Let Me Finish
by Roger Angell
Turning to Memoir
A review by Floyd Skloot
At eighty-five, Roger Angell might seem to need four or five hundred pages for
his memoir. His has been a long, culturally engaged, celebrity-filled life. Associated
with The New Yorker for more than sixty years, Angell edited, worked with,
and befriended many of our leading writers -- James Thurber, John O'Hara, Ogden Nash,
John Updike, Donald Barthelme, V. S. Pritchett -- and contributed articles about
baseball that made him one of the most beloved sportswriters of our era. He saw
baseball's old-timers -- Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth -- as well as today's
stars -- Barry Bonds and Mariano Rivera and Mark McGwire -- and wrote about them all.
Angell is the son of Katherine White, also an editor and writer for The New
Yorker, and stepson of beloved essayist and children's author E. B. White,
and he grew up among the prominent cultural figures of the century. He served
in World War II; bummed around postwar Europe for a while with S. J. Perelman
and his family, stopping in to visit with W. Somerset Maugham; he edited William
Maxwell while Maxwell edited him.
But Angell's memoir, Let Me Finish, is a taut 291 pages, a selective, meditative, bittersweet collection of reminiscences he has been publishing over the last decade in The New Yorker. These reminiscences, especially those of his first three decades, are the sorts of "old stories we tell ourselves in the middle of the night" that "require no more than a whisper or street noise to get them whirring again in a fresh production." Wistful, full of rich details of life in the 1930s and 1940s, and of midcentury times at the magazine, Let Me Finish has none of the desperation that marks Didion's account of life-changing events, none of McGahern's obsessive, repetitive focus and rage.
There is a ruefully old-fashioned, skeptical air to Angell's recollections. "Memory," he writes, "is fiction -- an anecdotal version of some scene or past event we need to store away for present or future use." He approaches memoir as a string of such anecdotes, a baggy assemblage of the things that have been stored away and that present themselves to him most insistently. It bothers him a little that this is how his story, and the stories of those who matter to him, will be presented: "What gets left out of an account like this, of course, is most of a life." But Angell also realizes that these selected moments, by their very endurance, are vital to explore. "Life is tough and brimming with loss, and the most we can do about it is to glimpse ourselves clear now and then, and find out what we feel about familiar scenes and recurring faces this time around."
The book's title gives a clear indication of how Angell views what he is doing in offering up his recollections. It also gives a sense of how comfortably, how mellowly he writes. "The title of this book," he says, "isn't about wrapping up a life or a time of life but should only evoke a garrulous gent at the end of the table holding up one hand while he tries to remember the great last line of his monologue."
The garrulous gent's monologue, though, contains some painful moments when the part of life that is tough and brimming with loss overwhelms the poised recitation. Angell's childhood was jolted by his parents' divorce, which occurred when he was eight and his mother fell in love with E. B. White. For years, Angell lived uptown with his father and sister, traveling downtown to visit his mother and White. Each December, the children celebrated a pair of grim Christmases, shuttled by taxi. "Is it this cut-rate Dickens tale," Angell writes, "that makes me glum in the middle of Christmas every year?" And though he doubts that it is, a reader can see the pain beneath the panache of the telling.
Clearly, Angell does not want to dwell on this sort of material. "Tales like this were not uncommon for people of my generation, to be sure, and have grown into cliché." He examines his father's sometimes prickly behavior, tries to understand the forces that produced it, and concludes that he "turned out to be an exceptional father, with heroic energies."
He had help. A few years after the divorce, Angell's father hired a young Columbia University student named Tex Goldschmidt to provide the boy with company ("at eleven, I had outlasted the final governess"), and this proved to be a fortunate pairing. "Tex saved my life, and perhaps he did more than that for Father," by being a friend to both, taking Angell on long trips, teaching and encouraging him to follow his curious mix of interests, to find himself.
The early part of Let Me Finish, before Angell turns to his years as an editor and writer, is peppered with charming accounts of car trips in his mother's Franklin sedan or traveling with Tex Goldschmidt all the way to Detroit, of avidly watching movies and feeling kinship with other moviegoers in the theater, of going to his first ballgames, hanging out with pals. The old days are always seen as so much better than today: "Driving nowadays it nothing like it was." "The same wished-for, uniting experience . . . sends us out to the movies today but too often without reward." "Sports were different in my youth." But Angell tries hard not to sentimentalize, not to swoon with nostalgia or to disdain everything about the world of the new millennium, and for the most part he succeeds.
He is good at evoking the process of maturation, "the discovery of what sort of men and women we would become, to ourselves and our friends."
He is also good at evoking the process of writing. Having studied his stepfather's methods, Angell knows well "the uses of patience in waiting to discover what kind of writer will turn up" on the page.
Oddly, his memoir's final section, much of which is devoted to Angell's days at The New Yorker, seems impatiently presented. It is a pastiche of sketches, most of them interesting enough -- especially to readers who are themselves writers -- but, as Angell himself says about a passage devoted to his erstwhile colleague, "Bill Maxwell shrivel[s] to an anecdote." Names are named, glimpses caught, but the overall tone is one of exasperation at the task, at the pile of recollections remaining to be sifted: "That portrait belongs in another book that I no longer plan to write." There is a feeling that Angell, in turning to the memoir, wanted to write about his first quarter century and had to write about his professional years.
The quality of his prose and the tone of his voice make Angell a pleasure to read even when the material seems dutifully rather than passionately offered. And he remains a delightful raconteur, as in the story of his stepfather's funeral. E. B. White, known to his intimates as Andy, was a notoriously private man, a near-hermit in his final years, unwilling to venture out of his home in Maine. So at White's funeral service, Angell remarked, "If Andy White could be with us today he would not be with us today."
Roger Angell has come to memoir after achieving mastery at other forms of prose writing. It was something he needed, and needed now in the twilight of his career, that he could not find in journalism or essay: an intimacy of encounter with his own true stories and self, with no recourse to fabrication and no escape from accuracy.
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