Peter by Willa Cather, 1892
The magic trick:
Playing the setting against Peter’s memories of Europe
We head to Nebraska this week. Willa Cather immediately springs to mind. She published this story when she was just 19. Fresh out the corn, as they say.
Nebraska plays a crucial role. It is the setting, the oppressive here and now. But it’s Europe, specifically the elegant scenery and music of the concert halls of Prague, that take up much of the word count. Peter’s memories of his old home stand in direct contrast to the feelings he has about his new home in the heartland. It’s that distance he has to reconcile. And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.
Once, a French woman came and played for weeks, he did not remember her name now. He did not remember her face very well either, for it changed so, it was never twice the same. But the beauty of it, and the great hunger men felt at the sight of it, that he remembered. Most of all he remembered her voice. He did not know French, and could not understand a word she said, but it seemed to him that she must be talking the music of Chopin. And her voice, he thought he should know that in the other world. The last night she played a play in which a man touched her arm, and she stabbed him. As Peter sat among the smoking gas jets down below the footlights with his fiddle on his knee, and looked up at her, he thought he would like to die, too, if he could touch her arm once, and have her stab him so.
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