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Sara Dowse, Schemetime (Review)

July 11, 2014

Sara Dowse SchemetimeWhat Sara Dowse didn’t know when she recently commented here on her love-hate relationship with Los Angeles was that I was in the closing stages of reading her novel, Schemetime, set there. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I’ve had this novel since Christmas 1990 when I was living in the LA area (in adjoining Orange County, in fact). For some reason, I didn’t read the book then, and it has been sitting on my TBR pile ever since, along with several other novels by Aussie writers from the 1980s and early 1990s.

It was interesting to read a book in 2014 that was published in 1990 but set mostly in the late 1960s. This is not a unique situation of course, but most books in my TBR pile are set around the time they were written. Why then was this one set a couple of decades before it was written, making it a “bit” historical, but not really? I think it’s because the late 1960s was an exciting time, politically and socially. It was the time of the anti-Vietnam War movement, a time when high ideals were being vigorously tested against commercial imperatives. Where better to set such a novel than in LA – using the film industry as a framework?

Early in the novel, Dowse establishes this tension through her description of place:

California the golden, Eden re-entered. People pretend they are children. They revel in the heat and the sunshine. But they are fretful. Do they deserve this? The question nags. So there is always, underlying the play, the fear of catastrophe. For a paradise, it has known its fair share. Earthquakes make dogs howl and plateglass shatter and bricks spill from walls, and the fires that sweep through the hills and down the canyons have consumed the grandest of estates. Coyotes live in those hills …

I love this prose – so crisp, so clear, so evocative, and yet so provocative too.

But now to the plot. Schemetime concerns an Australian filmmaker, Frank, who comes to LA wanting to make a career in the film industry, a quality career, though, on his terms. Through him we meet a varied cast of characters: refugee film director Mannheim who wants to make artistic films but needs to make commercials and B-grade movies to survive; Frank’s old flame Susan, a physiotherapist and anti-war campaigner, who leaves her Aussie husband for Nathan; this Nathan, a lawyer conflicted about money and his ideals; the black singer-actress, Paula, with her precarious career; and sundry others. We watch Frank as he enlists these characters to help him, practically, artistically or financially, achieve his goal of making a film about his somewhat mysterious father.

This is not a plot driven novel, however. It is about LA, but more than that, it is about characters searching for, well, meaning. This may sound clichéd, but isn’t it what most of us seek? What makes this novel not clichéd is the style and structure Dowse puts to her task. Often when we describe a novel as reading like a film script, we are suggesting, usually a little dismissively, that the author has written it with a movie deal in mind. But, when I say Dowse’s book reads like a film script, I am implying something very different. I am implying a complex picture comprising multiple little scenes, that sometimes flow and sometimes jolt us along with sudden changes in perspective, much like a camera can, particularly in an experimental movie. In fact, particularly given its time, I’d say this novel is innovative (or experimental) in structure and narrative point-of-view, in the way it moves between first person narration by Frank, and the third-person subjective perspectives of the main characters. It is, though, highly readable because the language is accessible. The syntax is flexible and the imagery expressive, but they are both comprehensible.

If it’s not plot-driven, then, what does drive it? Several things really. The characters’ relationships with each other, for one. An exploration of the meaning of art, for another. And dreams, the dreams and passions that drive us. Much of the novel concerns Frank’s filmmaking venture with Mannheim and Paula. There are lengthy discussions about the 1931 film Tabu, made by Murnau and Flaherty. It was a production mired in conflict between two, if I understand correctly, competing perspectives – Murnau’s focus on aesthetic “truths” and Flaherty’s on those coming from social or political realities. Dowse seems to be suggesting that “art” is (perhaps even should be) a constant struggle between these two imperatives. In Tabu, Mannheim argues, Murnau’s

craft and artifice triumphed. But there is enough of the real to make us believe …

There’s another reason why Dowse seems to have chosen Tabu to discuss, and this is its setting, the Pacific. The Pacific is the link between her two lives – her American birth and her adopted Australian home. Its nature is paradoxical, representing different things to different people: to Mannheim, “nothing in the Pacific is quite as real” as Europe;  to Susan it is both escape and barrier, “the way to freedom and then the highest wall”. One of my favourite scenes occurs when Frank, Paula and Nathan do a beach-crawl along the LA coast looking for the perfect Australian-looking beach! Various stories and images of the Pacific appear throughout the novel, making it, perhaps, her “poem to the Pacific” like Murnau’s Tabu.

Schemetime is a novel of grand conception. Even the title with its hints of schemes, screens and dreams suggests that. I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped all that Dowse intended, and I certainly haven’t touched on all that she raises in this book about “money and love and culture”. I haven’t explored, for example, the rise and fall of Nathan as a hotshot lawyer-investor or the conflicted restlessness of his second wife Susan or the survival skills of first wife Estelle or even the discussions about artists in exile.

“The camera”, Mannheim lectures early in the novel, “is no golem … it sees things you cannot imagine”. And so, we find, does Dowse’s pen. Schemetime is a fine read – and one that is as relevant today as it was when it was written, perhaps even moreso.

awwchallenge2014Sara Dowse
Ringwood: Penguin, 1990
ISBN: 9780140080742

Monday musings on Australian literature: In conversation with Black Words

July 7, 2014

Today* marks the first day of NAIDOC Week 2014, which will run through to July 13. In honour of this, and of Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers, I thought I’d devote this week’s Monday Musings to indigenous Australian writers – and specifically to Anita Heiss’s “In conversation with Blackwords” series.

This series is described on the AustLit website as follows:

In late 2013 Dr Anita Heiss sent a series of questions to contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. The responses she received are at times funny, sad, moving, and always deeply insightful. Universally an important piece of advice was to ‘Read, read, read’ if you want to write. As an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, Anita was very happy to see that advice coming from some of Australia’s most admired and read authors.

As far as I can understand from the website, some 20 interviews were gathered, and posted on the site between November 2013 and May 2014. The last interview (to date anyhow) is with Heiss herself. The writers interviewed include some well-known to me like Melissa Lucashenko, Kim Scott, and Bruce Pascoe, and some I’m not at all familiar with like Dub Leffler and Sue McPherson. Heiss starts by asking them about their mob and where they are from, and then asks them about their writing and their reading – about, in other words, all those things other readers and writers love to know.

I haven’t read all the interviews, as they are pretty extensive, but have at least dipped into most, and will read more in the coming days. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things they say:

Samuel Wagan Watson (internationally recognised poet and storyteller) said this in response to “what makes a good writer”:

As far as what makes a ‘good writer’ … I don’t know? I’m an ‘established writer’ yet I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘good’ writer. Should we define a ‘good writer’ as someone who publishes a novel every year or an artist who simply falls in love with language and is a skilled technician who writes a sentence now and then that simply smokes with pearly-wings of an epiphany in the midst of your mind’s eye?

Anyone who can write “smokes with pearly-wings of an epiphany in the midst of your mind’s eye” must surely make some claim to being a good writer?

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance

(Courtesy Picador Australia)

Kim Scott (author of That deadman dance, among other things) said this about his aims as a writer:

To reach and connect. To provoke, sometimes. To transform, if only a little. As Elizabeth Jolley said, to provide ‘places where people may meet’.

To touch on greater truths. Language and stories shape the world; I sometimes want to flex and remake it again.

He’s won me over, first, by referring to one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jolley. But, I also like his desire to “touch on greater truths”. It’s not surprising that an indigenous writer might also want to “flex and remake” the world.

Ali Cobby Eckermann (poet, and author of Ruby Moonlight) offered this advice to writers:

My advice is to be creative! Turn the telly off and be creative. A half an hour each day has the capacity to achieve remarkable results. Be relentless, and find happiness in honouring your story, the legacy of your cultural knowledge.

Being creative, I think, is easier said than done, but I do love her suggestion to “find happiness in honouring your story”.

Ellen van Neerven (winner of David Unaipon Award in 2013) is a writer I hadn’t heard of before. She said in answer to “who do you write for?”:

Sometimes I could be writing for my younger self. I want people to feel less alone. I want people to feel less confused.

Now, that’s an answer from the heart.

Bruce Pascoe (writer of fiction, non-fiction and YA fiction). I had to finish with Pascoe’s response to the question about his writing process:

Get up, go into room and work arse off. Break for lunch, tour of vegetable garden, back into room. In good weather I write down by the river, especially if it’s a job I’m writing longhand. In my room I’ve got a growing gallery of dead Black friends to watch over me and all the birds who come to the door and want to know if it’s ok if they tell me a story. The Willy Wagtail is good but the Scrubwren is profound, the Powerful Owl haunting, the pelican a bit superior on occasions and the cormorants are always good for a laugh. I get a hell of a lot of story from birds and animals.

With such an imagination, you can sure see why he’s a prolific writer.

I plan a follow-up post on this series of conversations for next week’s Monday Musings to conclude NAIDOC Week.

* Hmm … just realised today is 7 July! NAIDOC Week started officially on 6 July!

Richard Rossiter (ed), The trouble with flying and other stories (Review)

July 5, 2014
The trouble with flying book cover

Courtesy: Margaret River Press

The trouble with flying and other stories is the second collection I’ve read from the Margaret River Short Story Competition. I greatly enjoyed last year’s collection, Knitting and other stories, so was very happy to read this one. I’m pleased to see Margaret Press maintain its commitment to publishing stories from the competition, and hope that annual publication will help both the competition and the press, itself.

There were apparently 218 entries for the 2014 competition, which is somewhat fewer than last year’s 260 entries. Stories came from every state in Australia, as well as one from New Zealand. They include both new and experienced writers, many of whom have won awards and/or been published in some of Australia’s best literary journals. I was pleased to see that four of the 24 writers included in this volume, appeared in last year’s collection.

Last year, 20 of the 24 stories were by women, and the trend continues this year with 21 being by women. Presumably this roughly reflects the gender ratio of the overall entries. I wonder why this is? Is writing short stories something women who want to write feel they can juggle more easily with other responsibilities? Or? I’d love to know whether this is a common pattern, and why it might be.

Finally, before I get to the stories, I should say that of course the collection includes the winner, runner-up, and five highly commendeds, as well as the winner and two highly commendeds in the special award for writers from the South West (where Margaret River is located). They didn’t all accord with my favourites, but that’s the subjectivity of reading isn’t it?

Like last year’s collection, the title comes from winning story, Ruth Wyer’s “The trouble with flying”. In the bios, we are told that Wyer is “a fledgling writer from south-west Sydney”. Fledgling she may be, but she has a delightful way with words. It’s a story about transitions, about Rita, an unconfident young girl, moving from high school to TAFE. Intriguingly, Rita doesn’t appear until a few paragraphs in, which disconcerts the reader somewhat as to who this story is about. It is in fact quite an unsettling story, combining humour with pathos and a sense at the end that Rita may not break free of “the loosely bound fog” that she feels envelops her. Flying, in other words, is not easy. It’s a bit cute to say, I suppose, but in many of the stories the characters struggle to fly, to escape the concerns that mire them – and, in fact, some don’t.

One who doesn’t is the immigrant mother in Linda Brucesmith’s “A bedtime story”. Ridiculed by her husband one too many times, she leaves the house after midnight. Another mother in trouble is Annika in Cassie Hamer’s “A life in her hands”. Overwhelmed by a colicky baby – and oh, how I related to that - she decides that “escaping together would make them both much happier”. So, like the mother in “A bedtime story”, she heads to the sea. There, the kindness of one young man and the near tragedy of another shocks her to her senses and she feels “the euphoria of a lucky escape, a second chance”. Life for some, we realise, can often hang on little chances that determine the decisions we make.

A mother of a different kind is Tara in Lauren Foley’s entertainingly titled “Squiggly arse crack”. This is a bright, breezy story about an older single mother enjoying her “staycation”, that is, a brief shopping expedition away from her beloved child, Squig. To ensure she doesn’t change her mind about leaving him with her friend, she “sashays” out the front door without looking back, “pretending her neck is in an Elizabethan collar or pet lampshade”.

This is just one of the stories that departs from the resigned or melancholic tone that seems to be more common in short stories. Another upbeat story is Chinese-born Australian writer Isabelle Li’s “Red Saffron” about a feisty woman prepared to go after love. No shrinking violet, she. Announcing at the beginning of the story that

If poetry is language making love, then cooking must be food making love

she tells us that she’s cooking for Walter. She’s a poet and editor of a poetry magazine, and her aim is to seduce fellow poet Walter while her current lover, Richard, is away. This is a woman in charge of her destiny:

I know how sweet I am, in men’s eyes that follow my movements. I look younger than my age, with my dense hair and lustrous skin. I know they want to taste me on their tongue. But they are wrong: I’m no honeysuckle.

Glen Hunting’s Martha in “Martha and the Lesters” is spirited too. The story is told by Martha’s lodger, who is – no, not Lester. The Lesters are the spiders which proliferate in elderly Martha’s rather untidy home. Our narrator Roland, for that’s his name, describes the Lesters going about the business of life – reproducing, eating, sometimes other insects, sometimes each other. They play a complex role in the story. Martha feels blessed by their presence, and yet, as we see, their lives represent “gluttony and violence writ small”. Perhaps that’s the point. Unlike Martha’s children, they accept her, don’t judge her, and don’t pretend to be other than they are!

Continuing in the vein of positive stories is Kate Rotterham’s “Potholes” about a rather curmudgeonly, recently retired husband and father, Les, “who was surprisingly confident in diagnosing a range of mental disorders” in those around him, but who, delightfully, does a complete about-face at the end.

There are, though, some devastating stories such as Bindy Pritchard’s second-prize winner “Dying” about a rural mother with terminal cancer, and Leslie Thiele’s portrait of a man with dementia in “Catching trains to Frankston”. The challenge of ageing, in fact, appears several times in the collection. I enjoyed Kathy George’s story, “Walking the dog”, about a lonely old widower who, like Martha in Hunting’s story, is confronting the limits of his independence.

Not surprisingly, the collection encompasses many concerns currently facing Australians, with issues like ageing, cancer and fire appearing in several stories. Indigenous issues and our multicultural make-up also appear, albeit way less frequently, reflecting I’m guessing the backgrounds of the writers. It would be good to see more diversity here – but that is another discussion methinks.

And now for the apology. I would love to comment on every story in this collection, not only because each has something to offer but because I know writers (like all of us) love feedback. I can imagine, if I were a writer, coming to a review like this wondering whether my story would be featured. All I can say is that many of the stories, besides those I’ve chosen to write about here, touched me. I’m sorry I couldn’t mention them all.

“Practise senseless acts of beauty” is one of the instructions Harry (“Potholes”) reads in Ten Ways to a Happier Life. I’m so glad the writers in this volume had a go at their own “acts of beauty”. They’ve given me much to ponder.

Richard Rossiter, with Susan Midalia (Eds)
The trouble with flying and other stories: Margaret River Short Story Competition 2014
Witchcliffe: Margaret River Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780987561527

(Review copy supplied by Margaret River Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Once more unto the breach

June 30, 2014

A little over three years ago, I wrote a Monday musings about the GAN (aka the Great Australian Novel) and the canon. I concluded with the questions: Do you think there is value to the idea of a canon? Or does it discourage wide and open-minded reading and coincidentally encourage a too narrow view of the culture it refers to? It generated an interesting discussion. I was reminded of it recently when I read Kerryn Goldsworthy’s 17-month-old essay “What we talk about when we talk about Australian literature” (Sydney Review of Books, 29 Jan 2013) and John Kinsella’s older article, cited by Goldsworthy, “An Australian canon will only damage Australian literature” (The Guardian, 9 March 2012).

Critic, editor, author Goldsworthy and poet, critic, editor Kinsella are both responding, at least in part, to statements by Text Publishing’s Michael Heyward, and others, about the loss of Australian classics. Both tackle the issue of defining Australian literature, and refer to the idea of a “canon”.

I won’t summarise all their arguments here: you can read their far more eloquent words yourselves at the links I’ve provided above. In essence, both support and encourage the teaching of Australian classics, but both also question the existence of, or wisdom of defining, a canon – for the very reasons I posed in my questions back in 2011. Kinsella puts it this way:

Setting out precisely which books should be taught, and thereby defining a single national literature, is liable to occlude its true diversity.

I’m inclined to agree that we should be cautious about the idea of a canon, without discounting it altogether.

Goldsworthy opens her essay by suggesting that Australian literature changed around 1988. I loved her “proof”! It’s to do with parody nights at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL). Parody, of course, requires those on the receiving end knowing the references which, in the case of ASAL, means knowing Australian literature. Until around 1988, Goldsworthy writes, there was a “pretty stable Australian literature canon” of which, of course, ASAL conference attendees would be expected to be well-versed. They therefore “got” the parodies. However, from around 1988, she says, Australian literature started diversifying – which is, I think, a good thing – and academics started specialising. Common knowledge or recognition of our literary tradition started to wane.

This is not the only issue she mentions. A somewhat darker one has to do with politics and a reaction to the conservative cultural agenda of the John Howard era. She quotes Nicholas Jose who suggested that to avoid being co-opted into “a coercive agenda” involving teaching an approved canon, scholars opted for “a rupture … a clean break with a shameful past that was being recycled”.

Elizabeth Harrower The watch tower

Cover for The watch tower (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Enter, sometime down the track, Michael Heyward and his Text Classics. Goldsworthy provides a good analysis of the series, addressing some of the issues regarding selection that have come to my mind – because it is an idiosyncratic list that includes works one wouldn’t have expected and omits those one would. There are many reasons for this, the main ones being availability and marketability. None of this, though, for me or for Goldsworthy, destroys the value of the enterprise. It’s just that you have to understand the parameters and not draw invalid conclusions about “a canon” from the list.

Kinsella takes a related but somewhat different tack to Goldsworthy, partly because hers is longer and therefore broader in reach. He immediately hones in to the idea of canons. He argues that by foisting a defined set of works on students

we are blatantly gatekeeping: setting agendas of control and manipulation. The teacher becomes an extension of the state in more ways than being its employee or citizen.

He argues that a national literature be looked at with “flexibility and an openness to change and reassessment”. He then says something a little more provocative:

Australian ‘classics’ are too often limited to texts that work as affirmations of Australian identity: about being Australian, if not being in Australia. In fact, the much-lauded Miles Franklin award is unapologetically nationalistic: given to a “published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases”. Which is not to say that the winning book has to be landscape-specific, but rather that it needs to deal with Australiannness in some way. That’s what “classics” are about in this context – and that’s what worries me.

Those of you who follow the Miles Franklin Award will know that this very issue of “Australianness” has often provided its biggest controversies. Kinsella’s concern is that focusing on “Australianness” equates with “nationalism”, as does, he fears, the creation of a canon. He says that, in focusing on a canon,

we run the risk of affirming the many other dubious tenets of any nationalism. Nationalism is about exclusion, about quarantine, about community in which consensus, the rights of all to have a say, are ceded to bodies of authority.

It’s a valid concern. Canons can change – and we can be committed to making our canon “diverse” – but the very act of selection does, unavoidably, make a statement. Of course, we can never not select when it comes to choosing what to teach or what we are individually going to read, but keeping the field from which we select open must be a good thing (even if that means parody nights have to go the way of the stone tablet!).

Meanwhile, Kinsella challenges us to seek out writing that doesn’t affirm received notions of “who we are”. I need, I know, to do better in this regard …

Delicious descriptions: Wallace Stegner on “what writers do”

June 29, 2014

In my recent review of Stegner’s last novel, Crossing to safety, I talked a little about the nature of art (in its wider meaning). I wanted to include the following excerpt but it was a little long, and anyhow, I felt it deserved its own post. So, here it is …

About two-thirds through the novel, Sid and Charity’s daughter suggests that Larry write a novel about them, but he demurs:

- Hallie, you’ve got the wrong idea of what writers do. They don’t understand any more than other people. They invent only plots they can resolve. They ask questions they can answer. Those aren’t people you see in books, those are constructs. Novels or biographies, it makes no difference. I couldn’t reproduce the real Sid and Charity Lang, much less explain them; and if I invented them I’d be falsifying something I don’t want to falsify.

- I thought fiction was the art of making truth out of faked materials.

- Sure. This would be making falsehood out of true materials.

This leads in to the quote on writing about quiet lives that I used in my review.

Stegner did, though, draw inspiration from people he knew. In fact, Crossing to safety was inspired by the friendship he and his wife had with a couple called the Grays. They all met at the University of Wisconsin and they summered together in Vermont many times (I believe). The Grays had died by the time the novel was published, but their children did see and approve the manuscript before it was published.

I like the fact that Stegner, who wrote biographies as well as fiction, doesn’t differentiate these two forms in terms of the creation of “character”. Unlike fiction, biographies may aim for “fact” – but the facts are still selected and interpreted resulting in a version of the subject, aren’t they?

I’m intrigued though by the idea that novelists only ask questions they can answer. I wonder whether they sometimes use fiction to explore questions they can’t answer?

Anyhow, I’d love to hear your perspectives on this – particularly if you are a writer.

Miles Franklin Award 2014

June 26, 2014
Evie Wyld, All the birds, singing

Courtesy: Random House Australia

Well, the Miles Franklin Award judges have announced the winner of the 2014 award, and it is Evie Wyld’s All the birds, singing – the only shortlisted book I’ve read! How lucky am I? Check my review, if you are interested.

I loved All the birds, singing, and agree with the judges that it is  “spare, yet pitch perfect”, and both “visceral and powerfully measured in tone”. It’s a story about coming to terms with the past, about redemption. As I said in my review, it’s not the first book to deal with this subject but it is tight, powerful, evocative.

From my understanding of the award, Wyld, now apparently permanently resident in England, meets the requirements which are that, to quote the press release, the work must be “of the highest literary merit” and present “Australian Life in any of its phases”. Wyld is a dual national with an Australian mother*, and does, I understand, return to Australia from time to time. However, I don’t believe the rules state that the winner must be resident in Australia, or be Australian. They do state that the book must be in English and must represent Australia in content. Wyld’s book, set partly in Australia and partly in England, meets both these requirements.

The other shortlisted titles were:

  • Richard Flanagan’s Narrow road to the deep north (on my TBR, and to be read late this year)
  • Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest
  • Cory Taylor’s My beautiful enemy
  • Alexis White’s The swan book (on my TBR)
  • Tim Winton’s Eyrie (on my TBR – unfortunately I was away when my reading group did this)

* I initially wrote here that she was born in Australia. I’ve seen so many stories about her origins and her relationship with Australia, but I understand now that she was born in England, has lived here, still has family here, and visits here. All this though is not relevant to the award, as I understand it.

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to safety (Review)

June 25, 2014

StegnerCrossingPenguinNearly two decades ago, I read Wallace Stegner’s Angle of repose. I loved it. Indeed, for many years I had the following quote from it on my work whiteboard: “Civilisations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations”. Not just civilisations, I thought, but marriages, teams, organisations. I like the way this man thinks. And so, when someone suggested my reading group do his last novel, Crossing to safety, I jumped at the chance. At last I could read that copy languishing on my TBR.

The tricky thing about discussing Crossing to safety is that it’s about many things – big ones like life, friendship, love, order versus chaos, and the nature of art (in its wider meaning), as well as more specific ones like academia and east-versus-west (in the US). I can only tackle a few of them in this post so will pick those, of course, that speak most to my enthusiasms. First, though, the plot.

Crossing to safety chronicles the 35-year friendship (amicitia) between two couples, which started in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1937. Charity and Sid Lang are a well-to-do couple, with two children, from the east, while Larry (who narrates the story) and Sally Morgan are a far poorer couple from the west. Both women are pregnant when the couples meet, and both men are working, on contract, in the English department of the university. The novel, though, doesn’t start with their meeting. It starts 35 years later, in 1972. Larry and Sally have been summoned, some 8 years after their last visit, to the Langs’ summer compound in Vermont, “the place where during the best times of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters”. Pretty soon we realise things are somewhat awry. Charity is “at death’s door”, hence the summons. We also learn that Sally is disabled, though since when we don’t know.

The story, then, is being told from 1972. Our narrator, Larry, is aware that:

Recollection, I have found, is usually about half-invention, and right now I realise that there is much about Sid and Charity Lang that I either invented or got secondhand.

This, together with the fact that Larry frequently comments and reflects on life, memory and art, gives the book a complexity without detracting from its being an engaging story about interesting people. Interesting? Did I say interesting?

This is not an adventure story (Larry, early in the novel)

One of the themes of the novel concerns the nature of art. Larry is a writer, so it’s not surprising that he’s interested in the creation and meaning of art. There are several discussions between the characters, as well as comments by the narrator, on the subject.

Around two-thirds through the novel Sid and Charity’s daughter Hallie asks Larry to write a novel about them. Larry demurs, pondering after the discussion:

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?

We are reminded of this a little later in the novel when the four, with their children off their hands, spend a sabbatical year in Italy, lapping up art and culture. Most people, they consider, have read Milton’s Paradise lost, but how many have read Paradise regained? Can art, they wonder, only be about “sin and suffering … the most universal human experiences”? Charity, naturally, dissents, arguing that “of course you could make great art out of happiness and goodness”. She argues that artists (including writers) found it “easier to get attention with demonstrations of treachery, malice, death, violence” but “art ought to set standards and provide models”.

This is pretty much what Stegner has done – not by creating boring paragons but by presenting characters who “made mistakes” but who “never tripped anyone up to gain an advantage”. Instead, they “jogged and panted it out the whole way”. In doing so, he explores what determines a worthy, or even just meaningful, life.

Order is the dream of man (Larry, quoting Henry Adams)

Early in the novel, Larry quotes historian Adams’ statement that “Chaos is the law of nature; order is the dream of man”. This is, I think, one of the major themes of the novel. It’s not for nothing that Charity is established as the supreme organiser. She has absolute faith – one that is never dimmed by evidence to the contrary – that “if you wanted something, you planned for it, worked for it, made it happen”. Time and again, though, Larry shows that

… you can plan all you want to … 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 yourself fine.

And so, illness happens, jobs are lost, wars start – and the dream of man comes asunder. We could call this fate, and at times Larry does, but I think, really, Stegner is more realist than fatalist. He, through Larry, recognises “the miserable failure of the law of nature to conform to the dream of man” but this is no breast-beating “woe-is-me” novel.

de Amicitia (Cicero, alluded to by Larry)

I don’t want to end on heaviness, so let’s get to the unifying theme, or idea, of the novel – friendship. It’s a friendship built on immense generosity – of spirit and of means. Charity and Sid welcome Sally and Larry into their heart and home. They are generous when Larry has early writing successes “where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking” . They provide financial support (paid back, later, though not demanded) when polio strikes Sally. In return, Larry points Sid towards a job when Sid’s career flounders. And so on … all that you’d expect in a real friendship, in other words.

This is not to say it’s all smooth sailing. There are tensions, a serpent in Eden to use Larry’s metaphor. They are mainly caused by Charity’s unfulfilled ambitions for Sid and her over-organising nature that results, at times, in “a clash of temperament or will” that she always wins. Stegner writes some powerful scenes that, while not high drama in the big scheme of things, glue we readers to the spot. There is “painful ambiguity” in this friendship but it is underpinned by “uncomplicated love”. If you believe that’s possible, as I do, you will love this book.

How valid is the commission?

This is an unusual review for me because I’ve barely touched on aspects like the style and the structure. Both are interesting and deserve attention, but my patience with myself is running out! Early in the novel, Sid asks Larry about “that banal subject, fascinating to non-writers, of why writers write”. Are they “reporters, prophets, crazies, entertainers, preachers, judges, what” and “who appoints them?” They appoint themselves, they agree, but if so “how valid is the commission?” Good question. All I can say is that I’m glad Stegner appointed himself because he is one thoughtful, engaging writer.

Wallace Stegner
Crossing to safety
New York: Penguin Books, 1988
ISBN: 9780140133486


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