Delicious descriptions: Wallace Stegner on “what writers do”

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.

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to safety (Review)

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 us 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