As I’ve taken the time lately to re-introduce more “serious literature” into my reading diet, formerly composed largely of detective fiction, anthropological studies, and essays on art, I come to understand that there are books and authors that I’ve grown into and out of. A friend recently suggested that it might be more accurate, rather than to say my understanding of Proust changed over the twenty-five years between readings of In Search of Lost Time, to admit that I myself had changed.
Not every revisitation has resulted in increased or repeated appreciation. At twenty-two I was enthralled by Jude the Obscure, even if I was immensely relieved by the end of the book when Jude died and I thought, “at least the poor bugger won’t suffer any more.” Recently, I couldn’t make it even a third of the way through what I remembered as one of my favorite novels before tedium drove me off in search of fresh fields. Another fond memory, of Lawrence’s The Rainbow, was differently transformed on second reading. The yearning I once felt to experience the strong emotions and vibrant sensuality of Lawrence’s dramatic, romantic characters struck me as being as puerile as the characterizations themselves. But the way Lawrence took the rhythms of Biblical rhetoric as the building blocks of his style and story floored me this time around, probably because my sense of the Bible itself now has more to do with literary style and less to do with theology and belief than it did forty-odd years ago.
In the middle distance of time elapsed since college, a good friend urged me to share his enthusiasm for Wallace Stegner, whom I had barely heard of, let alone read. My respect for his intelligence and opinions combined with a desire to please him led me to pick up a copy of Angle of Repose, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that is generally regarded as Stegner’s masterpiece. Respect and friendship carried me on until, exhausted with the effort of generating interest in prose that seemed inert and lifeless, I dropped the book somewhere short of page 25. Stubborn cuss that I am, I tried again a year later, with perhaps worse results. On the third attempt I ruefully admitted defeat, or failure, or both. Stegner was not for me.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled on a review of Crossing To Safety, Stegner’s final novel, published fifteen years after Angle of Repose, when he was nearly eighty years old. In keeping with my preoccupations these days, it is a novel of memory, of retrospect, concerned with the passage of time, and what changes and what remains the same. It is a novel of icy winter warmed by friendship, and edenic summers in temperate climates. Each day for a week I returned home from work on summer days where the intensity of green foliage only pretends to offer respite from a heat that is searing and humidity that is stultifying. Settling down then with this marvelous book was like being transported into a world where peace reigned over, or perhaps within, the natural world. It is a book of friendship and the respite that deep affection affords us from the buffets of fate.
The novel is narrated by Larry Morgan; he and his wife Sally form a lifelong friendship with Sid and Charity Lang. Larry is a successful novelist, while Sid is thwarted at his attempts to write poetry. Larry fails to get reappointed to the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, where the couples meet, but Sid does. A summer’s camping trip at the end of that first year collapses when Sally contracts polio. Years later, Larry relates this story of friendship over the course of three decades on the day that Charity, cancer crouching inches from seizing her life, enters care at a hospital for the last time.
Roughly speaking, the first of the novel’s two parts spans a year in 1938 under the weight of the Depression and in advance of the war. The second part takes place on a summer’s day in 1972, the day that is time present in the novel and the perspective from which Larry tells the story. The earlier section is set in Madison, Wisconsin where Larry and Sid are junior faculty at the University. The action begins in the cold weather of autumn and winter where friendship supplies the warmth that sustains the couples. When the academic year ends the scene shifts to Charity’s family’s summer haven in northern Vermont, where the first part comes to its conclusion. The day that comprises part two takes place on the shores of the same Vermont pond, amid the same hills.
In between (actually at the end of the first part) the snake enters Eden, as Larry puts it; the lives of the couples are irrevocably disrupted; separation ensues. Sally (and Sid, as related at the start of the second part) are struck by the hammer of fate; Larry and Charity muster their particular strengths in response. Life goes on, children are born, grow up, marry. The original quartet remains the focus of Stegner’s story, and the inexorable changes brought by time and the unyielding consistency of personality contribute to the dramatic tension. Stegner describes this equilibrium in an opening paragraph:
In fact, if you could forget mortality , and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe that time is circular, and not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making , to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don’t warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn’t differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.
Part of what makes this such a satisfying novel is the depth of genuine emotion that informs it, the strength of the bond between husband and wife and between the couples. It is rare to encounter a novel that celebrates friendship in the way that Crossing to Safety does. The spirit of generosity that grounds the story is remarkable, enviable, and yet imperfect enough to feel real.
Larry is at pains throughout the book to tell us, sometimes more often than he actually shows us, how deep the bond among these friends runs. Perhaps it is not surprising that he draws sharper portraits of the Langs than he does of himself and Sally: there’s a satisfying ring of psychological truth to his unwillingness to look, or at least reveal, too much of his own intimacies. And the story is, after all, an homage to the Langs, to their strength and perseverance, kindness and generosity.
What ultimately engages me and satisfies me is the way that Stegner manages to maintain a sort of dual perspective on the characters. There is intimacy, for sure, as we are exposed both to trauma and to the everyday responses by which the characters cope with trauma and with ecstasy as well. But there is mystery and distance, too. At the story’s climax, Larry is stymied when Charity arranges for her exit to the hospital whence she will not return, and Sid both facilitates the picnic that honors her even in her absence and absents himself, alarmingly, disappearing into the woods. He searches fruitlessly for Sid and never finds him. And at the end, Sid returns: nothing is explained. Sid’s disappearance remains an enigma, and yet it somehow also feels right, inevitable, and totally in character. Somehow, he is performing his own homage to Charity’s force-of-nature personality. They remain in Larry’s eyes, united, single, even as death comes to separate them.
Crossing to Safety is a quiet, meditative novel. The most raucous scene I can remember is a party filled with booze and jazz that is hastily organized to celebrate the news of Larry’s novel being accepted for publication. A dozen academics making merry for an evening is as wild as it gets. Much of the real trauma—Sally’s illness and rehab, for example—takes place discreetly, classically, off-stage. Emotions are intensely felt and communicated, strenuous feats of physical endurance abound, but by and large Stegner couches the drama of life in the gentlest of prose.
Perhaps this gentleness is the by-product of the novel’s major theme and its overarching narrative device: memory. Larry is not in search of lost time, for he has carried it with him always. Time and memory are treasure, as Robert Frost taught in the poem from which Stegner took his novel’s title, “I Could Give All to Time.”
To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.
What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.
I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.