You nominated the contenders – now reader Matthew Spencer pits Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop against Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned
The last bout saw Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 triumph against Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. Who will be next to make it through to the next round?
I'd recently read Fitzy's tight masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, and embarked upon the Beautiful and Damned with an eager heart. Whilst they share the same themes of tragedy and failure and the dangers of a material existence, Gatsby has that perfect structure. The Beautiful and Damned is a bit more flabby but no less stylish. Fitzgerald's main character Anthony Patch has, like most of us, an artistic temperament without an artistic talent. He is the heir to his grandfather's fortune and is afforded a generous allowance that he uses to wine and dine and run around New York with his beautiful and carefree friends.
As time moves on, so do most of his friends into positions of responsibility and success. Anthony and Gloria remain stubbornly carefree, waiting for their payday. But Anthony's grandfather, the sober social reformer, becomes impatient with his wayward grandson and disinherits him and his frivolous wife. While the first half of the novel is an exercise in frippery, a well-written farce of high living, the second half becomes dark and brooding and much more up my street. Fitzgerald's warnings have not been heeded and we still live in an increasingly materialistic world obsessed by youth and beauty.
But Oh, Willa Cather: this was my epiphany. Death comes for the Archbishop is the story of two Catholic priests, two Frenchmen, dispatched to New Mexico to awaken a slumbering Catholicism in the harsh desert. It is a place populated by Indians, Mexicans and frontiersmen and governed by derelict priests roving endless prairies.
It manages to surpass one of my favourite novels, Charles Portis's True Grit, in its depiction of the ragged density of frontier life. It is less a flowing, single story than a series of vignettes that give a a glorious insight into the early racial mix of America. The civilized Frenchmen bring fine food and good manners as much as doctrine, and the saintly Latour goes about his duties gently but with a determination of spirit that is forcibly embodied by his more pragmatic friend, the Father Valliant. I was blown away by the simple power of Cather's storytelling. She basks in the details and the story, and for that I am forever beholden. This is a book to be read again and again.