I first read this book in 1995, almost twenty-five years after its publication date of 1971, making it a generation later. Re-reading it in 2023 made it another generation, a long enough survival for a work of literature to become a classic. And there are elements of reading a classic, such as grammatical constructions that have gone out of fashion and words contemporary authors would choose not to use. It is also longer, slower and more erudite than much contemporary historical fiction, which is not in itself a bad thing.
Lyman Ward, an academic historian, is disabled by a painful bone disease and has retired to his grandparents’ house in Grass Valley, California where he is writing a biography of his grandmother. She was a writer and illustrator who married a mining engineer. In between scenes from Lyman’s life writing and telling his grandmother’s story, Stegner tells the story of the marriage of Susan and Oliver Ward. At least, telling his grandmother’s story is what Lyman declares he is doing, and that indeed is the plot and the characters, but what I read in the book that first time round was the story of the American West - not cowboys and Indians, bordellos and saloons, gunfights and posses, but mining and irrigation, the extraction of minerals from the ground, the conversion of wilderness into agricultural land and the hard work, labor, injustices, failures and lawlessness that went along with all that.
Susan Ward is a complex character and one obscured by the distance of time and its accompanying difference of culture. Lyman admires his grandmother, but acknowledges her failings - her snobbishness and her critical attitude regarding her husband. He acknowledges Oliver’s failings too - his silence and his propensity to be cheated at almost every turn. Interestingly he doesn’t seem to regard Oliver’s drinking as a failing, although Susan certainly does.
Lyman uses letters to tell some of the Wards’ story but most of it is told in scenes, scenes he tells us he is making up. History, and biography, are different from fiction because they don’t make things up, although they can, and do, speculate. History and biography contain unbridgeable gaps; things that can be never be known. Angle of Repose is a book in which a historian writes fiction. It is also a book where a historian eventually pieces together some history he wishes he didn’t know. And perhaps he doesn’t. He may have speculated one speculation too far.
This time through I took more notice of Lyman Ward’s own story - the pitiless attitude toward his own disability and the stark way he describes it, his old-fashioned and privileged attitudes, his contempt for the young people of the sixties, and his broken heart and deep resentment of the wife who left him when he became sick. In many ways he’s not a likeable person, but he is an intense portrait of one in an unenviable situation.