I was mid-way through American Gods by Neil Gaiman which had inadvertently made me want to explore America again (from my armchair). American Gods is wild and whacky and I was loving every word of it.
And my return to the writing of Wallace Stegner came via the writing of Wendell Berry.
'Wendell Berry is 'something of an anachronism'. He began his life as the old times and the last of the old-time people were dying out, and continues to this day in the old ways: a team of work horses and a pencil are his preferred working tools. The writings gathered in The World-Ending Fire are the unique product of a life spent farming the fields of rural Kentucky with mules and horses, and of the rich, intimate knowledge of the land cultivated by this work. These are essays written in defiance of the false call to progress, and in defence of the local landscapes that provide our cultural heritage, our history, our home.
In a time when our relationship to the natural world is ruled by the violence and greed of unbridled consumerism, Wendell Berry speaks out to defend the land we live on. With grace and conviction, he shows that we simply cannot afford to succumb to the mass-produced madness that drives our global economy. The natural world will not withstand it.
Yet he also shares with us a vision of consolation and of hope. We may be locked in an uneven struggle, but we can and must begin to treat our land, our neighbours, and ourselves with respect and care. We must, as Berry urges, abandon arrogance and stand in awe.'
More about Wendell Berry to come because I am so smitten I have ordered two more collections of his essays, but here's a snippet...
'The idea was that when faced with abundance one should consume abundantly - an idea that has survived to become the basis of our present economy. It is neither natural nor civilised and even from a 'practical' point of view it is the last degree brutalising and stupid.'
Wendell Berry was taught by Wallace Stegner and suddenly it all came back to me.
Elspeth Macleod's father has died and she travels from Scotland to Iowa where she will live with her older sister Margaret and Margaret's husband Alec Stuart on their isolated farmstead. Where Elspeth is something of a free spirit her sister is puritanical, rather prim and very precise, whilst Alec though a hard worker is also a drinker.
Margaret decides to throw a party for Elspeth with a view to flushing out a suitable husband for her sister and it is here that Wallace Stegner clearly sets out his stall, showing the prize-winning literary form that will stand him in good stead for the future. As the guests arrive the 'many-chinned' Mrs Paxley, the 'mildly vinegarish Johnny Armstrong and Mrs Anderson 'bird-like...caged in ecru lace,' fill the room and the reader's imagination to the full.
'The Bisom twins' bold stare and assured, rakish manner left her slightly discomposed. The rest of the people were vague faces, sets of teeth, freckles, high white collars, embarrassed grins.'
Elspeth is unimpressed; life becomes tedious, boring, repetitive and colourless and of course the inevitable happens when Alec suddenly seems like the only available romantic option.
I don't want to dwell on the detail for fear of spoiling the 'what-happens-next,' but I think you can sense the atmosphere that pervades the house once Margaret discovers the infidelity...
'...always behind the united family front was the intangible shadow of estrangement, an atmosphere of loveless frigidity, nurtured by wrong and fattened by the silence that seemed to to the three to have soaked into the very walls of the house, to have become a haunting presence...'
All those words of caring and plenty instead applied to something so starved and depleted, and then just wait until Christmas comes around...
Remembering Laughter has apparently been compared to Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and I can see exactly why. It is a compact novella about lives blighted by bitterness, recriminations and blame; an intense world, claustrophobic and stifling, and a book I might have missed but for Neil Gaiman leading me to an American reading trail, and Wendell Berry leading me back to Wallace Stegner.
Lead on America, I need some new names for the America page in my Book of Books, any lesser known reading suggestions that we might not know...
Authors we should not be missing right now...
And if you have read Wendell Berry I would love to know your thoughts about a man who writes this...
'Our only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy our place - a much humbler place than we have been taught to think - in the order of creation.'