: Willa Cather

Date: 1926, 1954

Publisher: Knopf, Random House, Vintage

ISBN: my copy has none

Length: 105 pages, plus long introduction by Marcus Klein

Quote: "Why should I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy!"

Willa Cather aspired to write greater things than pretty little romances. After all, her own life seems to have been romance-free; her only really close relationship was a "companionship" of convenience, with an assistant who provided some security but doesn't seem to have been emotionally or intellectually close to her. According to a memoir her companion, Edith Lewis, wrote after she died, Cather charmed people into telling her the stories she pieced together into novels she meant to capture American history, then retreated quickly from these people after collecting their best stories. Her novels ring true because, although she disguised the people's identities, the stories were true.

Hence the kind of men who want to believe that women "live for love," i.e. live primarily for and through men, find My Mortal Enemy "the least likable" thing Cather ever wrote. It is seldom found on reading lists that include My Antonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, or A Lost Lady. Perhaps, like Cather's nonfiction book, My Mortal Enemy was meant to be appreciated by people Not Under Forty. Romance lovers find the disillusioned heroine, Myra, "thoroughly unpleasant."

To readers who don't judge all women characters as romantic heroines, Myra is not so thoroughly unpleasant as doomed by her early mistake. She gave up money for "love." She eloped with a man everyone knew was all wrong for her. And, as if her life's purpose had been to correct the notions found in romantic novels, her great sacrifice for "love" did not bring Myra happiness. She missed that money. The romance didn't last. The man really was wrong for her, and although sexual frustration and romantic disappointment don't destroy Myra, neither do they ennoble her character or purify her soul. Myra copes. She's a kind, decent older woman, but not a very happy one.

For women, Myra's "unpleasantness" should be cautionary. Romantic love can be an illusion. People may do other things right in their lives after accepting the "defeat" of romantic love, but they'll always know that they've lost whatever they've sacrificed for what turns out to have been a passing infatuation. We should not give up anything we really wanted, before the hormone surge, for the sake of "love." Even if what we give up is something we may consider less noble, like money, we'll be unhappy.

If we want to live in a certain place or at a certain economic level, if we want to do a certain kind of work or study a certain subject or practice certain beliefs, then we should distrust the "love" that sets itself up in opposition to these things, and hold out for a partner who can share our real passions. This kind of prudence may involve sacrifice. We may spend a few sleepless nights alone. We may, like C.S. Lewis, find True Love only in middle age and enjoy it for relatively few years...but isn't a few years of True Love better than a lifetime of disillusionment? Exactly half of all marriages that don't end in divorce are going to end in widowhood, but at least waiting for the right marriage won't cost us all success altogether.

This may not be the message young girls want to hear, and My Mortal Enemy is certainly not the most pleasant way the message could be put, but the message just might save young women's emotional lives.

From the tragedies of real women like Myra feminists derived the more hopeful idea that, if women weren't great artists or charismatic teachers or interested in nursing, but they did have the sort of intelligence that might be useful in business, and they went into business on their own, then their never-wealthy husbands might not have to become their "mortal enemies." By now, of course, we can all write the end of that story too. If the job is, as many jobs are, a dead end, and the husband isn't supportive, and the now inevitable divorce leaves us in poverty, success and happiness are no more available to modern women than they were to Myra.

Perhaps this is, after all, the one of Cather's short novels that belongs on high school reading lists. Then again, maybe you have to be middle-aged to understand why, although it's as harrowing as Macbeth or Ivan Denisovich, My Mortal Enemy may be more valuable and more relevant to teenagers than either of those.