“Coming, Aphrodite!” by Willa Cather

This week has seen something of an experiment, in that I have read my first book (well – short story!) in an electronic form on an electronic device! I’ve found the device itself relatively easy to deal with (I’m reasonably tech-savvy) but I do have slight reservations about reading this way. I don’t think that I engaged with the text in the same way, and I certainly missed the physical attributes of a book very much. I read the story in iBooks, and I found the format preferable to my limited experience of the Kindle app, simply because the former had page numbers and I’d rather have that than a percentage! However, on to the content!

youthandthebrightmedusa

As I mentioned earlier, HeavenAli has been hosting a Willa Cather Reading Week, and to join in I’ve read the short story “Coming, Aphrodite!” from a collection entitled “Youth and the Bright Medusa”. Cather’s works often fall into two distinct categories: those dealing with life in the country on the prairies, and those dealing with artistic city dwellers. This story seems to cover both strands, telling the story of the brief encounter of Don Hedger, a solitary painter living artistically in a loft with his dog, Caesar III, and Eden Bower, a singer, originally hailing from the country and who’s reinvented herself with a view to fame and fortune in the city.

Hedger is a man set in his ways; an orphan, independent from a young age and owing nothing to anybody, he could make a better living if he wished to go down the commercial art route, but he doesn’t. Instead, he paints as he wants and makes enough to get by, with simple needs and a dog for a friend.

On the surface, then, he has nothing in common with Eden. She arrives to take up residence in the studio next door, along with a piano and all sorts of other female paraphernalia. The two clash initially, with Eden objecting to Don washing Caesar in the bath (the dog never likes her), but when Hedger inadvertently spies on her doing exercises through a knot-hole in the partition, he becomes attracted. After a tentative start, and an escapade with a hot air balloon, a relationship begins to develop between the two. However, it’s not clear how long this can last – Eden has escaped from a stifling life in the country to make an artistic splash in the world, but Hedger seems to have no ambition at all. It’s kind of a doomed relationship from the start…

People like Eden Bower are inexplicable. Her father sold farming machinery in Huntington, Illinois, and she had grown up with no acquaintances or experiences outside of that prairie town. Yet from her earliest childhood she had not one conviction or opinion in common with the people about her,–the only people she knew. Before she was out of short dresses she had made up her mind that she was going to be an actress, that she would live far away in great cities, that she would be much admired by men and would have everything she wanted.

“Coming, Aphrodite!” is my first experience of reading Cather and it’s been a very positive one! Her prose is lovely – evocative and yet spare. For a short story, it has much to say about the different types of artistic temperament and the needs they have to be recognised. Eden craves fame and recognition, and will take advantage of a rich benefactor to achieve this if she must. Hedger, in contrast, will not compromise at all, only doing commercial work when money needs are desperate – his art is its own end and if and when it coincides with commercial taste that’s fine – if doesn’t, then no matter, he will still paint what he wants.

He, too, was sure of his future and knew that he was a chosen man. He could not know, of course, that he was merely the first to fall under a fascination which was to be disastrous to a few men and pleasantly stimulating to many thousands. Each of these two young people sensed the future, but not completely. Don Hedger knew that nothing much would ever happen to him. Eden Bower understood that to her a great deal would happen. But she did not guess that her neighbour would have more tempestuous adventures sitting in his dark studio than she would find in all the capitals of Europe, or in all the latitude of conduct she was prepared to permit herself.

The New York of the turn of the century really comes alive in Cather’s hands – the Washington Square area where the two live; Coney Island, where the balloon incident occurs; and the spring weather, which disturbs their senses. Hedger’s love for Eden becomes almost obsessive as their affair progresses, and Cather paints Bower as an ambitious and independent woman, initially unsure of her feelings for a man so unlike herself.

This book was a beautiful study of two very differing artistic temperaments involved in a fleeting, but memorable love affair. On the evidence of “Coming, Aphrodite!” I really want to read more of Willa Cather’s work!

 

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