So someone said I had to read Wallace Stegner, and someone else echoed that, and you kept saying it so I set too, and how serendipitous that author David Vann visited us here this summer, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.
Crossing to Safety has been my first glorious introduction and may be single-handedly responsible for my ennui and lack of progress with this year's Bookerthon, because Wallace Stegner has written a quiet book that held my interest unfailingly over a period of about two months. In that time I read several other books, so a chapter of this here, a few pages there, a longer run and then a gap, but not once did I pick the book up and find my interest had waned, or that I couldn't pick up the thread, or that I'd lost the plot or the characters, and nor have I had to rush to my desk to write about it in case I forgot. The book has mellowed into a welcome permanence, all surely an indication of a very special sort of writing?
Wallace Stegner says this about his writing and now I see it
' In fiction I think we should have no agenda except to try to be truthful. The shouters in thunder roar from their podiums and pulpits; I squeak from my corner. They speak to the deaf, but it takes good ears to hear me, for I want to be part of the common sound, a not-too dominating element of the ambient noise.'
He made this statement in response to a comment from Flannery O'Connor to which he took exception
'Thus the admirable artist Flannery O'Connor said that she dealt in the grotesque because when speaking to the hard-of-hearing one must shout. That remark rather offends me as a reader. I don't think I am hard-of-hearing; and anyway, with the truly deaf, shouting doesn't help it only confuses and annoys.'
I have been in the mood for some quiet listening too.
To place him in the literary time line, Wallace Stegner just twelve years younger than Ernest Hemingway and F.Scott Fitzgerald but Crossing to Safety his last novel published in 1987.
The novel follows the lives of two young couples living in New England, struggling would-be author and college lecturer Larry Morgan, who narrates the story, and his wife Sally, and the prosperous, domineering and extrovert Charity Lang and her husband, academic Sid Lang. The Langs meet and adopt the Morgans and create an unexpectedly rapid and strong bond of friendship with them, leaving Larry and Sally feeling honoured and chosen, but also slightly phased by the gush of help and support that comes their way. Both Sally and Charity are pregnant so a bond of female friendship develops between the two women that readily draws their men into the circle, and the book opens many years hence with a visit to Charity, now in the terminal stages of cancer and as always completely in charge of events.
What follows as the lives and the friendships are played out is a combination of flashback and reflection with moral boundaries established from the start.
'We made plenty of mistakes, but we never tripped anybody to gain an advantage, or took illegal shortcuts when no judge was around. We have all jogged and panted it out the whole way.'
Thus Wallace Stegner told me what to expect, I had quite thought there would be motive and mischief behind this, but this much is made clear; this was to be no gossip-fest but a loyal and honest account of a friendship with its trials and tribulations and with some clever devices too.
Where Larry the narrator cannot possibly have been present for events Wallace Stegner overtly declares his use of the imagined
'I realize that there is much about Sid and Charity Lang that I either invented or got secondhand. I didn't know them in college or when they met and married, and so I have neither memory nor documentation to draw on when I start to imagine what they were like when they first came together.'
I reveled in this narrative use of the imagined,
'Who is this boy?' I can imagine her mother asking 'Do we know him? Do we know his family?'
as Larry proceeded to construct his own fiction about Charity and Sid's courtship, it all struck me as clever and underused in fiction generally (but please correct me).
Wallace Stegner works some sort of magic with characterisation, something so unique that I had to stop reading Crossing to Safety last thing at night because I'd lie awake thinking about Larry and Sally, Sid and Charity as if they were real people that I knew and had just been talking to, it was most odd.
So of course I now have a growing Wallace Stegner collection and the Modern Library Classics edition Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs - Living and Writing in the West, which has just arrived, has started to slake my thirst, because now I'm at the 'Must Know More' stage.
Wallace Stegner writes about Crossing to Safety in some detail, it was his final book but also his most personal, deliberately close to to his own experience, opinions and feelings and based on a true friendship
'It's all very quiet, I intended it to be true. I wrote my guts out trying to make it as moving on the page as it was to me while I was living and reliving it.'
And, as he admits, a risky book for what it didn't contain,
' There is not a murder, a divorce, an illicit weekend, a gun, a liaison, a drug dream, a hot sex scene, even a wild party, in it. It deals with academics who by definition are said to be tepid and undramatic....nothing there to strain the acting powers of Clint Eastwood or Cher.'
Now then, no one wants literature to sit still but after all this Booker reading, screaming all manner of Look-At-Me frills and fancies, to the point where I have often felt deafened and dazzled by the clamour, perhaps small wonder that a quiet understatement of a book has had such an enormous impact on me.