Second Reading: Jonathan Yardley on Thornton Wilder's 'Bridge of San Luis Rey'

ENGINEERING GREATNESS: Wilder. (Frank Johnston/the Washington Post)
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By Jonathan Yardley
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

In the summer of 1926 a 29-year-old teacher at a private school for boys in New Jersey began to write a novel. It was set in the early 18th century in Peru (a place he had never visited) and was inspired by certain people and events in the country's past, but most particularly it was inspired by a sentence from the Gospel According to Luke: "Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?"

It is a question that has haunted humankind throughout history: Is our fate random or is it planned and controlled by some higher power? Thornton Wilder, the young man who sought to address the question in fiction, did not pretend to have the answer, but he wrote, as he subsequently said in a letter, in the spirit of Chekhov: "The business of literature is not to answer questions, but to state them fairly." That is exactly what Wilder did in the book he called "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." It was published in November 1927, greeted with ecstatic reviews and impressive sales, and awarded a Pulitzer Prize in May 1928.

The novel -- at 34,000 words it's really a novella -- has been a classic of American and world literature ever since, which explains why at some point in my long slog through the educational system I was required to read it, which in turn explains why it almost immediately vanished from my memory. There's nothing to kill off a book like being force-fed it, especially if the book is a moral fable that poses questions rather too advanced and complex for the teenage mind. I filed it away and forgot it, until a few months ago when a friend told me he'd reread it and been pleasantly surprised.

I decided to follow suit, in part out of curiosity, in part because in recent years I have become a part-time resident of Peru and thus was curious about Wilder's depiction of a place I have come to love. It is no exaggeration to say that on second reading I was completely blown away, not so much by Wilder's sensitive treatment of his central theme as by the richness and power of his prose.

We know from Gerald Martin's biography of Gabriel García Márquez that the great Colombian writer read Wilder's "The Ides of March" while working on his own "The Autumn of the Patriarch," but I am now convinced that he must have read "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" long before, so eerily do many passages in it anticipate his own mature prose style as it emerged in "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

By the time that novel appeared in 1967, Wilder was one of the world's most famous and admired writers. None of his six other novels enjoyed the acclaim of "Bridge," but his success as a playwright was stupendous. "Our Town" won his second Pulitzer in 1938 and in 1943 "The Skin of Our Teeth" took his third. "The Matchmaker" (1954) was another success, but far more so in its musical adaptation as "Hello, Dolly!" Apart from his three Pulitzers, Wilder was festooned with prizes at home and around the world, and "Our Town" lives on as the most beloved and most frequently performed of American plays. Wilder died in 1975 at age 78.

* * *

The opening sentence of "Bridge" is deservedly famous: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." The incident is witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan from Italy who "happened to be in Peru converting the Indians" and asks himself: " 'Why did this happen to those five?' If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to [surmise] the reason of their taking off."

The five are: Doña María, Marquesa de Montemayor, whose letters after her death were to "become one of the monuments of Spanish literature"; her young maid, Pepita; Esteban, a young man whose twin brother has recently died; Uncle Pio, an adventurer possessed of "a reluctance to own anything, to be tied down, to be held to a long engagement"; and Jaime, the little son of Camila Perichole, the best and most famous actress in Peru. Brother Juniper's six years of research are intended to prove that "each of the five lost lives was a perfect whole" and that each had been ended with "a sheer Act of God."

It doesn't quite turn out that way, and when Brother Juniper finally reveals his results he pays a heavy price. The Spanish Inquisition is still very much in operation. "The book being done fell under the eyes of some judges and was suddenly pronounced heretical. It was ordered to be burned in the Square with its author." The last word belongs to Wilder, in four sentences that have been quoted over and over again: "But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

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