Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Crossing to Safety (#5)

Crossing to Safety.

#5: CROSSING TO SAFETY, Wallace Stegner.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

The more I read as a child, the more my dream of being a novelist died. This seems contradictory for a born bas bleu, but the more I read about great writers’ lives, the more I came to believe that I could never be one. Or even wanted to be one, judging from the dark, harrowing lives they typically led. To be a great writer, I started recognizing, you were extremely likely to be terribly marginalized, depressed, suicidal, suffering from childhood abuse, mentally ill, hooked on drugs or women, and so on. And then you went on to write these vast, gloomy masterpieces. That’s how it was done and I resigned myself to preferring a happy, unremarkable life over a melancholy, genius one.

All this to say: I never thought I would meet a genuinely great novelist who wrote hopeful books and was also a happy, stable person. Until I met Wallace Stegner.

Crossing to Safety is the first Stegner I’ve read and it is the last novel he wrote. It was published in 1987, when he was 78 years old, which is a serious accomplishment itself, not to mention that the novel is actually wonderful. Stegner tells us a semi-autobiographical tale of the lifelong friendship between two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Larry Morgan is our narrator, and he begins the story by telling us of his move, with his new wife, to Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1930s for his English graduate work at the university there. The Morgans are quickly introduced to the quite different and notably wealthy Langs and a friendship blossoms between them.

Perhaps surprisingly, that is all I need to say about the plot. It is a story about friendship, devotion, communal living, and communal dying. Crossing to Safety is a simple love story, or, more accurately, a simple life story. There are no explosions, no affairs, no drug overdoses. Who wants to read a novel like this? I was pleasantly surprised that I did and marveled at Stegner’s perfect prose, his gentle observations, and his commanding grasp on this gem of a novel. Nothing escapes his attention; he leaves nothing out.

Larry Morgan himself is trying to be a novelist, and as he struggles with writing, we get this especially self-referential passage:

How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are the speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?

Morgan’s questions are the questions we imagined Stegner was asking himself as he wrote this novel. I’m so glad he was. We “recognize ourselves” in this book, despite its lack of “speed, noise, ugliness,” for it flawlessly captures and celebrates the rare joy of the realistic novel, the strong connection we feel toward characters we understand and strive to be.

For the novelists

The Curtain

A consoling thought for the novelists, from Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, which I have just finished:

Applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them. The novelist’s ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say. Flaubert’s poetics does not devalue Balzac’s, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America.

It reminds me somewhat of T.S. Eliot’s argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, and yet we hope to see something different.

On an unrelated note, I have started on My Life List #30: Memorize an entire New Testament letter (that’s not Jude or Philemon). I chose 1 John, which is a legitimate book; it has five full chapters, and possibly THE most difficult first sentence ever to memorize. Sheesh.