The Bridge of San Luis Rey

On Sunday night I read the short novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. It wasn’t anything I spent money on, I actually got it at the place where it will shortly turn up once again: at a local bar, where English books are left for anyone who is interested in them to borrow them. This book is alright, I suppose, and while I don’t understand why the book won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1928. To me, it seems a somewhat unremarkable novel in almost all respects. Perhaps he affected American literature so profoundly that the bar was raised to the point where his writing had to be surpassed for a writer to seem competent. But to me, neither the intertwined stories, nor the style of writing, were so remarkable that I would recommend the novel highly to anyone.

And of the central question of the novel, as near as I can find Wilder’s thoughts on it, it is this:

the central idea of the work, the justification for a number of human lives that comes up as a result of the sudden collapse of a bridge, stems from friendly arguments with my father, a strict Calvinist. Strict Puritans imagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, and they overlook God’s Caritas’ which is more all- encompassing and powerful. God’s love has to transcend his just retribution. But in my novel I have left this question unanswered. As I said earlier, we can only pose the question’ correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question in the right way.

It’s striking that, read as a modern novel, one gets a much stronger sense (or at least I did) of this happening as a rude interruption of nature into the theological beliefs of the people. They could as easily have been Mayans practicing traditional Mayan religion when the bridge fell, for all the questioning I felt. To me, it felt much more like a kind of secular response to all of this faithery, the rebuttal of last-minute redemptions and of grand hopes and new beginnings. It seemed therefore brutal, rather than the opening gambit of a great questioning I am somehow supposed to wrestle with. I suppose in that way Wilder’s work is of another era, and I cannot natively understand it any better than I can natively understand Medieval literature: my own world is too far removed, the assumptions filling it so different from Wilder’s own, that his intention was something I not only misinterpreted, but couldn’t even get a vague sense of from within my own set of beliefs and assumptions.

But it was, of course, alright. I never read a book to the end if I think it is absolute garbage, and this book is not absolute garbage, definitely. I think the reviews at Amazon are not quite balanced, but it’s not a bad book. The characters are all interesting enough for the amount of text assigned to each of them, which is about 20 to 40 pages each, averaged out between the central characters in each section. I suppose it’s worth a read, if you can get it for free. And soon, for free, you’ll be able to get a copy at the local foreigner bar in Jeonju. And this copy comes complete with an appendix that promises to “expand the reader’s knowledge of the basic factors of

  • language arts (word origins, increased vocabulary, literary analysis, etc.) and to further his
  • practical skills (spelling, composition, book reports, reading comprehension and speed, etc.)

How sad, when literature needs to come value added. Such was the case for the Washington Square Press’s “Reader’s Enrichment Editions” in the 60s. Then again, at least people still read in the 1960s.

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