Showing posts with label Wallace Stegner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wallace Stegner. Show all posts

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cruising and Reading Redux

We are inveterate boaters so perhaps it was only natural that we would become seasoned cruisers as well.  Life on the sea is incomparable to other forms of leisure activity, not that other activity is of lesser value.  We do what we like to do.  Some people would find life on the high seas confining, even unbearable.   Traveling on our own boats became a natural transition to ocean cruising, although our very first ocean crossing on the QE2 in 1977 predates when we actually began boating.  So we have seen the development of the cruise industry over decades. 

The QE2 was built for transportation – a fast crossing of the ocean, less than five days at almost 30 knots.  She was not built for the leisurely port intensive cruising of today and she was a holdover from earlier transatlantic ships where there was a clearly-defined class system, each with their own separate dining rooms.  One dressed the part, as one would have dressed to board an airliner in earlier days, suit and tie, or if in first class aboard the QE2, formal wear every night for dinner.

Fast forward to today’s ships, bigger, beamier, many more passengers, with, now, some of the larger ships boasting bumper cars, rock climbing, water sliding, grass and tree-filled parks, and I could go on and on about the changes.  The cruise industry has definitely singled out “everyman” as its marketing target.  One might as well go to a mall where they have multiple restaurants and lots of shopping, with an amusement park next door.  And dress in a state of undress if you want!

Ann and I still like the older, smaller ships, and some are still made that way by liners such as Oceania.  Nonetheless, there are some larger ships that we’ve been on (never more than 3,000 passengers though) and I suppose Celebrity’s Solstice class is among the best of those, trying to maintain some of the more traditional values, fine food, less honky-tonk, and accommodating their manifest with some elbow room (if you avoid the main pool area).  We’ve taken many Caribbean cruises, perhaps because it’s so simple from where we live, no flights or hotels involved, drive to Port Everglades and park.  When there isn’t a school holiday, such cruises are relatively inexpensive and tranquil.
We made an exception this year – going on a cruise over the Christmas holidays as that was the only time we could be joined by our son, Jonathan, and his lovely girlfriend, Anna.  It was fun being with them, sharing nearly every meal. Port time was limited to St. Maarten and St. Kitts on this particular cruise as the M/S Silhouette has had propulsion problems and had to eliminate San Juan PR from its itinerary (fine with me, been there, done that).  Instead we enjoyed a 2,300 nautical mile trip to just one little cluster of islands, only 45 miles from each other.

But even these new mid-size ships have to make compromises for “modern life” so there are some 12 specialty restaurants (not worth the additional expense), high volume, sometimes bombastic shows (although their concluding “circus” night was enjoyable), the frivolous casino, the needless shops, the omnipresent “music” in hallways.  But we went about our business, some swimming in the spa pool (tranquil, no children allowed), going to the main dining room (really impressed by the quality of the food), and then, in the afternoon, we’d split up, Ann, Jon, and Anna going to play competitive Mah Jongg, and my retiring to some out of the way spot (usually on our balcony) to read, one of my favorite things to do on sea days. 

This particular cruise had very tranquil seas so sitting on the balcony while everyone was otherwise engaged in the ship’s activities was the ideal place, listening to slight undulations lapping against the moving ship.

While Jon and Anna went snorkeling in St. Maarten, Ann and I tried to go to the famous pristine Orient Bay Beach, but alas, winds had brought the Sargasso Sea to the shores of the beach and although there is no harm swimming in this form of seaweed, we understood the shores and shallow water was covered with it.  So we hightailed it back to the ship which we had practically to ourselves and alternated between the hot tub and reading. 

Ironically, Jon and Anna’s snorkeling adventure was off of a catamaran named ‘Swept Away’ the same name as we’ve christened our last five boats, including the one we currently live on in the summer, albeit ours have always been power boats.

St. Kitts is a depressing port to me.  Right outside the docks are those “elegant” “ship approved” stores, just like a mall, Diamonds International, etc. So, that’s bad enough.  At the further reaches are a few stalls that are rented by natives, selling merchandise but mostly made in China.  

Once you go into town, you are in a rundown area, but this is where the people live and I find it more interesting than the other “approved” venues.  It was Christmas Day when we were there and we briefly attended a church service and heard Christmas carols with a native flair.

Back to the ship then and our “regular routine.”  And, as I said, for me it was reading, and I managed to read “nearly” three books on the cruise (finishing the last one when we returned), all compulsively readable, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, and W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose. So I went from a very serious work of literature, to a serious one, to sort of a parable, but serious in its own way.  If I were to discuss all three in this blog entry, along with the trip, it probably would be too long for one entry, so I will cover the last two in another entry.

I had raved about Stegner’s Angle of Repose, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, written earlier in his career. I had hoped to read more by him, but which one of his many works?  I was led to this one by Julie Schumacher’s article in the Wall Street Journal “On Writing about Writers.”

It was strange to segue from what I recently read, Stoner, to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, the first one a very dark view of academic life and the other an uplifting one although academic politics and anxiety still lurk in the novel, but it was a minor theme.  .   Crossing to Safety is Stegner’s last novel, the work of a mature writer, with its philosophical underpinnings and its beautiful effortless flow. 

To me, perhaps this should have been his prize-winning novel, but perhaps I am biased as he wrote this when he wasn’t much older than I am now, and I closely identify with many of the themes

The story over four decades unfolds mostly between Madison, Wisconsin and Battell Pond, a small Vermont town “out of a Hudson River School painting, uniting the philosophical-contemplative with the pastoral-picturesque.”  Two couples meet at the University in Madison, Sid Lang and his wife Charity, and Larry Morgan and his wife Sally.  The two men are instructors hoping to move up the ladder to tenured professorship.  Sid and Charity are wealthy and “well-bred” while Larry and Sally are church mice, struggling to stay financially afloat.  Sid is a poet and although a competent teacher, Larry is the writer, the one with talent, but one who realizes that teaching might be the only way for he and his wife Sally to survive.  Writing would have to be delegated to part time. One would think the two men are being set up by Stegner as competitive gladiators early in the story, but it is quite the opposite.  The two couples fall head over heels in Platonic love with each other and each couple “serve a purpose” to the other, Sid and Charity sharing their compound at Battell Pond each summer with them (so Larry can write), and their benefactors having (in return) the close companionship of the author and his wife.

The story, naturally, is told by Larry, covering the gamut of the Zeniths and the Nadirs of their relationship but the latter is rare and it is a friendship unlike most friendships today.  The characters are finely drawn by Stegner (aka Larry), and in particular Charity.  If I were filming this book decades ago, Katherine Hepburn would have been my choice to play Charity.

But as Julie Schumacher said, this book has writing as one of its central themes.  It’s always fascinating when great authors actually write about the craft as it is so revealing.  To be a meaningful writer, one must have a philosophical premise, and in the first few pages Stegner reveals his:

In fact, if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe that time is circular and not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don't warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn't differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.

In fact there is a heavy dose of Thomas Hardy in Stegner’s novel, along with the role of chance and fatalism.  Larry even brings up Hardy and then launches into his own interpretation:
Thomas Hardy, whom I had recently been teaching to Wisconsin high school teachers, might have guessed that the President of the Immortals had other sport in mind for us. My own view is less theatrical. Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature. You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.

That last sentence merits reading over and over again.  But in the Hardy universe a “slug” can become a writer, by the same fluke of chance:
Talent lies around in us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just as gifted as others, are less lucky.  Fate never drops a match on them. The times are wrong, or their health is poor, or their energy low, or their obligations too many. 

At one point Larry thinks about writing a novel about the two couples (ironically, Stegner, aka Larry, is doing that very thing):
Human lives seldom conform to the conventions of fiction. Chekhov says that it is in the beginnings and endings of stories that we are most tempted to lie. I know what he means, and I agree. But we are sometimes tempted to lie elsewhere, too. I could probably be tempted to lie just here. This is a crucial place for the dropping of hints and the planting of clues, the crucial moment for hiding behind the piano or in the bookcase the revelations that later, to the reader's gratified satisfaction, I will triumphantly discover, If I am after drama.  Drama demands the reversal of expectation, but in such a way that the first surprise is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability.  And inevitability takes careful pin-setting. Since this story is about a friendship, drama expects friendship to be overturned.  Something, the novelist in me whispers, is going to break up our cozy foursome.

Writing about Sid and Charity not only might have to “break up our cozy foursome” but there is also the problem of the nature of their lives.  Contemporary literature is littered with sex and violence, and the charred remains of unsatisfied lives.  So how does Larry take that into account if he “were” to write a novel about this unique relationship?
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? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?

The people we are talking about are hangovers from a quieter time. They have been able to buy quiet, and distance themselves from industrial ugliness. They live behind university walls part of the year, and in a green garden the rest of it. Their intelligence and their civilized tradition protect them from most of the temptations, indiscretions, vulgarities, and passionate errors that pester and perturb most of us. They fascinate their children because they are so decent, so gracious, so compassionate and understanding and cultivated and well-meaning. They baffle their children because in spite of all they have and are, in spite of being to most eyes an ideal couple, they are remote, unreliable, even harsh. And they have missed something, and show it.

Why? Because they are who they are. Why are they so helplessly who they are? Unanswered question, perhaps unanswerable.  In nearly forty years, neither has been able to change the other by much as a punctuation mark.

Friendship is the bond of this novel.  But what is friendship, especially such a unique one? 
It is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking.  It is therefore rare. To Sally and me, focused on each other and on the problems of getting on in a rough world, it happened unexpectedly; and in all our lives it has happened so thoroughly only once.

But friendship is a two way street.  If Larry and Sally were “rescued” by their friendship with Sid and Charity, what do the benefactors get out of it?  Larry wants to “repay” Sid and Charity, but Charity sees it another way:

As for repaying," she said to me in rebuke, "friends don't have to repay anything. Friendship is the most selfish thing there is. Here are Sid and I just licking our chops. We got everything out of you that we wanted." So they did. They also got, though that they would never have permitted to figure in our relations, our lifelong gratitude. There is a revisionist theory, one of those depth-psychology distortions or half-truths that crop up like toadstools whenever the emotions get infected by the mind, that says we hate worst those who have done the most for us. According to this belittling and demeaning theory, gratitude is a festering sore. Maybe it is, if it's insisted on. But instead of insisting on gratitude, the Langs insisted that their generosity was selfish, so how could we dislike them for it?

Another theme driving the novel is ambition.  Sid is a poet (and sometimes chided by Charity for not working harder to write academic treatises instead, the old “publish or perish” route to academic success).  But his ambition is not the high test blend that fuels Larry, who comes from nothing and knows that unless he works and works some more, he and Sally would not make it. In some ways it reminds me of my own salad days, having come from parents who survived the depression and doing nothing more than the barely-expected parental things for me as I grew up, with little encouragement, or expectations to pursue any kind of academic life. 

I nonetheless left their house for college and never looked back, expecting nothing from them (and in the end getting nothing as well).  It was all on my back and I took my responsibility seriously, perhaps too seriously, my work ethic knowing no bounds (post high school; before that I was under my parent’s emotional baggage and rebelled).  I loved my work (publishing) and Ann and I raised our family while I was totally immersed in my work, perhaps too much so, with too much anxiety about the future.  But I am who I am, an overachiever, who tried to make do with what talent I did have. As Larry so aptly puts it, “ambition is a path, not a destination…”

I was your basic overachiever, a workaholic, a pathological beaver of a boy who chewed continually because his teeth kept growing. Nobody could have sustained my schedule for long without a breakdown, and I learned my limitations eventually.  Yet when I hear the contemporary disparagement of ambition and the work ethic, I bristle. I can't help it.

I overdid, I punished us both. But I was anxious about the coming baby and uncertain about my job. I had learned something about deprivation, and I wanted to guarantee the future as much as effort could guarantee it. And I had been given … intimations that I had a gift. Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn't expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else - pathway to the stars, maybe.

I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without drugs or orgies, have more fun

Indeed, I hope I didn’t turn my ambition into a vice, but I did have fun working hard, and it was indeed “without drugs or orgies.”

There were several deaths that touched Stegner’s life at about the time he wrote the novel, all from cancer.  These impacted the novel as well. As I mentioned, he was a few years older than I am now when he wrote Crossing, and indeed in your 70’s one thinks more about “purpose” in life, especially given the inexplicable transitory nature of it all.  As was voiced in Ionesco's Exit the King, "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?"  No, our heaven or hell is right here, right now.  And how does one die, accepting it, experiencing it?   Heavy questions, voiced by Charity:
"There's no decent literature on how to die. There ought to be, but there isn't. Only a lot of religious gobbledygook about being gathered in to God, and a lot of biological talk about returning your elements to the earth. The biological talk is all right, I believe it, but it doesn't say anything about what religion is talking about, the essential you, the conscious part of you, and it doesn't teach you anything about how to make the transition from being to not-being. They say there's a moment, when death is certain and close, when we lose our fear of it. I've read that every death, at the end, is peaceful. Even an antelope that's been caught by a lion or cheetah seems not to struggle at the end. I guess there's a big shot of some sedative chemical, the way there's a big shot of adrenaline to help it leap away when it's scared. Well, a shot will do for quick deaths. The problem is to get that same resignation to last through the weeks or months of a slow one, when everything is just as certain but can't be taken care of with some natural hypo. I’ve talked to my oncologist about it a lot.  He has to deal with death every day…But he can’t tell me how to do it, or give me any reference in medical literature that will help….So I’m having to find out my own way.“

The novel’s title, Crossing to Safety, comes from a Robert Frost poem, “I Could Give All to Time.”  Not surprising, as Stegner and Frost were friends, with Frost becoming his mentor to a degree.  They had met at a writer’s conference in Vermont, not far from the setting of much of this story.  Sense of place is strong in both of their writings, as well as love of nature.  The final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem became Stegner’s prologue to the novel:

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held.  But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.
Robert Frost

Monday, July 15, 2013

We Live Too Shallowly in Too Many Places

That is an indirect quote from Wallace Stegner’s masterpiece, Angle of Repose, but more on that later.

I thought of those few words as we headed north on I95 last week, fortified by yet another “book” – actually the 13 hour audio book version of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, a novel that has some things in common with Stegner’s.  I had read Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets on the maiden voyage of the cruise ship Marina, finding a copy in the ship’s pristine library.  It is a very funny but tragic story, reminding me a little of the writing of Joseph Heller and I made a note to read his next work.  Perhaps it was providential that Amazon had a sale on the audio book edition of his most recent novel, Beautiful Ruins, right before we departed Florida for Connecticut.  While it is very professionally narrated, somehow I think the book might be better read than listened to.  I can’t really explain why that might be; perhaps having it read to you makes you focus on plot rather than character, or the interruptions while being on the road forces one to stop listening when rest stops dictate.

The story begins with Pasquale Tursi, who, after his father dies in 1962, returns from his partially completed college education to run the family’s small hotel in the out of the way Italian coastal town of Porto Vergogna There he has a chance meeting with a minor American actress, Dee Moray (she is in Italy to film Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). The story is a CD page turner (making the drive that much easier), moving back and forth from 1962 to the near present, with the introduction of a number of characters (including Richard Burton).  It is like so many good novels the tale of choices and consequences. Walter’s characters interact with one another over time, changing the outcome of each others’ lives, “beautiful ruins” as some of the Italian landscape.  Their stories devolve into their own “angles of repose.” Jess Walter continues his journey as a young ascending American novelist.

As the novel moved around, so did we, first visiting friends Suzanne and George in Savannah, sharing a July 4 dinner with them and then the following night we made a long overdue visit to the relatively new home of our friends Barbara and Ron (and their particularly smart Border Collie, Coco) in Apex, NC.  Ron was a colleague in my publishing days (and Barbara as well, but Ron and I worked at the same firm) and over the years we’ve become close friends in spite of our geographic estrangement.  It was wonderful seeing them after all these years.  Then, back on the road.
The drive up I95 is emblematic of living too shallowly in too many places.  As a nation we’ve become anchorless, a nomadic nation addicted to the so called “pleasures” of travel.  Even with gas at $4 plus a gallon the roads were packed, the “rest stops” jammed with those seeking burgers, fries, ice cream, pizza, and sodas. We’ve learned over the years to pack our own food, and to confine our rest room visits to visitors’ centers, usually the first rest stop as you enter the next state.   

With the NJ Turnpike, though, one has to do battle with the Burger King crowd and the downtrodden, overused bathrooms.  I have no business wondering the where’s or why’s of this moving mass of humanity, as I am one of the rootless, but, in our case, trying to “go home” again, to where we spent most of our lives in Connecticut.  However, with each passing year, the ties to the past unravel more, and we are more strangers than natives, in spite of our love of the area.  One does not put down roots in Florida to offset this loss it seems, as one’s neighbors are from someplace else, and they are wanderers as are you.  Indeed, we live too shallowly in too many places, bringing me to this great American novel, certainly one of the best of the 20th century, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

The novel was published in 1972.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature that year.  That fact begs the question of where have I been during those many years since its publication, particularly as I consider myself fairly well read when it comes to contemporary American literature.  In my defense, and it’s a weak one, perhaps it was a form of cultural snobbism -- not unlike Susan Burling Ward’s, the main character in the novel -- that is more East coast focused. When Stegner was writing, I was reading Updike, Cheever, Yates and Roth.  Those who wrote about the West, the frontier, did not reach a deep chord in me.  But, now, my own sense of place has become diluted.  It took this blog to lead me to Stegner’s masterpiece.  A few months ago, via the email address listed in the profile, I received the following (this is the truncated version):

Something made me think of you today, so I Googled your name, and Google led me to your blog. I wonder if you'll even remember me. My memories of you are no doubt washed by the passage of time, but how nice that I get to share some of this with you.

In 1969, you hired me as your secretary at Johnson Reprint. I was 20 years old, my typing was pathetic, my shorthand practically non-existent, I had no real secretarial experience, and I had just moved to New York from Meadville, Pennsylvania. Yet for some reason I will never understand you saw potential and offered me the job. It wasn't long after that you left Johnson for greener pastures, and I cut my hair short in protest. Though of course, no one but me cared how long my hair was.

And now, 44 years later, I get to thank you. You were really my first mentor, and you encouraged me to think analytically and take my silly attempts at writing poems to a deeper level. You also taught me a great deal about being a professional--although there was certainly a lot more to learn, you got me over the threshold. And the position itself provided me with skills that served me well throughout my career. A position for which I was completely unqualified. I have always felt that you played a brief but seminal role in my life.

Have you read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose? He talks about a Doppler effect (nothing to do with weather) that I couldn't possibly do justice to, so in brief, it is a sort of predestination view but not really. If you are curious and haven't read it, you will just have to do so! Anyhow, I mention it because it has become more and more of an intriguing concept for me over time. When I think back on 1969 as a fragment of my life, I marvel at where my path was to take me. And that at the time, of course, it was unwritten. …. This probably makes no sense whatsoever to you! But it does to me, and it's beginning to feel like I'm writing this more for myself than you. My apologies if it feels that way to you too!

Well, what I started out wanting to say is thank you. For being who you were at a juncture in my life and providing me with a chance, though you didn't know it any more than I did at the time, to build a springboard for myself to carry me into a fascinating and sweet journey. I am truly happy to know that your own life has been, and continues to be, so full of love and friends and success. You earned all that a long time ago just by being your intuitive and generous self.

Naturally, I was moved by this, responding, “As you didn't type well or take shorthand, I must have hired you for your intelligence which has obviously taken you to an education and a career of many accomplishments.”  I also said, “I haven't read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, but have ordered it from Amazon on your recommendation.  I get to read a lot during the summers when we live on our boat in Norwalk; sounds like an ideal summer read.”  Since then Mary and I have struck up an email relationship, two small characters on the world stage whose lives once intersected and, now, thanks to technology, intersect virtually.

But, there you have it, a bend in time, perhaps the Doppler Effect, leading me to one of the more significant literary works of our time. 

Stegner’s story is multigenerational; a tale told by Lyman Ward, a 58 year-old former history professor who is now confined to a wheelchair, taken care of by friend and neighbor Ada Hawkes and her daughter Shelly in the home of Ward’s grandparents, Susan and Oliver Ward.  It was in this California home his grandparents finally settled after living in a number of frontier outposts during the formative years of their marriage.  Lyman Ward’s father, Ollie, was the oldest of their three children. 

Part of Stegner’s novel is devoted to present-day Lyman, who is trying to stay independent in spite of his being wheelchair bound, while his only son, Rodman, is trying to place him in an assisted living home.  But Lyman is fiercely opposed to the idea.  He is now also divorced from his wife, Ellen.

But the majority of the story is the one that Lyman Ward is trying to write about his grandmother, an extraordinary women of letters and an artist as well, who marries a young engineer, reluctantly leaving her best friend Augusta, and the Northeast, to join Oliver (she thinks for only a few years before a planned return to the East) in his quest to pursue a career as a mining engineer in the West.

Actually, the character of Susan Burling Ward is based on the real life of Mary Hallock Foote, and Stegner makes liberal use of Foote’s writings in the novel, which led to some controversy although Stegner acknowledges that use saying that he did not hesitate “to warp personalities and events to fictional needs.”  At times it almost feels like an epistolary novel, although all letters are one sided, from Susan to Augusta.  Augusta’s life is firmly within the gravitational pull of the eastern intelligentsia, a life that Susan pines for, for herself and for her children. 

So, it is Lyman’s objective to write this history, to remain independent while doing so, living in the home he used to visit as a child.  He thinks of “Angle of Repose” as being an appropriate title, and considers the Doppler Effect as an alternative, “saying” to his grandmother:

If Henry Adams, whom you knew slightly, could make a theory of history by applying the second law of thermodynamics to human affairs, I ought to be entitled to base one on the angle of repose, and may yet. There is another physical law that teases me, too: the Doppler Effect. The sound of anything coming at you - a train, say, or the future - has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates. But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne…. You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.

In recounting the life of his grandparents, Lyman hopes to find something about his own “angle of repose:”
Yet do you remember the letters you used to get from isolated miners and geologists and surveyors who had come across a copy of Century or Atlantic and seen their lives there, and wrote to ask how a lady of obvious refinement knew so much about drifts, stopes, tipples, pumps, ores, assays, mining law, claim jumpers, underground surveying, and other matters? Remember the one who wanted to know where you learned to handle so casually a technical term like "angle of repose"? I suppose you replied, "By living with an engineer." But you were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest….As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don't mean the rigid angle which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it….

Wheelchair bound, and distraught and cynical about the present (the 1970s), by exploring (and glorifying) her life, Lyman temporarily finds a way out of his: Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don't completely comprehend. I'd like to live in their clothes a while, if only so I don't have to live in my own…. We have been cut off, the past has been ended and the family has broken up and the present is adrift in its wheelchair. I had a wife who after twenty-five years of marriage took on the coloration of the 1960s. I have a son who, though we are affectionate with each other, is no more my true son than if he breathed through gills. That is no 'gap between the generations, that is a gulf. The elements have changed, there are whole new orders of magnitude and kind. This present of 1970 is no more an extension of my grandparents' world, this West is no more a development of the West they helped build, than the sea over Santorin is an extension of that once-island of rock and olives. ….My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents' side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.

While plot and character development are outstanding strengths of the novel, the sense of place (or displacement) permeates the entire work, the East vs. West, civilization vs. the frontier, and a miscarriage of the American Dream:

I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? It is not quite true that you can't go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places. I doubt that anyone of Rodman's generation could comprehend the home feelings of someone like Susan Ward. Despite her unwillingness to live separately from her husband, she could probably have stayed on indefinitely in Milton, visited only occasionally by an asteroid husband. Or she could have picked up the old home and remade it in a new place. What she resisted was being the wife of a failure and a woman with no home.

When frontier historians theorize about the uprooted, the lawless, the purseless, and the socially cut-off who settled the West, they are not talking about people like my grandmother.  So much that was cherished and loved, women like her had to give up; and the more they gave it up, the more they carried it helplessly with them. It was a process like ionization what was subtracted from one pole was added to the other For that sort of pioneer, the West was not a new country being created, but an old one being reproduced; in that sense our pioneer women were always more realistic than our pioneer men. The moderns, carrying little baggage of the kind that Shelly called "merely cultural," not even living in traditional air, but breathing into their space helmets a scientific mixture of synthetic gases (and polluted at that) are the true pioneers.  Their circuitry seems to include no atavistic domestic sentiment, they have suffered empathectomy, their computers hum no ghostly feedback of Home, Sweet Home.  How marvelously free they are!  How unutterably deprived!

And, indeed, the “place” of frontier and its bearing on his Grandfather’s failings, hangs heavily in the novel.  Lyman feels empathy for this man who perhaps unwisely trusted others in his pursuit of colossal dreams:

As a practitioner of hindsight I know what Grandfather was trying to do, by personal initiative and with the financial resources of a small and struggling corporation, what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do. 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 yet 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.

I’ve liberally quoted from Angle of Repose as the writing is extraordinary.  These passages are typical.  Susan’s letters to Augusta are equally remarkable.  There is not one page, not one word in this novel that is superfluous.  It’s 500 plus pages are filled with energy, beauty, and philosophical contemplation.  And I think it so ironic – or is it prophetic – that while this novel was in the process of being published I was hiring Mary who, 44 years later, finds me in the brave new virtual world, and asks me a simple question, “have you read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose?”