Fifty years after its publication in 1971, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, winner of the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, remains an enigma and a delight.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Penguin, 569 pp., $18.

Its prose is pitch-perfect, old-fashioned, past tense, refreshingly lucid, and free of voguish artifices that deflect attention from the narrative to the author. Yet, at the same time, without being obscure or difficult, the novel’s structure is necessarily complex. This complexity creates space for extraordinary levels of nuance and doubt about the narrator's reliability. The combination makes Angle of Repose a compelling study of character, relations, and contrasting epochs in American life.

The narrator is Lyman Ward, a divorced, wheelchair-bound retired professor working on a biography of his grandmother, Susan Burling. She is a beautiful and talented Victorian gentlewoman artist. She leaves New York’s literary society to join her husband Oliver Ward in the West, where he pursues a faltering career as a mining and irrigation engineer. The novel is remarkable and poignant in its evocation of the West as it hurtles toward development and inclusion in the United States.

Early on, the narrator realizes that his project is not what he thought it was; he is not writing a biography of Susan, a successful writer and illustrator, but a history of her troubled marriage. Oliver is a good and intelligent but unpolished and frustratingly silent man who eventually becomes a drinker. He repeatedly fails and is an embarrassment and disappointment to his wife.

Until domestic cataclysm strikes in the final section of the book, the marriage is shadowed by Frank Sargent, Oliver’s deputy, whose “incurable disease” it is to love Susan. Dashing and polished as Oliver cannot be, Frank is also, however, a gentleman and a loyal admirer of Oliver. Combined with Susan’s being a middle-class lady, this confines the lovers’ relations to mutually charmed frustration, significant eye contact, and two or three clinches that produce tormenting shame and guilt.

The characters’ names are significant. Susan’s ingrained flaws and beauty are suggested by Burling, as in wool or wood burls; Oliver is a Ward, that is, a guard who keeps Susan prisoner in their marriage; Frank and Sargent combine as the marker of a candid, soldierly lover.

You might ask whether this is, then, just a melodramatic love triangle. No, indeed it is not. The significance of Stegner’s chosen names also applies to the narrator, who is a central character. His name, as mentioned, is Lyman, suggesting lie man, and it is impossible to know, partly because he admits it, how much of what he says is true and how much is false. Lyman is a historian but also a grandson whose filial attachment inclines him to gloss over his grandmother’s and grandfather’s flaws whilst also, of course, revealing them to the reader.

His diseased, ossifying body is a metaphor for his mental rigidity and his refusal to adapt to the vulgar candor of the sexual revolution. This he is urged to do in the 1967 setting by his verbally grubby, bra-less, hippy secretary. He concludes as the reader cannot do with any confidence that Susan and Frank never consummate their yearning for each other.

Even crucial dialogue and actions that Lyman invents for lack of detailed historical information point to the possibility that he is deluding himself. So does his sudden reliance on contemporaneous news stories to convey only incomplete details of the event — it may have been two simultaneous events, perhaps a sexual encounter in addition to an explicit tragedy — that scar the Ward marriage until it ends 50 years later.

The narrator historian sitting stiffly in his study cannot see what he does not turn his wheelchair to face directly, a physical limitation that points to his inflexible propriety and unwillingness to look at what he wishes were not true. He leads us to tentative conclusions but does not show them — he adduces scant evidence, sometimes none at all, for much of what he narrates — and, fascinatingly, we cannot be sure that what we think we see or what we believe he is ignoring is real.

The sense of something missing, of things unexplained, occasionally produces the quality of a dream in which reality is just out of reach. And one crucial passage is revealed to be, indeed, a dream disclosing much about the narrator.

It lays bare, among other things, that the history of his grandparents’ tragic marriage is colored by Lyman’s own desire and intransigent refusal to take back the wife who betrayed him.

"Angle of repose" is a term of art describing the geometry at which substances such as sand or dirt come to rest in a heap. Angle of Repose, the novel, is about the way people, similarly, settle into a precarious stasis with each other.

Stegner’s half-century-old work, with its hidden evidence and layers of narrative, entangles social conventions, personal loyalties, loves, stubbornness, and all human frailties together. It is, finally, a dilation on the impossibility of achieving a synoptic view, a humane recognition that none of us can know all of the facts that shape our lives and that there is, therefore, an overriding need for forgiveness.