“Nanette: An Aside” by Willa Cather

This month’s story for the Willa Cather Short Story Project, “Nanette: An Aside” published in 1897, surprised me. The story itself didn’t surprise me, but the opening lines made me think of an essay Cather would publish twenty-five years later in 1922, “The Novel Démeublé.”

The story of Nanette is straight forward. Young Nanette works as a sort of lady’s maid and manager for Madame Tradutorri, a world famous opera singer. As children, Tradutorri and Nanette’s mother where BFFs. Fast forward some years: Tradutorri found Nanette at her mother’s death bed when she was ten and took the girl under her care as a servant and companion. Fast forward ten more years and Nanette has become Tradutorri’s invaluable right-hand-woman, her confidante and friend.

A bomb is dropped. The head waiter at the restaurant they frequent when in New York is in love with Nanette. They want to marry.

“Bah!” Tradutorri scoffs, “Must there always be a ‘gentleman,’ even with you?”

Tradutorri thinks fast and assumes she can hire the head waiter to be her “man” and install him as the steward of her Paris home. She’ll still have Nanette and Nanette can have her husband. Unfortunately, Nanette says that will not work because Mr Head Waiter will not allow her to work and travel once married. “He will have his wife to himself or not at all.” (Run, Nanette!)

You’ll have to read the story for yourself to see how things turn out for Tradutorri and Nanette. There is musing that we’ve seen in other Cather stories on the sacrifices that artists must make to succeed, namely avoid relationships and especially marriage.

Something which has no name

What struck me about the opening lines is the narrator’s statement about Tradutorri. The narrator says that you (the reader) go every night to hear Tradutorri, then “rave for days afterward over her voice, her beauty, her power, and when all is said the thing you most admire is a something which has no name, the indescribable quality which is Tradutorri herself.”

The phrase, “something which has no name” set off bells in my brain. “The thing not named” is central to Cather’s artistic aesthetic for novels that aspire to art that she articulates in her 1922 essay, “The Novel Démeublé.” Cather makes a firm distinction between novels that aspire to art and immortality and novels that are written for temporary amusement.

Here’s the relevant section from the essay:

“Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.”

The thing not named

Cather critics and scholars regularly make use of the phrase “the thing not named.” How fascinating to come across this budding idea of Cather’s in an early story. The gist of “The Novel Démeublé” is that by simplifying writing, stripping away rather than over-stuffing scenes with unnecessary details/realism, the writer may come closer to creating emotion on the page rather than mere sensory reaction in the reader. Throw the furniture out the window, she writes, and leave the stage bare for “the play of emotions, great and little.”

Cather gives as an example Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and the mood he creates without loading his scenes with “the manners and dress and interiors of Puritan society.” For me, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House comes to mind as a novel without clutter that evokes emotions of fear and dread that are not explicitly on the page.

What a nice surprise this month’s story was for me. I hope you enjoyed it and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!

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