Degrees of Difference

As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don’t mean the rigid angle at which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it (24). - Wallace Stegner, The Angle of Repose

IMG_1911One of the many wonderful things about Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is the title itself. It is the reason, in fact, why I read this book (at a friend’s ardent recommendation). More than that, Stegner knew it. Unlike many books in which the title is a summation, or vague bit of poetical pointing,  Angle of Repose and what it means technically, as well as metaphorically, is addressed throughout the novel. And just exactly because it is a technical term that is given the freedom to expand its meaning to the characters’ philosophical  perspective of life, the reader alike, makes it a particularly meaningful part of the story.

Willingly or unwillingly, she collected experience and wrote it back East in letters. Perhaps she wrote so fully because she wanted to divert Augusta’s depression. Perhaps she was only indulging her own starved desire for talk (140).

I have far too many similarities to the characters in this book to write about it with any sense of comfort, but I can say that, for me, the angle of repose is that sweet spot where the force of gravity and inertia succumbs to a place of rest-  the rocks stop rolling, your place on this earth is found, and felt.

Down this drift, with Kendall walking ahead and the others steering her by the elbows, they made their way. Inevitably she thought of Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice, and up on top Tregoning, Charon of this vertical Styx; but the thought of how silly it would sound to speak that thought made her blot it out. About used up, I should think, Oliver might say (139).

What a wonder and comfort it is that we have our fellow humans to share our feelings, and what a strange and disconcerting thing it is that we persist in thwarting our repose- through pride, hubris, culturally induced concealment, and shame…So what if Dante, Virgil and Charon “used it up”? What’s true is true, and better that we share it than suffer in silence. Stegner so brilliantly and subtly dissects the mores of the ages: Victorian, the free loving 60′s, and the extremities betwixt the two- my heart ached for the protagonist/narrator, Lyman- the smart, sarcastic, stoic and sensitive man- with a capital ‘M,’ for whom the story revolves around. As a rather hopelessly devout reader, I have found that it is the moment in which I fall in love with the voice of a book that keeps me, holds me, and consoles me – like a lover: the language permeates the deepest parts of one’s mind and heart, my eyes race to meet the words, to leap and joyously roll over them, or linger with sorrow and empathy . It is a powerful gift for a writer to share with a reader. It is a powerful union between the two.

The literary device in Angle of Repose of  having the grandson, Lyman, write a history of his grandmother’s life, gives a long and nuanced view as to how unhappiness can take root. An errant or thoughtless figuring here and there, and before you know it, the amount of effort a reckoning would entail, distorts and separates all the equations.

In God’s name, Grandmother, I feel like saying to her, what was the matter with him? Did he have a harelip? Use bad language? Eat with his knife? You can do him harm, constantly adjusting his tie and correcting his grammar and telling him to stand up straight (68).

But Lyman, I feel like saying to him, isn’t it really true that there doesn’t have to be anything ‘wrong’ with him? It is all about the angles, and whether or not one is close enough to adjust their angle to meet another. The failure to try is tragic, but misjudging the difference of degrees between is equally so.

 

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15 responses to “Degrees of Difference

  1. Reminds me of Steinbecks pastures of plenty when an old lady kept exchanging doilies with relatives back east, not because either needed them, but just to remember.

  2. Great post on a wonderful if somewhat forgotten book. Stegner’s prose is stunning, and your vision of his work is so compelling here.

    • Thank you. I was surprised, when I mentioned to people that I was reading it, how many had read it and loved it…my survey pool is admittedly small, but still – it was noticeable to me. It is now one of my favorite books I have read in recent years…

  3. “As a rather hopelessly devout reader, I have found that it is the moment in which I fall in love with the voice of a book that keeps me, holds me, and consoles me – like a lover: the language permeates the deepest parts of one’s mind and heart, my eyes race to meet the words, to leap and joyously roll over them, or linger with sorrow and empathy . It is a powerful gift for a writer to share with a reader. It is a powerful union between the two.”

    Perfectly said.

    Another book to get!

    • Oh yes, do! It was simply marvelous.

      • I bought it so it’s just a matter of time of getting around to it.
        By the way, I can’t remember if I thanked your for the Mrs. Dalloway recommendation. I really liked the book. Septimus will always stay with me.

      • Ah Septimus…he captured me as well. You are quite welcome.
        I wrote a paper this spring examining Heidegger’s “Being and Time” through “Mrs. Dalloway” so I spent quite a many hours with dear Septimus…as I think I mentioned to you I had read “Mrs. Dalloway” many years ago, but reading it again this spring it moved me so very deeply…I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thrilled in fact!

      • Septimus brought to mind Wilfred Owen.
        I started Angle of Repose. It’s taken me in….

      • “Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
        Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.”

        -from Mental Cases

        Oh wonderful stuff. Thank you for bringing him to my attention – and I’ve just received Frair’s Modern Greek Poetry to enjoy…I guess I’ll be reading poetry all day…

      • You’re very welcome.

        “Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
        Always they must see these things and hear them,
        Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
        Carnage incomparable, and human squander
        Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.”

        I’ve always felt Owen was a force that could never be reckoned.

        Excellent! Let me know your favorites.
        And hopefully, some or many will inspire posts.

  4. “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” pops into mind. you know, Victorian and sixties lives intermingled. And Fowles is certainly an author who can lull –woo, whatever– one into losing one’s self in words on a page. Is that the angle of repose, that good place halfway between studies and a nap?

    • Yes, a friend sent me an interview with Stegner and he was asked about the similar set-up in his novel in comparison to The French Lieutenant’s Woman…I haven’t read it…I think I was all set to a few years ago and then the film came on the TV so I re-watched it and then lost interest in reading the book, which was perhaps unfair of me but I found re-watching the film as an adult that I didn’t much like any of the characters – but that’s neither here nor there – Yes the similar premise between the two books is there. Maybe I should give Mr. Fowles a fair shake. Perhaps there is an angle at which I can meet him?

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