Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Not news to Americanists or people reading widely in the 1970’s or 80’s but I wasn’t reading widely then and am still pretty narrow in my tastes, so Wallace Stegner was new to me when the great recommender, my friend and colleague, Angie Macmillan, lent me her copy of Crossing to Safety (1987) a couple of years ago. I imagine Stegner is a big name in American fiction but I don’t think I’m alone in not having heard of him this side of the Atlantic. We’re missing something good! I could hardly believe that I had not come across this powerful book at the point when I was reading as much contemporary fiction as I have ever done. But perhaps I’d not have found so much in it in 1987: I was four years married, and wouldn’t have experienced much of Stegner’s subject matter: the rhythms and changes of a long marriage and equally long friendships. Thirty years on, still married, and in a near thirty year friendship with Angie, I know a bit about and am more interested in that kind of stuff. I made a mental note to read some more of Wallace Stegner’s stuff.
The novel I brought along as part of my sabbatical reading, was Angle of Repose. I’d picked it at random, but I wasn’t disappointed. The cover tells me it won the Pulitzer Prize and so I imagine it’s a ‘Great American Novel’ – and, well, it is.
For me the Greatest American Novels are The Assistant and A New Life by Bernard Malamud, Herzog, Mr Sammler’s Planet and Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow, and perhaps above all, Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson (I told you I have narrow interests). As I read Angle of Repose I thought often of Gilead, which also tells some of the huge story of America through a small family tale. In fact, I could feel all my favourites lining up around or behind or ahead of this novel, like a set of family photographs showing resemblances and no disappointment in sight.
A retired history professor, recently deserted by his wife, struck with a paralysing condition, lives alone in the home of his deceased grandparents, and reads the historical papers, mainly letters, that record those long-concluded lives. We learn the story of a marriage, and some of the settling of the West through these documents and also by the stories the historian creates to fill the gaps. The whole melds together to become a story of engineering, childbirth, loss of east coast civilisation, and above all, a marriage. Or rather that crucial period during a marriage when the ultimate tenor of the relationship is forged. Huge portraits of crude and desperate mining towns are compelling, as are train journeys, food, accounts of living in a one room shack with a servant, how projects such as railroads and dams were financed (by risk-taking-skin-of-the-pants men who became giants). All this is good, perhaps great, but what had me putting the book down and gazing up into the mountains beyond this Andalusian garden were the moments of terrible truth about what happens in relationships between friends, lovers, husband and wife, parent and child.
Let one example stand for many. Oliver, failing to make a success of the Idaho Mining and Irrigation Company, slowly turning to drink for consolation, with much household financial support coming from his wife Susan’s commercial art work, has been offered a good job he does not want on the U.S Geographical Survey. Susan wants him to take it.
‘Well then, but what do you do if I take it?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘but you must take it.’
‘You wouldn’t be giving up everything. All your work would be useful for this government survey. Maybe when that’s done irrigation will be better understood and you’ll get your backing and can go on.’
‘Do you believe that?’
‘I don’t know. Do you?’
‘Still I ought to take it.’
‘I think so, yes.’
‘And what do you and the children do?’
‘It doesn’t matter what we do! I’d be happy anywhere if I thought you were working and …satisfied with yourself. I can support the children. Haven’t I been doing it?’
It was not the thing to say. She knew it but could not help saying it. The steady heavy stare of his eyes told her that he resented her and hardened himself against her, and the moment she saw his reaction, she resented him.
It was this, tiny, accurate observation of a moment of resentment in an apparently small row between long-married people that had me nodding in respectful pleasure. She wants to save their marriage, save him, but ‘It was not the thing to say.’ No, but she could not prevent herself saying it, and ‘she knew it but could not help saying it.’ The infinitesimal moment when she reacts to his stare and – despite her best intentions to love him – finds that ‘she resented him’ is straight from the school of George Eliot realism, but that doesn’t make it old fashioned. There are many human stories to be told. Wallace Stegner is very good at telling them.