Elva's Reviews > Remembering Laughter

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner
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Dec 30, 08

Read in December, 2008

** spoiler alert ** Remembering Laughter- Wallace Stegner

I should do myself good by admitting ignorance. I have never heard of Stegner before; although I vaguely recall Angel of Repose and Crossing to Safety, both titles of more famous works conveniently reprinted on the cover. Or I deceive myself in even such a thought. I bought this little guy at the Goodwill not more than six hours ago. The novella had been out of print since 1937, the afterward revealed this fact to me. Not anymore thanks to Penguin Books, and only 99 cents thanks to some anonymous donor.

Some kind words from The New York Times, Saturday Review, and Wendell Berry (another name I’ve never heard of) littered on the front and back covers of this little paperback. I am still not sure what inclined me to the purchase.

It took me a while to warm up to the read. I figured the plot by page four (and this was only the prologue). I can sum it up too and make it boring for the next person who happens upon Remembering. Margaret and her husband Alec, welcomed her sister Elspeth’s permanent move to the United States in June of one summer. By October, Alec and Elspeth’s affair was in full bloom and on the eve of one rendezvous, they were discovered by Margaret. Margaret’s Puritan training brought her jealous rage under control, and the three goes on having the semblance of a normal relationship. Upon discovery of Elspeth being with child, Margaret sent away a farm help to steer the rumors of the town toward the direction of an illegitimate child begotten between Elspeth and the help. The child, Malcolm, was born into this bleak and repressive environment and raised therein for fifteen years. Upon the sudden death of “Uncle Alec”, Malcolm confronts his “aunts” about his identity. Realizing that his father left him a handsome chunk of change, the boy leaves to embark on an aimless journey: “I don’t know where I’m going yet, --not to school for a while, anyway,--but I’ll write”…was how he put it.

The novella was begun at the scene of Alec’s funeral and narrates retrospectively the beginning of the two tight-lipped women’s tragedy. The set-up was simple. There was one giant, glaring hint in the prologue: “In the minds of both rose like smoke the memory of another day in October eighteen years before, and the lips of the woman in the chair [Margaret] were twisted with the bitterness of it” and the rest unfurled in an even-toned narrative.

That is, until the worst of it all happened. I already said that I figured out the plot right away (and you would have to be right dumb not to realize it), but I did not figure the way it would hit. I also said that it took me a while to warm up to the read, and I did for the first few chapters find the narrative bland. Slowly, (from the moment of the discovery: “When the flame in their blood was hot, Alec drew her to the ladder leading up into the loft, and she climbed willingly. Then they heard the gasp the shadow gave, the stumble of her feet…”), Stegner’s steady hands took to working the fine details of the ironic, suffering and forever-pending-some-greater-disaster existence of the three lives under the one roof.

I could never even try to convey what an experience it was to sift the rich, abundantly layered words through my mind. I could never even try to give the narrative words of praise to match.
The only thing that could possibly do this work any justice, is to leave it safe in the hands of its creator:
Even then it was clear to Margaret that there was no triumph in the two, but that revelation brought her no comfort. Their misery was the reward for deadly sin; hers was undeserved, unearned, unbearable!
“My sister!”
She spat the words hissing into the dark, sitting straight on the bed adding the favors and the kindnesses she had done Elspeth, thinking of Alec and his periodic drinking, transforming subtly her mad jealousy into puritan censure, shifting the burden of furious personal affront to the religion she had been bred in, sublimating her own wrong into deadly sin against the Calvinist God, until she could approach a sad resignation to her lot and tot the sinfulness of her relatives. Margaret had lost her husband and her sister; that was undeserved and bitter, but she could bear it. But Alec and Elspeth had lost their immortal souls, and a lifetime of expiation could never make their peace with a stern God.
By slow degrees Margaret’s jealousy was transformed and masked, but the progress toward resignation was broken by paroxysms of rebellious fury, and the image that filled her mind was not of the lost souls before the tribunal of a just God, but of two shadows fumbling for the ladder to the loft.
For hours that image kept leaping out of the dark to scald her with hot resentment and burn away in an instant the laborious rationalizations of an hour...

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