According to a well-known essay by William Gass, it is not a good thing for any ambitious writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, because th...moreAccording to a well-known essay by William Gass, it is not a good thing for any ambitious writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, because the prize has consistently been awarded to mediocre writers, and thus brands each of its recipients with the stamp of mediocrity. There are, however, (as even Gass admits) the occasional execptions where the Pulitzer jury slipped up and gave the prize to an outstanding work. Angle of Repose is, in my opinion one of those exceptions, in fact it is a very big slip-up as it is a truly exceptional work of fiction.
The novel has a lot of reviews both on Librarything and on Goodreads, so I assume that it is somewhat popular. I suspect, however, that this popularity extends mostly to readers from the US only - I at least had never heard of Stegner before, and I consider myself decently informed about US fiction in the 20th century. Part of this at least might be due to the fact that Angle of Repose is essentially a Western – a Western, however, in the sense that Heaven’s Gate is a Western, i.e. more concerned about what the American West during the days of the pioneers actually looked and felt like, as opposed to contributing to (or even concerning itself with) its myths and legends. Angle of Repose, then, is for the most part a historical novel, describing the fate of Susan Ward and her husband Oliver Ward in the American West at the end of the 19th century. But it is a contemporary novel as well, because it also tells of how Lyman Ward, a retired history professor tries in the late sixties of the 20th century to piece together the history of his grandmother Susan from letters and other documents. The latter, although taking up somewhat less of the novel’s pages, is not just a framing device for the former, but both strands mingle and interweave intimately and form a single narrative from which one cannot lift one part without undoing the other.
While Angle of Repose is not a depressing book, it is a sad one – the beginning might be exuberant, in places even giddily so, but its palette grows gradually more sombre, and by the end has shaded into a deep melancholy. This novel, in other words, is an elegy, and on at least three distinct levels. On the first and most obvious one, it is an elegy for a place and a time, namely the Old West. Stegner never attempts to make them seem romantic or glamorous, but pretty much every line of the book is infused with an ache for the loss of the pioneer spirit and bemoaning the complancency and self-centredness of present day America. Of course, this might all very well be just the point of view of the narrator whose perspective is likely tinged by his own, not inconsiderable problems - chiefly, a crippling bone disease and the unfaithfulness of his wife. And the latter leads us to the novel’s second level of elegy: It also is an elegy for a way of life, namely traditional monogamous marriage. Stegner presents us with three generations of partnership in The Angle of Repose: First, the marriage of Susan and Oliver Ward which passes through many hardships, struggles and separations but lasts for sixty years until both partners die within months of each other. Second, the marriage of narrator Lyman Ward and his wife Ellen which founders at the first major crisis (the diagnosis of Lyman’s incurable disease and his wife subsequently leaving him for his surgeon). And third, the marriage between Lyman’s temporary secretary Shelly and someone called Larry Rasmussen (who we never get to see first hand) which seems not really a marriage at all and to be over before it really started. Again, there is the narrator’s not exactly impartial perspective to be considered, but there is a clear line drawn here and it is one of decline.
It is becoming clear that perspective and point of view play a large role in this novel, and this leads us to its third level of elegy: Angle of Repose is an elegy for a literary form, namely the realist novel. I don’t think there is any doubt that the book’s undertaking is basically realist – it is giving the reader a portrait of the American West, and one of unparalleled vividness: The tired clichés of people coming alive, of descriptions jumping off the pages of a book – they seem to have been invented after a reading of Angle of Repose, the writing is just so incredibly colourful and evocative. But at the same time, the novel is highly reflective about this evocation; while conjuring up the sights of the Old West, its sounds and smells, its sensations and tastes, it never lets us forget that this is merely a reconstruction, and one based on a very slim foundation of facts. Lyman Ward, the narrator who pieces Susan’s life together, makes no secret that a huge part of what he is writing are things that he extrapolated or simply made up from his grandmother’s letters and the occasional news clipping. Overall, it is a constant theme of the novel that even writing as vivid as this never can catch up to reality, and it comes to a head in the way the novel handles the climactic catastrophic event in Susan’s and Oliver’s life, namely by mostly burying it in ellipsis and leaving it to the reader to imagine what precisely might have happened. And what resolve there is for the present-day narrative thread happens in a dream, and one that explicitely references Kafka, to boot. The novel realizes its own impossibility and fittingly collapses into itself rather than that it ends.
And that is not even all, there is an additional level to it - as if not quite trusting fiction to do the job on its own, Wallace Stegner based the story of Susan Ward very closely on the real life of writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, and even went so far as to incorporate excerpts from her letters into his own novel (sparking off a controversy which apparently has not quite simmered down even today). Thus, it requires historical documents to give the novel its authenticity, and its claim to realism rests on some ten percent of quoted letters, with the rest being so much smoke and mirrors. This of course raises the question of why one would write a novel at all, and not a work of non-fiction (of which Stegner himself wrote several) or, in this particular case, edit a selection of Mary Hallock Foote’s letters (as someone else did after the interest in her work that Angle of Repose created) – a question that the novel does not really answer, and a question that maybe is without an answer, at least for as long as one sticks to the premises of realism.
All of this might give the impression that Angle of Repose was a difficult novel, but that impression would be quite wrong – while it is a highly reflective novel, it is also an immense joy to read (or at least it was to me – skimming through some of the reviews, quite a few of which call it boring, your mileage may vary), mainly because of Stegner’s writing which raises vividness to a new level and really pushes the boundaries of how evocative prose can be. Angle of Repose is full of descriptions – they are not long, but very numerous, and you can open the book on any page at random and will invariably come across something – a piece of scenery, a perspective on a building, a glimpse of a face, the reflexion of light on water – something observed with startling precision and caught in a beautiful phrase. There is much to admire in this novel – its evocation of the American West, it’s thoughtful composition, it’s fully rounded characters which are deeply flawed as humans are but still likeable – but what really makes it stand out and had me add it to my list of favourite novels was the precision and power of its writing, that had me stumble from one wonderful description to the next until I was dizzy from delight, literally drunk on Stegner’s language.(less)
This used to be Michael Bishop’s first novel, before (as he explains in an Afterword) he completely re-worked it and it became his seventh. I actually...moreThis used to be Michael Bishop’s first novel, before (as he explains in an Afterword) he completely re-worked it and it became his seventh. I actually did read the first version way back when (and even might still have my copy lying around somewhere), but have to confess that I don’t remember much about it except that it was all rather weird but that I liked it. Which, as it happens, would also sum up my impression of this rewritten version. (A word on the title: the novel was called A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire at first released, then shortened to Eyes of Fire for the new version, but the original title was restored for the re-release of the re-written version. The SF Gateway edition I have been reading manages to use both of those titles. As I like the long title better (like young Michael Bishop, I’m a sucker for poetic titles), I’m going to stick with that one.)
A Funeral For the Eyes of Fire is classic “anthropological” Science Fiction (set in quotation marks because the anthropos here is, of course, alien), strongly and unabashedly influenced by Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Which means that there is not much in the way of “hard” science in the novel, but that instead it explores different ways of being in all the many kinds of ways this might imply - using the imaginative license the SF genre grants to devise societies, cultures, religions, genders and whatnot unknown to present-day man, but of course all ultimately reflecting back on what it is to be human. To ensure that (and to make certain the novels do not get too strange for a reader to follow) the central character in this kind of Science Fiction tends to be a human, an explorer or ambassador who for some plot reason or other is forced to cope with an alien world and its inhabitants.
Bishop follows that pattern and weaves some Shakesperian tragedy into it, with rather fascinating results. It takes a bit of time to get into the flow of events, not just because the reader gets thrown into things with almost no introdution, but also because of the novel’s central consciousness and supposed identification figure, Seth Latimer. In some he is like the standard protagonist of this kind of SF – mostly average, somewhat naive and very passive, a foil against which the strangness of the world he find himself placed in, can be offset (which interestingly, and in a totally off-topic aside also describes the hero of the classical historical novel from Walter Scott onwards). But although Seth is human, to us contemporaries he seems very strange, almost alien himself – he is a clone, for starters, an interstellar merchant travelling with his “original” and an older clone twin, and the glimpses we get of their relationship hint at something quite different from the burgeois core family we have grown used to. Which makes sense, of course – it’s not really to expected that humans several centuries in the future would be the same as they are today. But it soon turns out that Seth and his “family” are still the characters most familiar to the reader and that Bishop is taking us on a very strange journey indeed. Seth’s travels take him to two planets and three different cultures, each suceeding one more bizarre than the one that came before. Even for this particular subgenre of Science Fiction which by its very premise abounds in bizarre inventions, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire is something exceptionally rich and strange.
With the emotional distancing due to the protagonist’s weirdness, the effect of reading the novel is not so much that of experiencing a tragedy by Shakespeare than of watching a Noh play as a Westerner – there is undoubtedly something very fascinating about the slowly unfolding, almost ritualistic dance on the stage, but also a considerable detachment – we never quite figure out what it means, and while we are captured by its bizarre beauty we also always are at some remove from it, never get quite involved. Which I’m fairly certain is the effect Bishop was aiming for. The distancing is not total, however – A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire does not attempt to explore what actual aliens might be like (as for example Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris does), but in the moral dilemmas that its characters have to face remains firmly centered around human, even humanistic concerns. And in that sense, it also is anthropological Science Fiction, literally and without quotation marks.(less)
On first sight, Abschied von den Feinden reads like a collaboration between Arno Schmidt and Wolfgang Hilbig - from the former, it takes the idiosyncr...moreOn first sight, Abschied von den Feinden reads like a collaboration between Arno Schmidt and Wolfgang Hilbig - from the former, it takes the idiosyncratic orthography, where numbers replace the indefinite article and ampersands replace the “und”, from the latter it takes the intense and poetic descriptions of East Germany as a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland, a vast desolation only broken up by the occasional broken ruin, and from both it takes the strong influence of German expressionist writing and the relentless will not to make any compromises to its artistic vision by bowing to the clay-footed idol of Accessibility.
This probably makes Jirgl sound more derivative than he is, but altough he never attempts to hide his influences, but to the contrary places himself firmly in a tradition of German experimental novelists, he does contribute something unique to that tradition himself, a very distinct voice – which has garnered him a lot of critical acclaim (most notably so far, the Georg Büchner prize – Germany’s most important literary award - in 2010) and almost complete indifference from the wider reading audience (it might not be the most precise indicator but surely it has some significance that on Goodreads his eleven novels do not have a single review at the time that I am writing this and only 32 ratings between them).
One thing that is very characteristic for Jirgl’s oeuvre is his unremitting bleakness – his novels are even more depressing than those of Hilbig (whose characters tend to have at least some human warmth to cling to), sometimes (another comparison!) Jirgl’s novels in their continued doom and gloom are almost reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, just in German and more avant-garde. More importantly, however, Jirgl does things with narrative structure and the narrator you’ll find neither in Schmidt or Hilbig. The former, like most classical Modernists is really a realist at heart and his formal experiments mainly try to achieve a better literary grasp on reality – as a result his narrators are usual firmly grounded and very certain of their identity (as is the reader). Things shift somewhat with Hilbig, whose characters have to grapple with a reality-deforming totalitarian system, and as a result in his novels, “official” reality always threatens to usurp perceived reality, and his characters suffer from the rift between what the regime tells them they should be and what they feel they are (a rift that they very often attempt to close by excessive consumption of alcohol).
What happens in the novels of Reinhard Jirgl, however, is – a result, one assumes of a postmodern esthetic as well as the total derailment of any firm concept of subject and individuality by both the final stages of East German communism and latter day West German capitalism – that the narrator loses all fixed mooring points and that trying to pinpoint him down is to enter a mirror cabinet of endless reflections where any certitude slips away behind just the next corner. Abschied von den Feinden, that much at least one can state with some confidence, is the story of two brothers who grew up with foster parents in East Germany after their father fled to West Germany and their mother was placed (much against her will) in an insane asylum. The older brother had an affair (one hesitates to say that love had anything to do with it) with a woman, leaving her behind when he, too, escaped the GDR. After which, the younger brother develops an obsession (one hesitates even more to call this love) for the same woman. Things don’t end well. That’s not much of a plot, but it does give the reader some basic narrative to hold on to – or rather, to piece together to hold on to, because Jirgl does not tell his story chronologically but scuttles back and forth between past and present, weaving a complex pattern of a tale that covers several decades of (mostly East-) German history.
While the pure plot, such as it is, is relatively easy to figure out, things get considerably more complicated where the precise nature of the novels’ narrators is concerned, and Jirgl does his best to draw the reader into a series of mirroring labyrinthine intricacies where it is pretty much impossible not to lose one’s way. It is clear that the story is told by one of the brothers, but it never becomes quite clear whether it’s the older or the younger one. It also is clear that the narrating brother does not narrate the story in his own voice, but it remains impenetrable whether one brother assuming the voice of the second brother, or whether one brother is assuming the voice of the second brother assuming the voice of the other, first brother. In other words, the reader never gets to find out whether the older brother is narrating in the voice of the younger brother, or whether the younger brother is narrating in the voice of the older brother using the voice of the younger brother. Or maybe vice versa. Or (you probably guessed it by now) possibly all of the above. And as if that was not enough to make any reader go dizzy, there is also another narrator – a collective “we”, the voice of the inhabitants of the East-German village where the brothers grew up (and where several strands of the narrative are threaded together again). And they seem to be telling their story to one of the brothers – again, impossible to tell which one as he apparently fell off a cliff and now has his whole face bandaged (and seems to be temporarily blind, too).
It’s almost a bit too much, and with the novel’s almost total lack of humour, Abschied von den Feinden runs a continual risk of becoming involuntarily funny. But even though it sometimes appears as if the balls might be slipping his grasp, Jirgl does manage to pull off his literary juggling act. There also is a lot of allegorical potential in the relationship between the two brothers (something the novel’s title alludes to as well, I think), which could have easily become very heavy-handed and reduced all the carefully constructed ambivalence into a fable about East and West German relationships – and again, Jirgl manages to strike just the right balance, to keep the allegorical sub-text alive and present without letting it overwhelm and swallow the narrative. Abschied von den Feinden, then, is by no means a pleasant read, but it is an electrifying one, gripping the reader who might not want to be gripped at all. This is in no small part due to Reinhard Jirgl’s writing, which in the end is the novel’s most remarkable and outstanding feature – even while what he describes is always desolate and often disgusting, his landscapes bleak beyond hope, his characters either violent or numbed, cruel or apathetic, he describes his dark vistas with such unrelenting vividness that it is almost impossible to avert one’s eyes, and readers who follow Jirgl’s panoramic desolation will find themselves haunted by its after-images for a long time afterwards.(less)