Wednesday, June 9, 2010

metahistorical classics

I blogged a couple months ago about the great joy and utility I take in In the last month or so the value of the downloadable audio book has only made itself more evident to me as I've listened to two Wallace Stegner titles: Angle of Repose (1971) and The Spectator Bird (1976). Not only are these long-recognized modern classics, but they also can be read as historical novels--valuable ones for any writer of historical fiction to study. One could even call them metahistorical novels in that embedded in the structure of both is the very act of looking backward, an act carried out not simply by the author but by characters in the storylines themselves. Thus each book becomes not just an exploration of the past but a meditation on what that effort means. In the former novel--which earned Stegner a Pulitzer prize--Lyman Ward, a middle-aged and disabled historian, reviews letters written by his modestly famous grandmother, a Victorian era easterner who followed her engineer husband to the west. There she settled and lived a rather difficult life as a mother, wife, painter, and writer. Ward intends to write a history of his grandmother but the intense personal nature of the letters quickly leads him to write something quite different than conventional history. Instead, he writes a "history of a marriage," and in a style that is indistinguishable from that of a novel. What first annoyed me, but finally interested me is Ward's habit of pulling away from the story of his grandmother's life to discuss his own far more mundane and modern one. While at first I was impatient with these sections, eager to get back to the grandmother, I realized what Stegner--through his narrator Ward--was up to: drawing a comparison between the sexually liberated, socially chaotic early 1970s, and the seemingly more staid Victorian era. What the reader is delighted to discover is that while differences abound, fundamental similarities abide, similarities that speak to human nature, family personality, and the unavoidable chains of history.

The Spectator Bird is a less ambitious but just as engaging book. After all, it won Stegner a National Book Award. Like Angle of Repose, the book cannot help but be a study of aging--its narrator is 69 and feels it--but is even more significantly an examination of history itself. The narrator, Joe Allston, a retired literary agent, is writing an account of his life. The project is his wife's idea and not one he's too excited about. In looking over his files in preparation for starting the project Allston finds something that interests and even scares him: a journal he wrote during a trip to Denmark in 1954, shortly after his only son died. When his wife realizes that he kept a journal during that trip she is amazed and even bothered; she immediately insists he read it aloud to her. The book, similar to Angle, moves back and forth between Allston's journal-bound account of the Denmark trip and the present day life of Allston and his wife in California. Not surprisingly, Allston's account of the trip sounds more like a brilliantly composed fictionalization by someone who very much knows what he is doing than the everyday journalizing of a non-writer on vacation. But that's a mannerism I'm willing to allow Stegner because I am so drawn into Allston's story. I won't give away what happens on the trip, but I can tell you that, like Angle, Stegner expertly begins drawing his two narrative lines--the past and present--together. Once again, history, for Stegner's characters and for his readers, becomes less something to be studied objectively than a force we cannot deny or escape. In Stegner's hands, history is something that must be confronted and wrestled to a compromise.

If you like historical fiction, or simply well written realistic fiction, I emphatically recommend both titles. Read them, listen to them, whatever is easier for you. Just do it soon. I must admit that it took a while for both to capture me. But capture me they did--and how. I may have found one of my new favorite (historical) writers.


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