I’m a fairly broad reader in that my reading often covers a range of genres and purposes. I like reading a variety of works, though graphic details and too dark a setting and story usually ends up putting me off and not finishing what I’m reading.
Most of the time I tend to be a pure reader–that is, I’m reading for enjoyment. But there are times when my reading enjoyment extends to savoring a rather deft piece of writerly craft. I’ll end up rereading those sections and enjoying them because I appreciate the effect that the other writer is trying to achieve. Sometimes I’ll even study it deeper, thinking about how best to apply that to my own work.
I had one of those moments recently, while reading Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. The protagonist, Thea Kronberg, is on the brink of breaking through as a top opera singer. She’s visiting with her long-term lover Fred Ottenburg and a life-long backer, Dr. Archie, when The Call occurs–essentially, the climax of the book. And the way that Cather handles it is just–marvelous. See below. Note: omniscient point of view. And Sieglinde is the part; Walküre the opera. Different formatting conventions from a different era.
Fred caught up the telephone and stopped the buzz while Thea went on talking to Dr. Archie about Landry. Telling some one to hold the line, he presently put down the instrument and approached Thea with a startled expression on his face.
“It’s the management,” he said quietly. “Gloeckler has broken down: fainting fits. Madame Rheineckler is in Atlantic City and Schramm is singing in Philadelphia tonight. They want to know whether you can come down and finish Sieglinde.”
“What time is it?”
“Eight fifty-five. The first act is just over. They can hold the curtain twenty-five minutes.”
Thea did not move. “Twenty-five and thirty-five makes sixty,” she muttered. “Tell them I’ll come if they hold the curtain until I am in the dressing-room. Say I’ll have to wear her costumes, and the dresser must have everything ready. Then call a taxi, please.”
Thea had not changed her position since he first interrupted her, but she had grown pale and was opening and shutting her hands rapidly. She looked, Fred thought, terrified. He half turned toward the telephone, but hung on one foot.
“Have you ever sung the part?” he asked.
“No, but I’ve rehearsed it. That’s all right. Get the cab.” Still she made no move. She merely turned perfectly blank eyes to Dr. Archie and said absently, “It’s curious, but just at this minute I can’t remember a bar of Walküre after the first act. And I let my maid go out.” She sprang up and beckoned Archie without so much, he felt sure, as knowing who he was. “Come with me.” She went quickly into her sleeping-chamber and threw open a door into a trunk-room. “See that white trunk? It’s not locked. It’s full of wigs, in boxes. Look until you find one marked ‘Ring 2.’ Bring it quick!” While she directed him, she threw open a square trunk and began tossing out shoes of every shape and color.
Ottenburg appeared at the door. “Can I help you?”
She threw him some white sandals with long laces and silk stockings pinned to them. “Put those in something and then go to the piano and give me a few measures in there–you know.” She was behaving somewhat like a cyclone now, and while she wrenched open drawers and closet doors, Ottenburg got to the piano as quickly as possible and began to herald the reappearance of the Volsung pair, trusting to memory.
In a few moments Thea came out enveloped in her long fur coat with a scarf over her head and knitted woolen gloves on her hands. Her glassy eye took in the fact that Fred was playing from memory, and even in her distracted state, a faint smile flickered over her colorless lips. She stretched out a woolly hand. “The score, please. Behind you, there.”
Dr. Archie followed with a canvas box and a satchel. As they went through the hall, the men caught up their hats and coats. They left the music-room, Fred noticed, just seven minutes after the telephone message….
So what makes this scene work?
First, we have a nicely intimate gathering of three long-term friends, relaxed after a meal. Then…the call. We have the conflict of time and preparation.
But. Thea does not immediately spring up and get started. Cather points out three times that Thea does not move right away. Yet she’s aware of what her time to get there and be dressed will take–for a part she has only rehearsed, not sung. She observes that she can’t remember the part she has to sing at that moment. But when she does move, she knows exactly what she needs. Dr. Archie is to get a specific wig. Fred is to call a taxi, pack some shoes, then play appropriate music from the opera. The entire process takes seven minutes…and without saying so, due to the careful staging and presentation of details, you as the reader know that Thea has thought over exactly what she would need to do should this opportunity fall into her lap. Even though she’s somewhat startled by it, she takes the time to think through what is needed and to be there for the chance of a lifetime. Quickly.
There’s also the little character-building elements, even though this is toward the end of the book. Thea is clearly someone who notices everything. She knows the timing of her travel and the length of the opera. She opens and closes her hands while thinking, a detail that points to her tension. When she does act, she moves quickly and decisively. But she is not so wrapped up in herself that she fails to notice that Fred is playing the piano from memory.
And within a few hundred words, we have slow-fast-slow pacing occurring. After this snippet, Fred and Dr. Archie put Thea in a cab, where she studies the score with the light on as the cabbie races her to the theater. Fred explains to Dr. Archie–and us–while they follow in another taxi just how and why this moment could be the making of Thea’s singing career.
For me, it’s the mix of pacing and the small elements that make this work so well. The slow-fast-slow pacing of that moment of realization that the make-or-break moment is HERE. And we see that Our Heroine has been preparing for just that sort of lucky lightning strike so that she can take advantage of it, in an economy of words.
It’s those three moments where Cather observes that Thea does not immediately get up that really make the scene.
She doesn’t move, but calculates the time needed for her to arrive and be ready.
She doesn’t move, but she opens and closes her hands rapidly while reassuring Fred (and probably herself) that she knows the part.
She doesn’t move, but she tells Dr. Archie that she’s temporarily forgotten what comes next. And that her maid (who would have known exactly what she needed) has been dismissed for the evening.
But she does know what to do, so that when she does move, she does so quickly, in under seven minutes.
When I first read this passage, the craft involved sucked me back into reading and rereading it.
That doesn’t happen very often.