Survival is Temporary

Considerate la vostra semenza
fatti non foste vivre come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

— Dante, quoted by Wallace Stegner, Crossing To Safety (256)

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As is my general habit, I didn’t read the paratext which accompanied The Modern Library edition of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. But my eye caught, somewhere amongst the ancillary pages, on the word “rectitude.” I didn’t think too much on it as I devoured the lugubrious tale of friendship and marriages, but now, having finished my second Stegner novel, (Angle of Repose this past summer: read and adored) the word hangs heavily in the cold January air around me.

“Consider your birthright,” we told each other when fatigued or laziness threatened to slow our hungry slurping of culture. “Think who you are. You were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” Very high toned. We all hitched our wagons to the highest stars we could find (256).

Stegner’s genius, I think, is in the way that he melds high aristocratic intellect with a sort of Western American grit. It is subtly and beautifully rendered. In Crossing to Safety the story is told by Larry, a reasonably successful writer married to Sally. The book is the story of their friendship with married couple Charity and Sid. It is told with powerful intimacy, and yet there is that rectitude in Stegner’s style that can’t pretend, or debase, the privacy of people’s interior lives. What he creates is a story that ends up feeling like one’s own experience of life. It feels completely natural and real. Stegner’s use of language is remarkable. In a single sentence he adds layers to his characters until, it felt to me, as though they were right there, looking onto the page too, from the next seat over.

A big ringing laugh, as if parturition, which sometimes brought the clammy sweat of apprehension to Sally and me, were the most fun since Run Sheep Run (23).

The realism is pristinely maintained by a membrane of respect for the impossibility of ever knowing or feeling anything with absolute clarity and the futility of gratuitous detail.

The tension between chaos and order courses, every moment, through our pulsing fingertips. Stegner seems to have in his mind a firm understanding of that tension. He has no interest in sorting out the good from the bad, there is only the whole. The excruciation of a character like Charity is that she nearly has the energy to force life into some kind of order. The looker-ons can only stand by and watch, in pain, at her useless undertaking.

But what do we have? What are we left with? While Charity wants to write the book nice and neat, Stegner sneaks in the truth through Larry. We can’t do it. All we can do is offer each other mere letters, in the hope that we can build an “alphabet of gratitude” (326). No matter the peripeteia we all must endure, love stays. We are all just trying to survive, knowing that it is only temporary, but the alphabet is what gives understanding: a heavy heart is really, simply, a full heart, and that is always better than an empty one. It is our shared, good alphabet that leads to the wonder and permanence of love— in all its many forms.

 

 

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