This time of year always feels sad. Darkness arrives earlier and earlier each evening, with autumn and winter closer each day. Summer is always too short and unreliable in these northern countries.
Then again, what did I do all summer anyway? Mostly read books and write.
Some books that have been widely praised left me cold, such as Exit West. From the get-go I didn’t care for it, and as it went on, it felt more and more like it glossed over important details. But then there were still parts that stuck with me afterwards – the distance-relationship theme and the terror/loneliness of suddenly being cut off were both striking.
In a way – a modern way – this paralleled the themes in Angle of Repose, highlighting what it was like to move west to ‘the frontier’. The pioneer’s view on communication with the past (because where you came from became essentially the past), and even by the late 1800s, was still a matter of possibly waiting a couple of weeks for word, just anticipating replies to letters. This entailed, also, the inevitable and eventual drifting apart as things change: no acrimony, no animosity, just a shifting. How could it be otherwise? Our lives and communications with our peers today are generally pretty homogeneous. If I move from Iceland to Sweden, or from England to France, certain things change, but the standard of living doesn’t end up changing so much that it is life-defining. (I say this, though, knowing the trickiness of connectivity in parts of the Alps and other similar barriers in many modern places to modern communication.)
We are far too used to convenience and immediacy. Today I feel stubbornly opposed to it, like a child, a Luddite and a person who thinks that if you want to talk to me, you will have to make an effort.
“You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.”
“Routine work, that best of all anodynes which the twentieth century has tried its best to deprive itself of—that is what I most want.”
–Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
I have no idea why I started reading Angle of Repose, but I am not sure that any book I’ve read recently captured so perfectly that sense of wishing I could breathe life into my own late grandparents’ stories (or the stories of anyone who has left this life)… longing to bring all the details I never thought to ask to life again, to recreate their individual histories and the story they built together. To have, or at least imagine, all the answers to questions I never thought to ask. This history lost to time, as it is in all families. I was quite unexpectedly moved by this quite long book.
“My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”
Perhaps the best of books do this to us – we don’t know what to expect going in, and we are constantly surprised, even when what we are confronted with is quite simple, but beautiful. Angle of Repose is certainly both, the richly historical fiction of the American West coupled with two rather tragic but unsentimental stories (one from the past, one in the present, which was, at the time of the book’s publication, the early 1970s.