What I’m Reading: Wallace Stegner – Angle of Repose

According to a well-known essay by William Gass, it is not a good thing for any ambitious writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, because the prize has consistently been awarded to mediocre writers, and thus brands each of its recipients with the stamp of mediocrity. There are, however, (as even Gass admits) the occasional execptions where the Pulitzer jury slipped up and gave the prize to an outstanding work. Angle of Repose is, in my opinion one of those exceptions, in fact it is a very big slip-up as it is a truly exceptional work of fiction.

The novel has a lot of reviews both on Librarything and on Goodreads, so I assume that it is somewhat popular. I suspect, however, that this popularity extends mostly to readers from the US only – I at least had never heard of Stegner before, and I consider myself decently informed about US fiction in the 20th century. Part of this at least might be due to the fact that Angle of Repose is essentially a Western – a Western, however, in the sense that Heaven’s Gate is a Western, i.e. more concerned about what the American West during the days of the pioneers actually looked and felt like, as opposed to contributing to (or even concerning itself with) its myths and legends. Angle of Repose, then, is for the most part a historical novel, describing the fate of Susan Ward and her husband Oliver Ward in the American West at the end of the 19th century. But it is a contemporary novel as well, because it also tells of how Lyman Ward, a retired history professor tries in the late sixties of the 20th century to piece together the history of his grandmother Susan from letters and other documents. The latter, although taking up somewhat less of the novel’s pages,  is not just a framing device for the former, but both strands mingle and interweave intimately and form a single narrative from which one cannot lift one part without undoing the other.

While Angle of Repose is not a depressing book, it is a sad one – the beginning might be exuberant, in places even giddily so, but its palette grows gradually more sombre, and by the end has shaded into a deep melancholy. This novel, in other words, is an elegy, and on at least three distinct levels. On the first and most obvious one, it is an elegy for a place and a time, namely the Old West. Stegner never attempts to make them seem romantic or glamorous, but pretty much every line of the book is infused with an ache for the loss of the pioneer spirit and bemoaning the complancency and self-centredness of present day America. Of course, this might all very well be just the point of view of the narrator whose perspective is likely tinged by his own, not inconsiderable problems –  chiefly, a crippling bone disease and the unfaithfulness of his wife. And the latter leads us to the novel’s second level of elegy: It also is an elegy for a way of life, namely traditional monogamous marriage. Stegner presents us with three generations of partnership in The Angle of Repose: First, the marriage of Susan and Oliver Ward which passes through many hardships, struggles and separations but lasts for sixty years until both partners die within months of each other. Second, the marriage of narrator Lyman Ward and his wife Ellen which founders at the first major crisis (the diagnosis of Lyman’s incurable disease and his wife subsequently leaving him for his surgeon). And third, the marriage between Lyman’s temporary secretary Shelly and someone called Larry Rasmussen (who we never get to see first hand) which seems not really a marriage at all and to be over before it really started. Again, there is the narrator’s not exactly impartial perspective to be considered, but there is a clear line drawn here and it is one of decline.

It is becoming clear that perspective and point of view play a large role in this novel, and this leads us to its third level of elegy: Angle of Repose is an elegy for a literary form, namely the realist novel. I don’t think there is any doubt that the book’s undertaking is basically realist – it is giving the reader a portrait of the American West, and one of unparalleled vividness: The tired clichés of people coming alive, of descriptions jumping off the pages of a book – they seem to have been invented after a reading of Angle of Repose, the writing is just so incredibly colourful and evocative. But at the same time, the novel is highly reflective about this evocation; while conjuring up the sights of the Old West, its sounds and smells, its sensations and tastes, it never lets us forget that this is merely a reconstruction, and one based on a very slim foundation of facts. Lyman Ward, the narrator who pieces Susan’s life together, makes no secret that a huge part of what he is writing are things that he extrapolated or simply made up from his grandmother’s letters and the occasional news clipping. Overall, it is a constant theme of the novel that even writing as vivid as this never can catch up to reality, and it comes to a head in the way the novel handles the climactic catastrophic event in Susan’s and Oliver’s life, namely by mostly burying it in ellipsis and leaving it to the reader to imagine what precisely might have happened. And what resolve there is for the present-day narrative thread happens in a dream, and one that explicitely references Kafka, to boot. The novel realizes its own impossibility and fittingly collapses into itself rather than that it ends.

And that is not even all, there is an additional level to it – as if not quite trusting fiction to do the job on its own, Wallace Stegner based the story of Susan Ward very closely on the real life of writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, and even went so far as to incorporate excerpts from her letters into his own novel (sparking off a controversy which apparently has not quite simmered down even today). Thus, it requires historical documents to give the novel its authenticity, and its claim to realism rests on some ten percent of quoted letters, with the rest being so much smoke and mirrors. This of course raises the question of why one would write a novel at all, and not a work of non-fiction (of which Stegner himself wrote several) or, in this particular case, edit a selection of Mary Hallock Foote’s letters (as someone else did after the interest in her work that Angle of Repose created) – a question that the novel does not really answer, and a question that maybe is without an answer, at least for as long as one sticks to the premises of realism.

All of this might give the impression that Angle of Repose was a difficult novel, but that impression would be quite wrong – while it is a highly reflective novel, it is also an immense joy to read (or at least it was to me – skimming through some of the reviews, quite a few of which call it boring, your mileage may vary), mainly because of Stegner’s writing which raises vividness to a new level and really pushes the boundaries of how evocative prose can be. Angle of Repose is full of descriptions – they are not long, but very numerous, and you can open the book on any page at random and will invariably come across something – a piece of scenery, a perspective on a building, a glimpse of a face, the reflexion of light on water – something observed with startling precision and caught in a beautiful phrase. There is much to admire in this novel – its evocation of the American West, it’s thoughtful composition, it’s fully rounded characters which are deeply flawed as humans are but still likeable – but what really makes it stand out and had me add it to my list of favourite novels was the precision and power of its writing, that had me stumble from one wonderful description to the next until I was dizzy from delight, literally drunk on Stegner’s language.

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3 comments

  1. Dizzy from delight! Why, there’s a recommendation. This sounds like a wonderful book and I will certainly have to give in to your persuasion and read it. I confess I was a bit wary when you described it as a ‘Western’ but having read the rest of your review it sounds like an elegant, poignant and masterfully balanced work. And, since you know how much I love beautiful prose, I’m going to have to add it to the To Read list. Thanks Heloise! 🙂

  2. You’re welcome, and as always, thank you very much for taking the time to comment. 🙂

    And rest assured, there are no cowboys in this novel – Tombstone does get a few mentions, though 😛 Angle of Repose seems to be the kind of book that people either intensely dislike or fervently love, and I’m finding myself firmly in the second camp, and of course hope that you’ll eventually make your way there, too. The novel is far more wonderful than I managed to make it sound, and I recommend it very strongly.

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