I remember one day, when I was about eight, working out how I was going to make my millions.
I ran to my Mother with extreme excitement, dollar signs in my eyes and cash tills ringing in my ears.
“You know the washing machine and tumble dryer? They take up so much space! I’m going to make a washing machine … that also DRIES clothes!”
Genius, I think you’ll agree. Veritably a million dollar invention. One, however, that had occurred to a few people previously. Scotched.
Less financially viable but equally striking was a later thought in my early teens: how revolutionary it would be to write songs NOT about love. Again, a couple of others had beaten me to it. But the pop song not about love remains a minority phenomenon.
What’s the novel equivalent? Love, the old rake, is a frequent offender. Ditto family, ditto identity, ditto life-journey-rise-and-fall. But what’s all too rare is a novel about friendship and ageing. Wallace Stegner’s beautiful Crossing to Safety is, I think, the first novel I’ve read on these themes, and judging by its beauty, poise and wisdom, others would do well to jump on the wagon.
Stegner is aware of the scarcity of literature about friendships. At the end of the first chapter his narrator acknowledges, through the analogy of Cicero’s works ‘De Senectute’ (about old age / wisdom) and ‘De Amicitia’ (about friendship), that the latter may not be the most dramatic narrative topic. He prefers ‘Amicitia’ but, narrated from the perspective of old age, both subjects are sensitively explored.
Crossing to Safety recounts the lives of narrator Larry, his wife Sally, and their friendship with Sid and Charity Lang. Charity’s effusive personality and controlling nature counter Larry’s own strength of character, while Sally and Sid form the quieter, erudite backing to their more active spouses. Set from the 1930s to 1970s from a Wisconsin University Town to Florence, Italy to Charity’s family home in Vermont (but emotionally dwelling in this location), it is a depiction of a life-long friendship from joy, through sorrow and disillusionment, back to the love that is as important a part in their lives as any family or job. The novel’s character evolves along with these stages of friendship.
Written when Stegner himself was 78, the novel is a rare encapsulation of the realities of age and remembrance – certain intricate details are remembered while major facts are acknowledged to be lost completely. Stegner captures the feeling of key periods just as surely as most novelists churn out what-happened-next. His evocation of memory and place is faultless – the reader feels reminded, rather than told for the first time, of the experience of being at Battel Pond, Charity’s family summer home where their friendship is cemented and approaches its final end.
A key emerging theme in the novel is the disparity in the Lang’s marriage as Charity’s stubborness makes itself felt. Larry and Sally watch with mixed feelings as Charity forces Sid to act under her often unreasonable and restrictive dictates. Stegner acutely captures the experience of analysing a friend’s marriage from within the safety of one’s own, and the inherent smugness of such an activity. Yet near the book’s end in its most poignant passage, Larry acknowledges that Sid’s dependence on Charity is mirrored in his own dependence on Sally – and at last appreciates that this dependence is not weakness, but simply love by another name. This nuanced and profound moment is the work of a mature writer, and stands out a mile in today’s culture of independence and rigid self-assertion.
Crossing to Safety, written in 1987, may not have given Wallace Stegner fame (his Pulitzer prize-winning Angle of Repose did that). But as a literary invention and rarity it is a precious metal, worthy of burnishing, cherishing, and definitely reading.