Posts Tagged ‘Wallace Stegner’

Wallace Stegner, Czesław Miłosz, and what they had to say to each other

Sunday, February 7th, 2016

Stegner got used to the barbs.

I discovered this offbeat and little-known treasure on Youtube – a rare treat for fans of American Pulitzer prizewinning author Wallace Stegner and Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. The interview was filmed sometime in the 1980s, and has less than 1,450 views to date.

It is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable “friendly” interviews I’ve ever watched, with only occasional flashes of smiles and laughter. The unedited raw footage comes to us via Stephen Fisher Productions – with the cameramen periodically stopping the filming, interjecting questions, and restarting with calls of “Rolling!” Stegner gamely keeps trying to draw Miłosz out, as they stand on a breezy hilltop in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. They both look like they’d rather be indoors.

A happenstance Californian.

A reluctant Californian

The topic at hand: the effect of landscape on a writer’s spirit. “I lived through rebellion against California landscape,” Miłosz admits in his heavy Polish accent. It’s a rebellion, he said, that lasted twenty years. (I write about Miłosz as a California poet here.) Stegner agrees that California “offends a lot of people by being so dry and barren and prickly. Everything in it has barbs.” Naturally, the subject of poet Robinson Jeffers comes up on a couple occasions.

Miłosz said he missed the “cosiness” of the Lithuanian valley where he grew up – when he wasn’t traipsing about the vast expanses of Russia with his family during pre-revolutionary years (his father was an engineer of the empire). Miłosz does say that he was intrigued by the number of species he found in California  – species of pines and birds and everything else. Plenty of jays in Europe, he said, but not so many as here. “I was intrigued by the essence of being a jay,” he said. Well we know what happened with that, with his poem “Magpiety.”

Watch it for yourself:

More on the Stegner studio: a Stanford colleague passes the hat

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Stegner in the hills off Page Mill Road (Photo: Leo Holub)

In many ways, South Fork Lane in Los Altos Hills looks much as it did when author Wallace Stegner walked it, according to Deborah Petersen in yesterday’s San Jose Mercury:

Except now, beyond a “No Trespassing” sign, are the markings of a future that excludes the Stegner home, and the study where he wrote most of his great works. Orange banners mark the outline of a plan for a gigantic 7,337-square-foot mansion, to replace the 2,200-square-foot former home of the late Wallace and Mary Stegner.

Les Earnest, a former Stanford research scientist who used to run the artificial intelligence lab, was a friend of the late Pulitzer prizewinning author.  Now he’s collecting donations to move and preserve Stegner’s detached study.

Les ... with 3D drawing of 6D hyper-cube

“It is part of his legacy, and many people have great admiration for his writings. And since most of the writings were done in his studio, it seems important to make it a museum or something,” Earnest said.  The Book Haven wrote about it here and here.

Petersen concludes:  “Too often when today’s Silicon Valley wealth collides with remnants of yesterday, a bulldozer is involved.”

Earnest agreed:  “That’s the way it is in the hills,” Earnest said. “When I pass away, my house will be a scraper too.”

The rest of the San Jose Mercury article is here.

Update on 6/30:  The homeowners who plan to raze the studio have hired an attorney to evaluate whether the structure requires a historical assessment prior to demolition, as urged by a national preservation group. Read more here.

Wally Stegner’s studio saved – for now

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Stegner in his studio

A few days ago, we reported on the planned demolition of Wallace Stegner‘s writing studio, where the Pulitzer prizewinning author wrote for half-a-century – and on the last-ditch plans to save it.

Looks like the Stegner fans have saved it – for now.  From the Los Altos Town Crier:

A complaint lodged last week by a national group of preservationists temporarily sidetracked a plan to demolish prize-winning author Wallace Stegner’s former South Fork Lane home and writing studio in Los Altos Hills to make way for a 7,323-square-foot home.

While town officials May 31 were ready to fast-track the new two-story construction, the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation sent a letter to Los Altos Hills alleging that the home’s historical significance warrants a more complete review. If true, it could delay the project for months.

“Since there is ample evidence that this unique site is eligible for listing in the California Register of Historical Resources, we respectfully urge the Town to conduct (an) environmental review that analyzes alternatives to demolition before considering project approval,” reads the May 27 letter.

The definitive words come from Alice Sakamoto, Stegner’s longtime neighbor, who said, “In addition to (the studio) being personally sentimental, to me (it) is the literary equivalent of the Hewlett-Packard garage.”  This has a certain resonance for those of us who live in Silicon Valley.

Read more here.

Saving Stegner’s studio

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Stegner in his studio

Wallace Stegner lived on the slopes off Page Mill Road, in Los Altos Hills, for 50 years until his death in 1993.  He did much of the carpentry himself on the home he bought in the 1950s, before there was water, electricity, or a road.  He built the studio in the mid-1960s.

“Just about every major book that he wrote was written in that study,” his biographer Jackson Benson says.

Now the bulldozers are headed that way, and the Pulitzer Prizewinning author’s fans are making a last-minute bid to save the studio where he penned Angle of Repose. Don’t bother trying to find the studio on 13456 South Fork Lane: It’s not visible in any readily accessible way.  The only way to get to it would be to wade through poison oak across private property.

In Los Altos Hills...

From an article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“It sent a bolt of sadness through our hearts because there are so many wonderful memories associated with it,” says Lynn Stegner, wife of Page Stegner, the only child of Wallace and Mary Stegner. “The part that kills me the most is Wally’s study. It’s a separate building with a rare blue oak tree in front of it. I’m hoping they don’t tear it down because he treasured that tree.”

The tree’s fate is not determined, but the studio’s is. It will be scrapped, along with everything else, and that might be the most regrettable loss to the Peninsula’s literary history since Ken Kesey‘s cottage on Perry Lane in Menlo Park met a wrecking ball in the 1960s.

The current owners want to raze all the buildings on the site and construct a new 7,337-square-foot home with a 3,647-square-foot basement and a 240 square foot swimming pool.  But they appear to be open to the idea of moving Wally’s workplace.

According to the San Jose Mercury:

“I think people would appreciate the studio as a place where they could go to remember (Stegner) and be able to look at memorabilia and photographs,” Alice Sakamoto, the author’s longtime neighbor, said in an email. “Also, because he was instrumental in the formation of this town, I think preserving the studio is something we should try to do.”

Richard Wilbur

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Way over in England, they heard about Anis Shivani’s Huffington Post piece on the “15 Most Overrated Writers”, and ask instead “Who Are Your Favorite Underrated Writers?”  The photo with the article is of Milan Kundera.  Guardian writer Alison Flood seems to think he is underrated because he has not received a Nobel.  Most writers don’t receive a Nobel.  I’m not sure that counts.  (A late hat tip to Dave Lull… I wasn’t able to post this till 9.00 p.m.)

Anis Shivani himself promised in the Huffington Post to offer his own list at a future date, but meanwhile the Guardian’s commenters suggested:  G.K. Chesterton (several votes),  Péter Nádas, Shirley Jackson, Carl Michael Bellman, Elizabeth von Arnim, Russell Hoban, Marguerite Duras, Josef Skvorecky, Ford Madox Ford, Cees Nooteboom, Haruki Murakami, Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Taylor, Rumer Godden, Antal Szerb, Anatoly Rybakov, Wallace Stegner (several votes, including this one: “Yes! Wallace Stegner! How could I have not mentioned him!  Angle of Repose is the best-written novel I’ve ever read, and one of my two favorites [the other being Forster’s A Room with a View ]. Stegner’s is the only novel to have ever made me cry merely for the beauty of the writing. Eat your heart out, Sherman Alexie!), Andrey Platonov (several votes), Sadegh Hedayat, Amin Maalouf, Guy de Maupassant (several votes), Mervyn Peake, Antonio Munoz Molina, among others.

What’s surprising is how little poetry is represented in the lists.  Anthony Hecht gets a much deserved mention from Alison Flood.  One mention of Edwin Arlington Robinson — which is going back a century.  Why not, say, Weldon Kees?  Or Tomas Venclova?

Fortunately, “Resurgence27” restores my faith in the future of poetry-reading by naming Vikram Seth‘s delightful The Golden Gate, a novel-in-verse (in which case, fiction and poetry) that was hailed when it came out in 1986, and then largely forgotten.

Seth wrote the book in 13 feverish months as a graduate student,  writing at a clip of  600 lines per month, all in Pushkinian sonnets, a project he described as “the whole passé extravaganza”:

How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread molds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The loaves will surely fail to rise
Or else go stale before my eyes.

Gore Vidal wrote, “Although we have been spared, so far, the Great American Novel, it is good to know that the Great Californian Novel has been written, in verse (and why not?): The Golden Gate gives great joy.”’s reviewer says the book “will turn the verse-fearing into admiring acolytes.”

Vikram Seth

It’s not the book’s most glorious sonnet, by far, but those of us who remember the old bookstore/coffeeshop Printer’s Inc of California Avenue, Palo Alto, back in its pre-Amazon days (its current incarnation is a travesty), might appreciate perhaps the only tribute to a coffeehouse ever written in verse:

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves,the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One’s weak papillae as one’s browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don’t inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who’ve been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.