Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Wallace Stegner's Crossing to safety

It's a shame that the member who recommended Wallace Stegner's Crossing to safety didn't make it to the meeting because everyone loved it, so much so that many said they'd read it again. One member, in fact, said it's about the best book she's ever read. In other words, this is a book we would all happily recommend to others.

Why? Well, first it is about a subject that is probably dear to our hearts - amicitia, or a longterm friendship between two couples, one that doesn't involve infidelity, but just getting on with the normal joys, tensions, and challenges of living. The book, set mostly in Wisconsin and Vermont, primarily takes place over 35 years from 1937 to 1972, and is told first person by the one of the husbands.

Next is the writing. It's stylish with not a wasted word. The physical descriptions are beautiful and make you feel as though you are there. One member suggested that his restraint and precision is reminiscent of Helen Garner (or, perhaps we should say vice versa, given Stegner's dates are 1909-1993).

And then there's the subject matter. Stegner discusses a lot of issues - of which friendship is a major one - that we enjoyed reading about and discussing. Regarding friendship, we enjoyed seeing how two couples maintained a friendship over such a long time, despite the challenges they faced in their personal and professional lives, and despite very different personalities. The two couples are Sid and Charity, a well-to-do couple from the east, and Larry and Sally, a poor (at the start) couple from the west. They are warm, believable characters who have fun, are generous, loyal and supportive, but who also argue with each other from time to time.

Another subject is academia. In 1937, the two men are young (around 29 years old) academics on contract in an English Department in Madison, Wisconsin. Our academic member was intrigued to see that many of the issues they faced in the 1930s - such as the "publish or perish" demand, and the somewhat arbitrary way in which tenure is often granted - are similar to those faced here (now!).

A significant theme concerns the desire for order versus chaos. Early in the novel, Larry quotes American historian Henry Adams who said that "Chaos is the law of nature; order is the dream of man". Throughout the novel Charity does her darnedest to order everyone's lives - she plans, keeps notebooks of her plans, and organises careers, houses, picnics, people. Larry, on the other hand sees it differently, and tells us so throughout the novel, saying, on one occasion, that
chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature.
It will and does intercede in their lives - as he shows again and again. Charity doesn't accept this and, with the best of intentions, right to the end tries to mould Sid and all around her to fit her view of how life should be. We liked the fact that these characters felt real and that, like us, their aspirations and ideals are modified or tempered by real life:
Leave a mark on the world. Instead the world has left a mark on us.
Another issue discussed in the novel concerns the making of "art" (in its wider meaning). At one stage the four, with children grown up, or nearly so, spend a sabbatical year in Italy. Is art only about "sin and suffering", they discuss, or can you, as Charity asserts, "make great art out of happiness and goodness"? Related to this is the question posed by Larry late in the novel:
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?
Well, we thought, Stegner has done just that - as have other writers, such as Jane Austen.

We spent a little time puzzling over the epigram which inspired the novel's title. It comprises a few lines from a poem by Robert Frost, but none of us could fully explain its meaning. We felt it referred to Time and Death, and to hanging onto things that are precious to us, like love, loyalty, friendship, as we pass through life to death. But why are those "things forbidden"?

Regardless, this is a great book ... and those who haven't read Stegner before expressed keenness to read more (and those who have, likewise!).