Angle of Repose is a book about a man writing a book. Lynman Ward who has been confined to a wheel-chair due to a disease that is slowly taking away all of his ability to move is writing a book about his grandmother, the author and illustrator Susan Ward who came to California with her new husband in the 1870’s.
The novel’s main story is about Susan Ward, but the writer’s intrusions into her story have been a major appeal to me. I find it a fascinating device, one that builds the character of grandmother and grandson and one that provides insight into both the writig process and the reading process.
Sometimes the intrusions can be quite personal and touching:
Grandmother, I fell like telling her, have a little confidence in the man you married. You’re safer than you think.
Some offer insight into how the book I’m reading should be read and evaluated:
She wanted to talk to him about Daniel Deronda, about which she and Augusta had been having a chatty and I must say tedious correspondence as they read it simultaneously. But he was impatient with George Eliot. He said she wanted to be both writer and reader–she barely got a character created before she started responding to him and judging him. Turgenev, on the other hand, stayed out of his stories, he let you do your own responding. Meekly, after that conversation, Susan adjusted her opinion in her next letter to Augusta.
There’s so much going on in this paragraph. Susan writes to her life-long friend Augusta, who still lives back east, about books, though she wants to discuss them with her husband. Why hasn’t her grandson, the historian who is writing her biography, given us the actual letters? He finds them tedious. Would we? The biographer makes this choice for us here, judging them before we can get a chance to see for ourselves. He is closer to George Eliot though his grandfather, and later his mother, who both dismiss her in favor of Turgenev. That his grandmother reforms her own opinion to match her husband’s speaks to us as well. The question of how this all might compare with Stegner’s source material, the life and letters of Mary Hallock Foote adds another, very interesting, layer of meaning to this paragraph.
Angle of Repose is a rich, rich book. It’s what I thought of immediately when I read that tweet about how there is “no difference between literary and commercial.” I’m not about to say that what is literary cannot also be commercial, nor that what is commercial cannot also be literary, but there is clearly a difference between the two. Angel of Repose is a case in point.
Lyman Ward knows what he is doing is not commercial. During a visit from his son he explains why he is not including the time his grandfather spent in Deadwood in his book:
“I’m not writing a book of Western history,” I tell him. “I’ve written enough history books to know this is not one. I’m writing about something else. A marriage, I guess…..”
…..I have never formulated precisely what it is I have been doing, but the minute I say it I know I have said it right…..What really interests me is show two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.
So no gunfights for you, dear reader. That’s not what this book is about. No sex either. This can also be read as a comment on the life and work of Mary Hallock Foote, whom Stegner said did not offer enough material to stand as a book on its own. When there’s not enough history to justify a book, there may still be enough to make up a novel.
When the young woman who is helping Lyman type up his manuscript confronts him about why he has failed to include any details about his grandparents’ sex life he replies:
“Look at her picture,” I said. “What’s in that face? Hypocrisy? Dishonesty? Prudery? Timidity? Or discipline, self-control, modesty? Modesty, there’s a word 1970 can’t even conceive. Is that a woman I want to show making awkward love on a camp cot? Do you want to hear her erotic cries? Is that a woman to snicker at because she was a lady, and fastidious?
“I didn’t mean that exactly. I was just thinking from the point of view of the modern reader. He might think you were ducking something essential.”
“That’s too bad. Hasn’t the modern reader got any imagination?”
The writer justifies his methods and takes his readers, at least some of his readers, to task. This is something of a risk for Mr. Stegner who published Angle of Repose in 1971. Some readers surely read this as not just Lyman Ward’s views on contemporary readers but as Mr. Stegner’s. It’s still a debateble point as are most all of those Lyman Ward makes in his comments about the story he is writing.
But it all works very well as far as I am concerned. I feel like I am simultaneously reading a book and discussing a book. The story of Susan and Oliver Ward’s marriage is a very good story as is the story of their grandson Lyman who is trying to write a book before he can no longer move at all. The interplay between the two pushes the whole project into the category of literary and has made me remember why I fell in love with literature in the first place.