Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Remembering Laughter, by Wallace Stegner

This novella was Stegner's first published long-form fiction, written for a contest that won him $2500, a huge sum at the time (1937). While not as complex as his later, longer work, Remembering Laughter nonetheless has many of the features that were to become hallmarks of Stegner's writing: a strong sense of place; themes related to betrayal, forgiveness, and emotional repression; and the beautiful use of language.

Remembering Laughter begins at Eric Stuart's funeral and then flashes back to critical events that happened some 17 years ago. Eric and his wife Margaret are at the train station near their Iowa farm, waiting for the arrival of Margaret's sister Elspeth, who has immigrated from Scotland. We know immediately that Margaret is a little too restrained and Eric, who has a fondness for drink and wild stories, perhaps a bit too far toward the opposite pole. Nonetheless, the sisters are delighted to be reunited, and Elspeth quickly falls in love with the farm and its workings and, all too soon, with Eric, who finds her a welcome change from his uptight wife. The results of their affair are cruel for all three characters.

In its brevity and focus, Remembering Laughter reminds me of a Greek tragedy. The emotional death of the characters is stark, particularly in contrast with the lovely language in which their story is told. Highly recommended.

Favorite passage:
Almost any sentence could be a favorite. Here are just two examples:

The perfect weather of Indian Summer lengthened and lingered, warm sunny days were followed by brisk nights with Halloween a presentiment in the air.

. . . as she sat quietly finishing her breakfast, she looked across the table into the comfortless future, and the sternness of her unforgiving was bleak in her eyes.

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