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[534] Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner


” That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken. He was premature. His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn’t been built, beside tracks that might never be laid. Like many another Western pioneer, he had heard the clock of history strike, and counted the strokes wrong. Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality. ” (Part Vii, Ch.3, p.382)

Angle of Repose is an intense portrayal of the lives of Susan and Oliver Ward in late 19th century and Lyman Ward in the 1960s. Lyman is a retired historian who is dying of a bone disease. Confined to his wheelchair and estranged from his family, the old man researches his grandparents’ lives—almost a hundred years ago—in order to find out why they were alienated in their later years. Through the letters of his grandmother, Susan Burling, written to her lifelong friend Augusta, Lyman pieces together Susan’s life in the late 19th century America.

She was a factory—a lonely factory, depressed, bravely industrious, afflicted with worry and insomnia, perhaps a little poisoned with self-pity. Yet she stayed away. (Part VIII, Ch.1, p.461)

Susan has been a successful artist and writer from the East Coast. She marries mining engineer Oliver ward, who dedicates himself first to mining and later to irrigation projects. She follows her husband to the West with a romantic deception that it’s a transience. Things are not as uncivilized as she thought, but nothing like back home. A pioneer at heart, Oliver chases after dreams that never quite pan out until his later years. Susan moves with him to the America West, from California to Colorado, Mexico, and then Idaho. She captures the rugged beauty of 19th century western America in her work, while struggling to maintain a marriage and a family under difficult conditions. She is conceited and snobbish, and he handy, unromantic, but endowed with sensibility.

Miserable, both of them, everything hopeful in them run down, everything joyous smothered under poverty and failure. My impulse, and I hereby yield to it, is to skip it all, to document not one single miserable hour until a day in November 1888. (Part VII, Ch.6, p.432)

While he chronicles his grandparents’ days spent carving civilization into the surface of America’s western frontier, Lyman also comes to terms with his own troubled life. A family tragedy that Stegner fully reveals at the end of the book has lessons for Lyman’s own estrangement from his own wife. Although the stories of Susan and Lyman are separated by two generations, they are woven together remarkably well. Susan reveals in letters to her friends that she is trapped in a life of failure, and that she wants to disengage from the stubborn, articulate man she is married to, and the scheme he was married to. Likewise, Lyman has trouble coming to terms with the emotional and physical aspects of his handicaps.

At its heart Angle of Repose is about personal endurance and self-discovery. Despite the beautiful rendition of the prose and the perfect capture of the Western frontier, this book is very hefty that the reading might call for patience. The novel is too long–there is far too much down time—sometimes the plot appears to repeat itself. The novel also seems too hurried toward the end: Stegner has spent so much time drawing out the first 15 years of Susan and Oliver Ward’s marriage that the remaining 40 some years, which are crucial to their alienation, are dealt with summarily. I have no doubt this book shall be added to the canon of great American literature, but because it might not be for everyone, I am leery of recommending it.

569 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

A Habit and a Book

Musing Mondays2

This week’s question:

(a) Describe one of your reading habits.
(b) Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.

I have an interesting habit of saving books for later. Certain books that I heard are great I always save indefinitely until I have a moment to devote my wholesome attention. The Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is such a book and I’m making it my first read of 2013. It remains not merely one of the greatest novels ever written about the West, but one of the finest American novels of the second half of the twentieth century. Stegner remains a staggeringly under-appreciated as a writer. He wrote in a beautiful, distinctive, gorgeous prose that not many writers have been able to match. Angle of Repose is not to be rushed: It’s a big, long, lush, slowly progressing story that weaves the distant past with the near past with the present beautifully and seamlessly.

[460] The Spectator Bird – Wallace Stegner

” But Ruth is right. It is something—it can be everything—to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle. ” (Part Five, Ch.4, p.213)

The Spectator Bird follows the life of Joe Allston, a retired literary agent who fell into his job by chance and found himself trafficking in the talents of others. Now in old age, Joe, who has always been full of himself but uncertain and dismayed, is looking back on his life in which he has been a spectator. The arrival of a postcard from one Astrid Wredel-Krarup evokes memories of a trip to Denmark he and his wife took twenty years ago. The pilgrimage to his mother’s cottage, which turned out to be as futile as he expected, actually sealed his life with some significance. The narrative lapses in and out of diary entries from that trip as he read them out loud to his wife.

What I felt while reading that diary, and what I somehow can’t tell her or talk about with her, is how much has been lost, how much is changed, since 1954. I really am getting old. It comes as a shock to realize that I am just killing time till time gets around to killing me. (Part Two, Ch.3, p.89)

However grotesque and moving the memories were from Denmark, re-visiting the diaries, whose existence his wife was not informed, has been a reassuring and enlightening experience. For years Joe has been in search of foundations in his unsecured life, examining the shadows his life casts on other lives. The loss of his son has been upsetting and inconsolable. What hurt to be mitigated over time only thickens like calluses, as he licks his wound, reminiscing, and ruminating, how his demands might have driven his son over the edge. (You can read more about Joe Allston’s son in All the Little Live Things)

Despite the brooding over his son and the myopic hindsight on the Danish episode, The Spectator Bird is about a man’s soul searching and aging with dignity. The existence of the diaries, and the story they have to tell, ultimately teach him an important lesson about life. Although certain aspects of the Danish episode left scars on his soul, both he and his wife are in accord that it is far better that they have experienced it. It makes them realize that true marital communion does not allow room for dishonesty. Stegner’s style is at once brilliant, contemplative, and effortless. So often that you have to read between the lines to appreciate the intimacy of the marriage. This is a book about love, about duty, about the sweet fulfillment of an enduring marriage, and about the sad futility of age. It is about kindness and despair; about joy and the bittersweet sadness of unrequited love.

214 pp. University of Nebraska Press Edition. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[430] All the Little Live Things – Wallace Stegner

” I find it hard to reconstruct how that intimacy happened. One day we had never heard of them, days later we were close friends. All our lives Ruth and I have tended to protect ourselves from people and cherish our privacy, and we have been more likely to reject individuals peremptorily—the way I suppose I reject Peck—than to like them on sight. But we caught Marian’s affectionateness as if it had been a communicable disease. ” (III 93)

Joe Allston, a retired cantankerous literary agent, and his wife Ruth, move int a five-acre ranch in northern California to escape everyday life after the death of their 37-year-old son, Curtis. The elderly couple settles in their Eden and lead a quiet life until the emergence of two events that shakes them out of their quietude. When a manipulative young man on a motorcycle asks to camp on his land, out of a sense of repressed guilt over the death of his son, Joe begrudgingly gives him consent. But what irretrievably provokes his feeling is Marian Catlin, who moves into a nearby cottage with her husband and child. Charming but tough-minded, the defender of “every little live things” broaches many a debate with Joe about biological perfectionism and sacredness of life. She relishes the wild, the untamed, and natural beauty and believes there is no evil forces in nature. This inevitably challenges Joe’s meticulous and fastidious ways of maintaining his Eden; but most unexpectedly, that Marian lives generously and unflinchingly, in the face of a terminal illness, forces the old man to confront his own cowardice in hiding from his pain.

Trying to explain myself, I told him about my own life, including some shameful episodes, but all that did was revive a lot of unhappiness that I had lived down and put aside years before, and remind me of old guilts that were not unlike Curt’s. Thinking filled my days with boredom and my nights with self-loathing. Out of my son’s death I plucked the conviction of my own imperfection and failure, and yet I could not name the ways I might have taken so as not to fail. (IV 188)

As much as he wants to begin afresh in his Eden, Joe is gnawing at his own guilt—he judges himself for judging his own son. The arrival of these strangers brings the nudge from the past, discomfort from an unhealed wound, and also a prick of conscience. Joe has a considerable distaste for the good life as prescribed by the bearded hippie Jim Peck, but he stretches forbearance toward him because he reminds him of his own son, who has wretchedly thrown away his life. In Jim Peck, who has taken advantage of his trust and violated his property, Joe sees a second chance—some sort of opportunity for redemption. But what makes Peck hard for Joe to bear is his own foolishness made manifest in the young man.

In the blunt minute when she announced his death, I suppose we felt it necessary to deny, doubt, comfort. If we didn’t shed tears, we held them back only to spare her. She herself did not cry. She wore one unchanging expression: fortitude had been turned on and left burning. (V 252)

All the Little Live Things is an intense read. The vividness of the language—embracing regret, fear, death, and love—is what gives the book its nauseously poignant edge. It’s like a clock ticking away to an inevitable death. Yet it’s also inspiring because Marian, regrettably short that her life is, has taught the aging narrator the stupidity of the attempt to withdraw and be free of trouble. She teaches him that it is a reduction of humanity to hide of pain and avoid suffering—our own or others. It’s a beautiful book, full of presence of place that reminds us nature’s power and vastness. While Stegner allures to the outcome of the novel at the very beginning, there are details not revealed until these strangers become involved with the narrator, whose buried feelings they arouse. The staggered way of storytelling enhances the mood and allows us to see how Joe comes to terms with his feelings and his past.

345 pp. Penguin Contemporary American Fiction. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[419] A Shooting Star – Wallace Stegner

” What was the matter with her that she could not make a life out of what was the envy of every outsider? One prison for another? Most women would not think so. Both what she was born to and what she had married into were scale models of paradise, where the fortunate could enjoy lives of luxury and gratified desire. And all she found was chatter, hallowness, horror. ” (9,112)

Albeit too long for the story it has to tell, A Shooting Star is a riveting personal drama of a woman whose impulsive misstep leads her down the path of mental and moral disintegration. Sabrina Castro is a doctor’s wife in Pasadena who is tired of her marriage and her life. Her husband, who is more passionate for his duty as a physician than their intimacy, treats her like a prop. For over twelve years, beside repression and inadequacy, Burke treats her no more than like a father who is obligated to train her character, not that she doesn’t pine for avuncular love growing up fatherless.

She only felt sickened, and she had no idea what medicine to take, for she diagnosed her sickness as herself. When she was quiet in her mind, the quiet was only apathy; and when she emerged and began to think and feel . . . how she was twisting to throw the blame back on Burke’s chilliness or Bernard’s cowardice, then she returned into self-loathing and disgust which was her apathy’s truest center. (18,216)

She has not intended treachery when she meets Bernard by accident. He is the ticket to happiness except, behind his passion, his warmth, his deference and admiration of her, is the immovable fact of his previous commitment. It’s an ugly, dishonest dream. In such self-loathe and disgust Sabrina wallows. Nor does she find comfort at her mother’s luxurious estate in the woods of Hillsborough. Her mother indulged in idiotic family worship, his brother taken advantage of his mother’s earlier illness to get more power in his hands than she has meant to surrender. As Sabrina struggles to find her purpose, suicide and vileness cross her mind. A gamut of contradicting emotions, of which Stegner is a keen observer, sweeps over her. Menial labor she deems unfit and domestic chore she has no forte. She decides to use her influence to help non-profit with a land endowment.

It seemed to her she had never loved anything in her life. Love in her had been a demand, an anger, a hostility, a challenge, a greed. Burke was right, it was an ultimatum she had presented him with. A spoiled brat with a temper tantrum. (32,297)

A Shooting Star is a very close examination of one’s personal difficulties, but without passing any judgment. Sabrina is a well-developed character who literally walks out of the pages, in full with her hysteria and paranoia. Her problem is so real regardless of her family legacy and wealth. Misery and unhappiness are inclusive. In spite of herself, and her affair, she also has had her conscience shaped by generations of conventional puritanism she had always despised. So she knows a good deal about herself without being able to forgive herself for it. Reminiscent of Stegner’s other works, this novel is primarily concerned with questions of personal identity and the problem of achieving stability amidst the impermanence and dislocation of the modern world. That said, I do not recommend it to readers who are new to him, although it is written in a detached, traditional, and realistic and contemplative style.

433 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[360] Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner

How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? [2.3.231]

Crossing to Safety, while tracing the lives and loves of two couples, both in academia, shall have plenty room for high drama, is rather a quiet novel. It’s no The Great Gatsby, although it demonstrates immense narrative power as in latter. The story, as related by the aged Larry Morgan, who returns to Battel Pond with his wife after 40 years to bid farewell to Charity Lang, is one of marriage and friendship.

We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves. [1.5.58]

In 1938, Larry Morgan answers an ad for a teaching post in Wisconsin. By circuitous and unpredictable routes, he and his pregnant wife converge toward the midwest and meet Sidney and Charity Lang, and are at once drawn together, braided and plaited into a friendship of a lifetime. Well-established with family money, the Langs take the Morgans under their wing.

To Sally and me, focused on each other and on the problems of getting on in a tough world, it happened unexpectedly; and in all our lives it has happened so thoroughly only once. [1.7.96]

But it’s a friendship not entirely of equals: While Charity, who first embraces the Morgans with open arms and then dictates much of what ensues, makes the running in her marriage and between the couples, Larry Morgan, deprived of tenure, gains success as a writer of which only Sid can dream. All her life Charity has been demanding people’s attention, especially her subservient husband’s, to things she admires and values. Writing poetry, unfortunately, doesn’t make the list. Years after Sid achieves tenure, he’s still trying to go up a road that is blocked by his wife’s thought police.

But what memory brings back from there is not politics, or the meagerness of living on a hundred and fifty dollars a month, or even the writing I was doing, but the details of friendship—parties, picnics, walks, midnight conversations . . . [1.7.103]

With a quiet majesty, Crossing to Safety unfolds slowly and graciously, revealing the story in natural arcs. It’s really a love story, not in the sense that it explores romantic dialogues and actions, but in the sense that it explores private lives. In the guise of friendship, sustained through births, outdoor adventures, job losses, war, moving, unrealized dreams, and thwarted ambition, Stegner offers, with an uncanny sensitivity, a glimpse of the physical and emotional intimacy in marriage that go largely unspoken out of respect and loyalty. The overriding ethos of the novel is simple: What is the meaning to love? Love manifests itself in many forms here: a noble generosity, force of will, desire to manipulate, and even a conviction to protect a surviving spouse from grief. Steger writes about the challenges in life in the context of a marriage. How would a spouse feel about losing the other half? How the dying spouse will make every effort to leave love and thoughtfulness in an irrevocable manner? The novel muses on the rarity of friendship, and what quiet drama it offers is how complexity of this friendship evolves over time and fits into the context of a marriage’s domain.

335 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Wallace and William

Of the 29 books read so far this year, 18 are written by authors who are new to me. Being on the panel for Independent Literary Award, and that I’m reading the shortlist of Lambda Literary Award certainly have a tipping effect. I have a predilection for literary fiction, or literature that exudes quiet majesty out of pulchritude of language. Since a reader’s career is always a work in progress, to expand the reader’s eyes is an ongoing exercise. The latest enlightenment comes in the form of two authors.

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) is deservedly regarded as the author of some of the finest literary accounts of the American West. He was an American historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist, often called “The Dean of Western Writers.” I’m currently reading his last novel, Crossing to Safety, a story of the 40-year-old friendship of two academic couples that chanced to meet in Wisconsin in the 1930s. Next in line will be Angle of Repose (1971) for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.

William Trevor (1928– ) is both a novelist and a short-story writer; he is a fine writer in either genre, but his true métier, is the story. He lives and works in Ireland, and all of his work is set there; typically his stories view with irony tempered by compassion the foibles of people who for one reason or another cannot fit comfortably into the rigid limitations of Irish family. That said, I will go against popular opinion, by reading a novel, Love and Summer.

What new (and new old) authors have you discovered this year?