The Troll Garden
by Willa Cather
I found this one at a garage sale, put on by a former literature professor; he gave me a discount on this and the other two or three books I bought, including a nice paperback of Dracula, which I’ve never read all the way through but will be diving into soon.
I’ve never read Willa Cather, though I’ve always been surrounded by copies of O! Pioneers, a classic usually part of American literature classes, though never my own. I got this because I loved the cover, and because I held out hope that it would actually be about a garden full of trolls — I also got a copy of a Kenneth Grahame book of short stories, and if that man can write about moles and toads and badgers who own halls and motor cars, why couldn’t Willa Cather write about gardens full of trolls?
Because Willa Cather wrote about despair, that’s why.
The title actually comes from a cute little ditty:
“We must not look at Goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits;
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
And the book is related: it is about people’s secret desires, often dark, and generally leading to bad places. These stories are about unrequited love; about poverty and working-class life and how such a daily grind wears away every noble impulse in a person; about how people want what they cannot have, and don’t recognize what they do have, and don’t want it when they do have it. It’s a book about hunger and thirst, and the darkness we turn to in order to feed that hunger and thirst, and what that darkness does to us.
The first story, Flavia and Her Artists, is about a woman who desperately wants to be chic, to run a top-shelf salon, packed with intellectuals and artists and the finest of people. But she doesn’t know how to pick the best types, and ends up with less enchanting guests, who all laugh at her behind their hands, because she herself is superficial and dim-witted, blinded to reality by her dreams of being the ultimate hostess. The story is only saved by her husband: who loves her despite knowing how pathetic she is, and who tries to do his best to protect her and make her happy, even though none of the angsty sophisticates can understand what he sees in someone so gauche.
The second story, The Sculptor’s Funeral, was my favorite: in it a great artist dies and has his body returned to the little crap town in farm country where he was born. The people there are absurd and grotesque, and the men who gather for his wake spend the evening deriding the artist as a weirdo who was clearly a failure because he didn’t stay in town and make money, as his father did, as they all did. But again, the love of one good man redeems the story: a lawyer who was a good friend, a real friend, and who understood the deceased sculptor, reams them all for their vileness. It’s a great speech, one I’d like to say myself to a few people I know.
Then we get to the Unrequited Love section: The Garden Lodge, about a woman who grew up poor, who held herself to a rigid and unbending regimen in order to get out of poverty, who married well and securely, and then — falls in love with an opera singer who stays at her home. She clings desperately to this one bit of irrational passion, but by the end, she returns to her sensible self, and has the garden lodge where she spent time with her singer torn down. A Death in the Desert is a double dose: a woman dying of tuberculosis is pining for the great composer who was her mentor; she lives vicariously through the man’s brother, who looks just like the great composer; and he keeps her company as she dies despite being in love with her himself. She dies without anyone ever being happy.
The Marriage of Phaedra is about an artist’s legacy being spoiled by his widow; A Wagner Matinee is about a woman who gave up both music and joy when she married a homesteader and then spent her life raising their children and caring for his house out on the frontier; and the last, Paul’s Case, is about a young man who dreams of a life of beauty and sophistication, but can’t find his way to it out of his lower-middle-class upbringing, other than through fantasy, which eventually destroys him.
I see glimmers of goodness in every story — Flavia’s good husband; the sculptor’s good friend; the essential goodness of the woman in The Garden Lodge and the almost inhuman humanity of the brother in A Death in the Desert, squashing his own heart, his own identity, in order to stand in for the fantasy of the woman he loves; and so on. The people longing for what they don’t have are not bad, are not at fault for their own desperation and sorrow; I see Cather’s villain as the society that pigeonholes us while showing us a dream we can’t have, telling us we can. Maybe we’re fools for believing it, but there are people who profit from our hopeless fantasizing, and then from our bereavement; they are the bad guys here, not the people who want more. Paul’s Case is not his fault. Not that that makes it better. Poor guy.
It is beautifully written. It is deeply depressing. I can’t tell if it says good things about my appreciation for fine literature that I was able to enjoy the book, or if it says bad things about my increased ability to relate to the desperation and sorrow of the characters. I want to say the first. I’m certainly going to read something more cheerful now — though more fool me, the very next thing I read after this was not cheerful at all. But at least the writing sucked. Hey, stay tuned for that review!