THE CABALA by Thornton Wilder

I became acquainted with this novel shortly after reading Wilder’s later and more famous novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  That is also well worth reading by the way. Initially, I only kind of liked The Cabala but, shortly before reaching the middle of the book, I became 100% entranced. I think many readers will too but there are things that you will have to be ready for.
Basically, this is a book for people who love to admire literary construction. If you are a DEVOUT Hemingway person, this will probably not please you. Wilder writes long and descriptive paragraphs and describes his characters down to the tiniest detail. The reason I love this is because he so obviously cared about what he was writing. If you’re like me and tired of the stream-lined effect of much of “modern” writing, you will love this. No offense to the greats of the modern school but it has become something of a new orthodoxy. As usual with orthodoxy, it seems to me this has often become a fig leaf for mediocrity and, even worse, an excuse to stifle anyone who wants to try something different.
Back to this novel! Even if this jewel-like prose is not your cup of tea perhaps you can still appreciate what I find a forgotten masterpiece. So what is it about? Well, to begin with it concerns a young, unnamed American student who is pursuing his archeological/classical studies in Rome between the world wars. Here he runs into a strange group of people known locally as the Cabala. They are made up mainly of aristocrats and have great prestige if little real power. “Samuele” (as the student is called by the Cabalists) proceeds to chronicle this group’s last exploits. Last because the group begins to drift apart right in front of “Samuele.” What is the book really about? I am still figuring that out. The Cabalists are, to a certain extent, symbolic of decadent and dying but still important and lovely Europe while “Samuele” represents the “new Rome” America. But Wilder goes far deeper than that. I really don’t want to spoil anything but certain themes that are raised are acceptance (of change, death, etc.), unrequited love, the reasons behind love, loss of faith and the nature of a civilization’s foundation. That sounds like a lot but Wilder manages to balance these themes brilliantly and create a huge number of great characters and interweaving story lines.
All of this is expressed in some of the most lovely prose I’ve ever read. You can just lose yourself in the warm sea of Wilder’s writing. Sample: “As a mere girl, if I may presume to reconstruct the growth of her personality, she sensed the fact that there was something that a little prevented her from making friends, namely intelligence. The few intelligent people who truly wish to be liked soon learn, among the disappointments of the heart, to conceal their brilliance.” This is the start of a character’s description. All character descriptions in this book are magical. Wilder creates people who are real yet we truly love with all our hearts. That is the key to some of this book’s greatness. Much of the love thrown around in this book is unearned and yet it is love all the same. Why do we love some people and not others? Why do we love people who don’t deserve it? There are no answers in words but this book SHOWS us how and why that happens. This could only be done by an author who had a truly mature and yet warm heart. “Samuele” and Wilder pull no punches in pointing out flaws yet they do so with deep and profound understanding.
Wilder also knows history, music, literature and art FAR better than most writers and, with these at his fingertips, he can often rise to an amazing, quiet eloquence: “Nay, I have heard of your city. It’s foundations have knocked upon our roof and the towers have cast a shadow across the sandals of the angels.” I could go on forever and ever but I’ll just mention the amazing, breathtaking end a little. It features a cameo that you won’t soon forget! Find this book, read it and make it a part of your life. You will not regret it!


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