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Old 20th Jul 2005, 19:21   #1
HP
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Default Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose

Reviewing a book some time after completing it has its drawbacks: minor characters’ names, locations, dates – all can become woolly; subplots, red herrings, even peripheral themes, grow hazy or are buried altogether. What’s more, initial reactions - often emotional and intuitive rather than intellectual, make for lively reading; and it’s a shame, I think, to lose that immediacy, however skewed it may. But there is one major advantage. Putting a little distance between finishing a book and cobbling together a review (note: the incomparable John Self fashions; I cobble!) allows for a more considered, perhaps more trustworthy overview. For example, if a book has generally pleased you, how easy it is to brush aside minor niggles in that first rush of enthusiasm to share your find with others. But hold back and soon enough hindsight will come shuffling along, banishing hasty reactions and allowing all those niggles to rise to the surface, rather like raisins in a box of muesli, where they may be reassessed and possibly upgraded from minor niggle to major flaw. McEwan’s Saturday is a case in point. It took less than a week after completing it and sloshing up a gushing review – a genuine reaction, by the way - before my 5 star rating began to look decidedly blinkered in view of some of the absurdities of the plot which although deemed negligible at first, soon became impossible to ignore. Hey (not-quite-so) presto! and a five star slap on the back swiftly became a four star congratulatory handshake. Of course, leave it too long before commenting and your overview is frequently reduced to an I liked/hated/not-bad-I-guess blur of generalizations. But a timely delay can equip the reviewer with a cooler head and a more focused eye.

So, having allowed the contents to settle, what do I make of Wallace Stegner’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose. Reassuringly, I feel now - as I did on turning that final page - that R.C. (who recommended it) was absolutely right when he observed that some books make others - even those that enjoy their fifteen minutes of rapturous critical acclaim - seem little and insignificant, mere also-rans. In todays notoriously fickle, marketing-and-hype driven markets, too many new books - some by new authors, some by seasoned - are hailed as the next great thing simply because they are deemed to be a little ‘different.’ Consider Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which topped the bestseller lists for months: well, yes - it was, indeed, refreshingly ‘different’ and, despite some Palimpsters’ reservations, I think many of its plaudits were well deserved - but a great book? One to be savoured and talked about in fifty years’ time? I don’t think so. Originality coupled with talent may well be the life-blood of art, but originality alone does not guarantee talent. It must not be confused with quality. Or, in the case of Mr Haddon, with greatness.

Happily, Angle of Repose is no such pretender. It is a gloriously big book in every sense of the word (555 pages my copy; small type, densely packed) with an expansive, epic feel. Its setting for the greater part is Sierra Nevada, and the vastness, the grandeur and scale of that landscape, is reflected in the sweeping narrative which encompasses three generations of the Ward family, and addresses befittingly broad themes such as love, duty, and the indomitable spirit of the human beast in his determination to survive against monumental odds.

Stegner’s elegantly penned masterpiece is a tale in two parts. The main one - the core of the book, if you will – relates the physical hardships and emotional hurdles faced by Oliver and Susan Ward, pioneers of the West, both from very different backgrounds, whose marriage survives – just – as they struggle to carve out an existence and raise a family in the West’s unforgiving and dauntingly inhospitable terrain. This aspect of the novel, based on true life and taken from the letters of one Mary Hallock Foote, a genteel nineteenth century local-colour writer and illustrator, is told in the words of Lynam Ward, a retired professor of history, confined to a wheelchair, suffering from a crippling bone disease that is killing him. Lynam Ward is Oliver and Susan’s grandson. And yes, as you’ve probably guessed, it is his story that comprises the second thread of the novel. Quite fittingly, the two accounts - the grandparents’ and grandson’s - are related in aptly different writing styles, albeit that Lynam is author of both. And it is testament to Stegner’s skill that this trick of dualistic style is not only brought off with convincing aplomb, but that it seems perfectly natural and unforced. The older generation’s story is delivered in a tone that is elegant, formal, and regally eloquent. Lynam Ward’s life is related with an altogether more contemporary timbre, with brevity – harsh and bitter.

And so to the plot - of which there is plenty - but about which I shall say rather little, in case some of you are tempted to read it - as I sincerely hope you will:

Lynam, elderly, grouchy and sour, divorced from his unfaithful wife and distanced from his repellent children, returns to his ancestral home to document the life and struggles of his remarkable grandmother, the indomitable Susan Ward; an endeavour driven by dual motivations: his desire to pay tribute to the woman’s fortitude and spirit and sense of duty; and the hope such a task will give meaning to his own life which is coming to a close. His is a life that has brought much pain, both physical and emotional; a life that has, viewed through Lynam Ward’s bitter hindsight, been lived less than nobly. This tribute to his grandmother and quest for personal peace are, we are left in no doubt, to be his swan song.

Lynam Ward’s main access to his grandmother’s travels, travails, her joys and fears – her very essence - are her letters. Most are written to Augusta, a close woman-friend whom she not only admired and envied, but truly loved (with surprisingly frank sapphic intimations). And it is in these letters his grandmother reveals the enormous difficulties and deprivations she suffered, leaving a life of comfort, of artistic endeavour and intellectual stimulation, for one of hard physical labour and frequent loneliness with a man who, while intensely practical, an innovator of mechanical ideas, had neither the time nor education to appreciate art and books, nor the fluency of thought, the vocabulary and worldly experience, to articulate his finer feelings. That she loved her husband, however, is not in any doubt - just as he idolized her, placing her on a pedestal - albeit roughly hewn - accepting her as his intellectual and social superior without resentment, and even with pride. But good news is no news, and the nuptials have barely been blessed, before their troubles begin. For no sooner have they travelled west and settled in their crude log cabin on the outskirts of a small mining community, then the mine (where Oliver works) closes, forcing him out of a job and his wife out of any hope of turning their hovel into a home. Other posts, other mines, come and go with unfailing regularity. Financial backing for Oliver Ward’s subsequent enterprises designed to keep the family afloat, fails to materialize. And, of course, along with the lack of money and deprivations (including the most basic of comforts), the Ward’s marriage must survive separations and ceaseless weary travelling in the quest for the means and wherewithal to raise a growing family. Inevitably, the cracks begin to show. Cracks that threaten to become ravines as Susan Ward takes comfort in another man’s arms. A moment of rare madness driven by loneliness: an act she intimates without specific detail in her letters to Augusta, but which Lynam Ward, her grandson, assumes from later developments must have taken place. In fact, throughout the whole novel, Lynam regales us with a clever cocktail of truth, half-truths and wild guesses as he makes suppositions and attempts to Polyfilla the gaps left in his grandmother’s letters. Again, all praise to Stegner for managing to make this perfectly acceptable when, in the hands of a lesser writer, it could have left the reader feeling cheated – I mean, who wants ‘perhapses’ and ‘maybes’ – if it didn’t definitely happen, then what’s the point? But happily, here it didn’t worry me in the least, for under Mr Stegner’s expert pen, he convinced that this was merely what Lynam Ward would do in the absence of certain facts – speculate and flesh-in the missing details.

Intermittently, cutting away from Susan and Oliver’s adventures, we are hauled back into the present to hear Lynam talking about his life as it is now. Unable to do even the most basic of things for himself, he is nursed by a wonderful woman called Ada – a simple, kindly soul who is neither repulsed by his appearance or condition, nor impatient with the laborious daily routine of keeping him clean and fed, despite being severely arthritic and hardly in the best of health, herself. It’s in these passages that we get to know Lynam. Rather like an angler reeling in a fish – a diseased old fish with a belly full of grievances and self-disgust – Stegner brings his catch nearer to the surface, nearer and nearer, the poor creature flapping and writhing as he comes into full view, until by the end of the book, he is landed in all his agony and despair, squirming on the bank for the reader to see. So a double feast then. The Wards’s heroic battles to survive hostile terrain, hostile banks and hostile odds; Lynam Ward’s no less heroic battle to survive long enough to make peace with himself.

So to summarise. If you’re looking for a good book - a seriously good book that - yes, as R.C. promised - puts all those flashy newcomers into the shade – you could do a lot worse than read Angle of Repose. It’s a big book, with a big heart and some very big things to say. An appraisal that struck me as I turned the final page – and which holds true even now, several weeks later, as I type this. It is a book that I shall one day read again, for I think it is almost certainly too big to take in fully at one sitting.

Oh yes, before I round this off, were there any niggles? (and I do mean niggles, not major flaws) - well, yes, there were two, to be precise. One being that Susan Ward was a woman who, while admirable in so many respects, somehow failed to make me fond of her. Or, at least, Lynam Ward's rendition of her was as a woman I would have found it hard to warm to - even while being blown away by her fortitude and sense of duty. I think I would have felt a little more fondly had she shown a little more humour or hurled the odd skillet in temper when the times got rough, rather than being so stoical and desperately saintly. The second is really greediness for more. More of Lynam Ward, that is. For it was his story, his frailties and demons that fascinated so, and I would dearly loved to have spent a little more time in his company, whereas Stegner keeps his appearances a little too brief and a little too thinly spread. But all in all, a damn, damn fine read.


(Btw: ‘Angle of repose’ is a term which refers to – and I quote - the maximum angle of slope (measured from a horizontal plane) at which loose, cohesionless material will come to rest. Read the book and you’ll understand just how apt is Mr Stegner’s title.)
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Old 21st Jul 2005, 10:09   #2
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Thanks for reviewing this, HP - I ordered a copy from abebooks but, as happens in about 50% of my transactions through them, the bookseller then told me it was out of stock. Will have to look out another copy.
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Old 21st Jul 2005, 11:25   #3
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Say the word and I'll post you mine, JS. It's been to Miami and back, bumped around in a bicyle basket and a backpack, and generally had a bit of a rough ride, so it's no longer a thing of immaculate beauty, but you're more than welcome.
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Old 21st Jul 2005, 11:32   #4
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I'll get back to you Honey. I'm going to be broke for the next month so will be trying to clear up my reading backlog rather than buying any more, and once I can see my way through it I'll take delivery of AoR with thanks - at the minute if I took it, it would just sit there looking untemptingly long and dense against the fripperies of my own I have waiting to be read.
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Old 21st Jul 2005, 11:38   #5
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Quote:
it would just sit there looking untemptingly long and dense against the fripperies of my own I have waiting to be read.
Oh boy, do I understand that sentiment!

Edit: guess I better explain: have recently elevated Ulysses - bought absolutely yonks ago - from downstairs bookshelf to bedroom to sit fatly - nay, obesely - amongst my other TBR candidates, most of which (Updike's Rabbit Omnibus apart), are of far more modest proportions and without its fearsome reputation. Every night, I swear I'll actually open the darned thing and just scale a few pages before dissolving into something lighter and less likely to break my nose should I fall asleep mid-read; every night I ... bottle out. One day ...... One day ....
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Old 8th Nov 2005, 17:02   #6
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I am about to finish Angle Of Repose by Wallace Stegner and although I am admittedly jumping the gun here a bit I just wanted to wholeheartedly agree with HoneyPotts' (and I guess indirectly, RC's) statement:

Quote:
some books make others - even those that enjoy their fifteen minutes of rapturous critical acclaim - seem little and insignificant, mere also-rans.
Part of me wanted to finish the final 30 pages last night despite my bleary eyes, but I decided that I didn't want to simply "push through" the end of a book that truly deserves to be savored. Now, as I sit here at work, I find myself continually replaying scenes or passages in my mind. Truly an amazing book and one that will make my decision as to what to read next very difficult for the simple fact that it will be hard for it not to pale in comparison.
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Old 9th Nov 2005, 2:18   #7
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Hooray, another convert. I hope you will post your impressions in more detail, Paul. I didn't say a whole lot about it here but I did write something elsewhere which I'll try to find because I'd be interested to know if you agree. Whoever might be going to read the book for the first time should probably not read my thoughts on it in advance, because it's kind of an interpretive commentary and might skew your own reading to some degree.
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Old 9th Nov 2005, 23:27   #8
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Originally Posted by RC
Hooray, another convert. I hope you will post your impressions in more detail, Paul. I didn't say a whole lot about it here but I did write something elsewhere which I'll try to find because I'd be interested to know if you agree. Whoever might be going to read the book for the first time should probably not read my thoughts on it in advance, because it's kind of an interpretive commentary and might skew your own reading to some degree.
No doubt about it! Hallelujah, amen. I finished last night and will definitely write down my thoughts soon. I would be very interested if you can find the link to your other comments. Have you (or anyone else here) read any other Stegner? A friend of mine has recommended Crossing To Safety so I may have to pick that up soon.
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Old 11th Nov 2005, 20:36   #9
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Paul: I read about a third of Crossing to Safety last spring, then I put it aside because it was a busy time and I felt it would be better to read it in a more mellow mood - but somehow I've never gone back yet. I think it's that the story just didn't grab me the way Angle of Repose did. But I fully intend to finish it, in fact I'll probably begin from the beginning again, because it could be I just wasn't in the right frame of mind.
I also have the Collected Stories and I recommend it without reservation to anyone who likes Stegner's style. Again, I haven't quite read them all but that's because I like to read short stories one or two at a time. There are 31 in this collection, and when I look down the list of titles I can mostly remember what they were about - that says something, given my very poor memory.
Regarding what I had to say about Angle of Repose: I found it, it was in a letter. If I were going to post it here I'd have to do some work on it so I'd prefer just to send it to you. Watch the 'private message' corner.
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Old 6th May 2006, 18:29   #10
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I'm about a third way through Stegner's last novel, Crossing to Safety (1987), and don't expect to stall there as RC did. It's just been published in the UK (for the first time?) in Penguin Modern Classics.



It tells the story of two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan (Larry is our narrator), and Sid and Charity Lang. So far we've seen how Larry and Sally met, how Sid and Charity met, and how the Langs and the Morgans met. It's 1930s Depression-hit America and the story is told by Morgan from his old age, in the 1970s. There have been hints of disasters to strike the couples - Sally, in 'now' time, needs help to walk with two canes and 'braces' (whatever they are), but we haven't yet seen how this came about.

Both the men are English tutors in university and would-be writers and there is a good deal on the subject of the worth of creative work v 'real' money-earning work. Stegner has a fine way with the language, and can sum up a woman knitting in a few lines:

Quote:
Her needles dart and withdraw, her finger with its loop of yarn makes swift circles, she pauses to pull stitches along one needle and tug another yard of yarn loose from the ball.
or capture a look to expert effect:

Quote:
Sally has a smile I would accept as my last view of earth, but it has a certain distance about it, it is under control, you can see her head going on working behind it. This other one, a tall young woman in a blue dress, had quite another kind. In the dim apartment she blazed. Her hair was drawn back in a bun, as if to clear her face for expression, and everything in the face smiled - lips, teeth, cheeks, eyes. I mean to say she had a most vivid and, I saw at once, a really beautiful face.
That line "her hair was drawn back in a bun, as if to clear her face for expression" is just brilliant. At the same time I can see how, unless there are dramatic developments aplenty in the next 200 pages, the whole could fall a little short of interest. We shall see.
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