Wednesday 9 October 2013

Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner

"tonight I can sit here with the tape recorder whirring no more noisily than electrified time, and say into the microphone the place and date of a sort of beginning and a sort of return: Zodiac Cottage, Grass Valley, California, April 12, 1970."

I was reading this in conjunction with Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos who has already posted his review here. Given the fact that Tombstone and the West are key elements of the book I guess you could say that he beat me to the draw. And he shot Wallace up pretty bad too. Maybe even worse shape that the narrator of this book, the wheelchair bound Lyman Ward. My thoughts here have evolved into a long ramble which use a lot of words to say very little but they may yet be of some interest to some.

Ward is a professor of history, but a medical condition which has led to the amputation of one of his legs and given him a head like a gorgon's, always staring straight ahead. He has withdrawn to his grandparent's cottage where he is attempting to write a book on his grandmother, using her letters, his memories and his imagination to tell the story of her life and that of his grandfather, and indeed his father's too. It is made more personal as his mother died when he was two and he was brought up by his grandmother. So it is an exploration of what he inherited from Susan Ward.
The book has attracted controversy through the years because of it's liberal use of the real life letters of Mary Hallock Foote. It seems a bit of a storm in a teacup as he acknowledged the use of letters in his preface and it seems that he kept the letters anonymous in order to respect the privacy of Hallock Foote's family. The letters give an undoubted authenticity to the book but for me the best parts were those in which the thoughts of Lyman Ward take centre stage.

He seems to encapsulate a sense that seems to have grown at the time that can be seen in the work of The Band and Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead, embracing older folk forms as the basis for their music, trying to integrate tradition and revolution. Lyman Ward sees young radicals such as his own son thinking that they can simply wipe the board clean and start over. He doesn't think this possible or desirable.
"Like other Berkeley radicals, he is convinced that the post-industrial post-Christian world is worn out, corrupt in its inheritance, helpless to create by evolution the social and political institutions, the forms of personal relations, the conventions, moralities, and systems of ethics (insofar as these are indeed necessary) appropriate to the future."
"My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or in several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. 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."

It is arguable whether Lyman is using the story of his grandparents for anything other than a refuge though. "This is not a story of frontier hardships, though my grandparents went through a few; nor of pioneer hardihood, though they both had it. It is only Lyman Ward, Coe Professor of History, Emeritus, living a day in his grandparents' life to avoid paying too much attention to his own." His marriage has fallen apart, unlike that of his grandparents, which seems to have survived whatever bashing and bruising it received. He is also afraid that he will be placed in a home and makes a big effort to demonstrate his independent living skills when his son Rodman calls, like a visitor from another place altogether. "Rodman's face came into focus, framed in the door's small pane like the face of a fish staring in the visor of a diver's helmet - a bearded fish that smiled, distorted by the beveled glass, and flapped a vigorous fin."

This image of looking at his own son through the glass of a diver's helmet echoes Lyman's engagement with his grandmother, where he must submerge himself in the past. He constantly questions the validity of his perspective on the story of his grandparents, indeed on anybody's story. Relativity and relatives: "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."

An early highlight is the description of the party at which Susan Burling first meets her future husband Oliver Ward. This line describes her initial impression:  "He had an air of quiet such as she had known in men like her father, men who worked with animals." This perfectly encapsulates the contradictory impulses which will travel with Lyman's grandmother. The likeness to her father is something that attracts her but her own milieu is intellectual, artistic. She does not strike one as someone who wishes to work with animals. Her milieu would seem to be the artistic salon.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the way it plays with the whole idea of an unreliable narrator. Lyman tells us that the story we are being told is like a giant game of join the dots, where he must fill in the events in. He quotes long passages of letters (many lifted directly from the real letters already mentioned...) but many chapters are presented from a point of view very like the omniscient narrator. He manages to give us a sense of the mercurial nature of truth, and how difficult it is to know anyone.

He has put in the work all the same, and gives his Grandmother and Grandfather the benefit of the full historian's process. He chases down references to all the secondary characters, imagining himself disrupting the aforementioned party as a sort of crippled Dickensian Ghost of Christmas future: "Nemesis in a wheelchair, I could roll into that party and appall the company with the things I know. The future is inexorable for all of them; for some it is set like a trap."

The story he uncovers has many elements of dramatic sweep but also something of the undigestibility of real life. There is a sense that the story we are reading is unfinished, that this is a kind of first draft. The book, we are told, is dictated into a microphone by Lyman to be interpreted and typed up. This job (typing) is done by Shelley, a 20 year old college dropout who, like Lyman, has left a relationship. She is twenty and it is never confirmed whether she was married or not and her 'husband' is a hippie type figure, rejecting tradition even more radically than Lyman's son Rodman.

She has little time for Susan Ward's 'gentility' and asks Lyman why, if he feels that he can fill in gaps in her emotional and intellectual life he doesn't do the same in her sexual life. "It's your inhibitions that are showing, not hers. I suppose she did have them, but that's no reason you have to, in 1970." It is clear that this is a difficult area for Lyman who's amputated leg is only the first element in a rather expressionistic castration complex. He finds himself having uncomfortable feelings about the voluptuous Shelley when she is sitting in his petrified eyeline. This tension between being able to look and not being able to look away is only one of the many tensions in uneasy balance in the book.

Can Lyman look at his grandparent's life? Can he look at his own life? He tries, imagining himself in the eyes of his part-time carer, Shelley's mother Ada - "Does she think of me as an old friend, as poor Lyman, as that unlucky Mister Ward, as a grotesque,,, or simply as an object to deal with, like a caked saucepan." There are constant reminders through the book of Susan Wards snobbishness, and now Lyman feels it between himself and Ada. This snobbishness also caused difficulties between his grandparents and for his father. Susan Ward had a very clear sense that a certain type of Eastern breeding conferred gentility and civilisation upon people. That she would end up as a recorder of and resident in the West was both an irony and a tragic mistake.

Here is Stegner on how he saw the relationship between Susan and Oliver: "In Angle of Repose I would guess that it’s a standoff. Susan is more talented in many ways than Oliver. She shows off better. But while I wrote that book, thinking that I was writing about her as a heroine, I came to the end of it thinking maybe he is the hero because there is a flaw in her, a flaw of snobbery. She doesn’t adequately appreciate the kind of person he is, or the kind of work he does. That’s a story not about either men or women, but about a relationship, a novel about a marriage."*

In the same interview Stegner denies that the name Lyman Ward had figurative meaning beyond being a name but I find this difficult to accept. He does, at least, allow for subconscious use of meta-meaning. Lyman to me suggests a number of things -from storyteller to man in repose. The title is introduced early on when used by Susan Ward. When considering in what way she used the term Lyman says "you were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not to see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest." It refers to the steepest angle at which detritus will be stable and it adds layers of richness to the characters struggle to remain as upright as they can, both by their own standards and the standards of others, and their times. As Stegner's quote above suggests, the best you can hope for is a standoff. This is true at times of the relationship between Susan and Oliver, described here in Susan's words: "It is a bruised and careful truce; we walk in bandages and try not to bump our wounds."

There is an early suggestion that Susan Ward gave up more than genteel salons when she went west. The best friend of her youth, and recipient of the majority of her correspondence Augusta Drake Hudson, seemed to stir her passions in a sexual as well as a platonic way. Reading between the (rather breathless) lines of some letters Lyman considers that "If I had to make a guess, I should guess that neither Thomas nor my grand father ever stirred that amount of turmoil in her breast." There is a strong sense that she was running from these passions rather than running to the West, her journey west coming hot on the heels of Augusta's marriage to Thomas Hudson, a very close friend of both Susan and Augusta, and seen by Susan as a potential husband, of a very different kind to Oliver Ward. Through his increasing influence as a great and influential editor Thomas Hudson will play a big part in Susan Ward's evolution as illustrator and writer.

The power of repressed sexuality is vividly drawn in a scene where Oliver Ward holds Susan's ankle as she looks over a cliff. There is a sense of how this "physical contact made sweet by the fact that it came between the bars of an iron cage of propriety." This echoes the 'cage' in which Lyman's disability has placed him and the touch as he is bathed each night, a routine which climaxes in a fevered dream.

There are still cages, still restrictions. Life is built on desires but also on compromises. The story of Susan and Oliver suggests that if you leave it too late to compromise you may end up compromising without the rewards that could have accrued. You can't always stand straight. Sometimes you have to find your angle of repose. 


As I am writing this review I find myself being drawn into the many questions that it raises and my appreciation grows. It seems to be settling well amid the detritus of my mind. As well as the hall of mirrors it sets up in the various relationships that populate the book, each reflecting distortions of each other it also portrays a vivid diorama of the American west and allows Stegner/Ward to ruminate upon it.

Here is an early challenge to received wisdom: "Contrary to the myth, the West was not made entirely by pioneers who had thrown everything away but an ax and a gun." This west is populated by speculators from the East as well as prospectors and farmsteaders. The wealth from the east met new wealth in the West, but Susan Ward had little interest in the uncouth possessors of this new wealth. It didn't come with the requisite serving of gentility.

And of course much of the action takes place on stolen lands. Lyman seems to agree with Johnny Cash about the genocidal Custer: "It makes me restless, too, to see Oliver Ward going off to Deadwood, a raw Black Hills gulch lately stolen from the Sioux. When he started for there, Custer's cavalry had ben two years dead, and the Sioux were either behind reservation fences or gnawing the bones of exile in the Wood Mountain and Cypress Hills country beyond the Canadian line. So I don't fear for his scalp. I fear for his soul."

But it is not just the appalling treatment of the Native Americans  that Lyman is uneasy with, but the whole "civilising" project, no matter how altruistically pursued: "the money motive demeans them. They were in no race for wealth - that was precisely what disgusted Grandfather with the mining business. They were makers and doers, they wanted to take a piece of the wilderness and turn it into a home for civilization. I suppose they were wrong- their whole civilization was wrong - but they were the antithesis of mean or greedy."

Mart Duggan
As you would expect from a novel including the letters of a noted illustrator this novel also includes a lot of details of the minutiae of life in the west. The descriptions of Leadville, a town springing from the inhospitable peaks, were particularly vivid. It's just a shame (from a personal viewpoint) that the Irish lawman who brought Leadville under control and shares my fathers name and some familial features, Martin (Mart) Duggan, didn't get to appear. I have included a picture of the Sheriff and my grandfather to see if anyone else sees a likeness.

At times the descriptions of these nondescript towns sprouting across the west reminded me, strangely enough, of The Woman in White, and Wilkie Collins' great description of New Welmingham. Character, it seems, only comes with age.  But as Lyman notes, this process is reversible, one of the curses of the modern leaning towards bland uniformity. "Towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable. Nevada City is in the process of changing from old to new."
My Grandfather

There is a rich panoply of characters including Mrs Elliot who was one of "the Brook Farm transcendentalists" and had "burned for Abolition, for Woman's Suffrage, for Spiritualism, for Phrenology, for heaven knew what." She discusses Whitman and Hawthorne but it is interesting that "Mrs Elliot bothered Susan because for all her ideas she was not genteel; she delighted Oliver because she was as odd as Dick's hatband." History seems to show her to have been  right as often as wrong.  "Boys should play with dolls, to teach them care for others and to stimulate their later parental responsibility - brickbats or tiles they would find for themselves."

There are many real historical characters, mining magnates and surveyors, writers and artists, some mere names and others playing bigger parts. I could ramble on for a lot longer about this book but I guess I've already overstayed my welcomes. Thanks for staying with me, you pioneering readers. I hope you don't regret the journey, although it has little in the way of an end.

The End



  1. A fine post, Séamus, and one I'd consider as more "expansive" rather than "rambling" if you'll accept a second opinion. And although you obviously appreciated the work much more than I did, I agree that the validity of the narrator's questioning of his grandparents' story both from the personal/family perspective and from the point of view of its "truth" as history is one of the things Stegner does well (well, for me, most of the time anyway). I also loved that line you quoted about towns being like people--had it all lined up for my own post at one point but forgot to work it in somewhere, so I'm glad to see you run with it here. Thanks, too, for your own family story you wove into this post near the end--an unexpected bonus. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Richard - expansive is a kind description. I kept writing bits and stopping and then writing more bits and by the end wasn't too sure what I'd already written. Coherence wouldn't be it's strongest element.

      The 'family history' was just one of those things that popped out of a Google search. Sounds like a real character, if quite possibly half-psychotic.

    2. Oops, misread that family history thing the first time around. However, the likenesses do appear credible at least!