Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bridge for Dummies

It will come as no surprise to those who have read my previous reports from the world of high culture that not only had I not read Thornton Wilder's The Bridge at San Luis Rey, my concept of the book was way off base.

Oh, I know what you're thinking: "“Here she goes again. Let me guess: she thought The Bridge at San Luis Rey was about the largest metropolitan area in Missouri."

Not even close.

"“No? Then she thought it was about Alec Guinness building a bridge for the Japanese in Burma."

Wrong again. I'm no fool. I knew when the book was written (1927) so I knew it couldn'’t be a tale of World War II.

I assumed it was a World War I story. New Americans out of place in the Old Europe, Iberian division.

So not only do I have to make the Shame-Faced Admission™ that I hadn't read Wilder'’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, I have to admit I was about 200 years and 5000 miles off. I couldn'’t have faked it if the subject came up at a cocktail party. (And why am I never invited to that kind of cocktail party? The few I'’ve attended feature conversations that center around local weather - terrible, and traffic - worse.)

For those of you as clueless as I am (and I'’m hoping there are a few), here'’s the scoop.

Wilder's novel chronicles the lives led by five Peruvians who happen to be on the titular bridge the day it collapses. He begins by telling of a monk who saw the bridge collapse. He investigates the lives of the people who died, sure that what he finds will show that it was the ideal time for each of them to be taken, thus proving, empirically, the existence of the Almighty.

But we are not reading the monk'’s book, which the church promptly burned. The narrator of the book we'’re reading knows all about these five lives and is not out to prove a thing. But the episodes, encompassing cruelty, unrequited love, compassion and wisdom, do prove something. About humanity. About living life with a clear eye and an open heart. We read beautifully drawn examples of pride and humility, art and artifice, religion and faithlessness; and something is proven. Perhaps not about a god who knows the best time for each of us to die, but about the beauty of imperfect humanity.


Blogger Bill said...

I probably read this book before you were born, but I still remember it with affection. In fact, I recommended it to someone only a few weeks ago. Wilder is often referred to disparagingly as "middlebrow," and I guess that makes me one, too, because I like this book a lot, and I feel the same way about Our Town. You've read that one, right?

7:14 AM

Blogger Romy said...

I haven't read Our Town, but I have seen it performed and it knocks me for a loop every time. I was surprised at how powerful this book was, though I guess I shouldn't have been. Wilder can make you realize you're just another human on the planet, with all the mundanity and transcendence that that entails. If that's "middlebrow" then I'll join you in wearing that label with pride.

9:38 AM


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