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Glimpses

Let Me Finish puts me in mind of an elderly, rather distinguished-looking man rummaging in a trunk full of old snapshots. It is not clear what he is looking for. Maybe he is not looking for anything at all. Sometimes it is simply pleasurable to visit bygone times. But if absolutely everything must be justified, let us say that he is exploring the mystery of memory.

Why does one forty-year-old memory, seemingly trivial, survive as vividly as yesterday’s dented fender while a life-changing event of twenty years ago takes intense effort to remember, even inaccurately? Because reviewers have treated Roger Angell’s book as a memoir, it is tempting to suppose that he is looking for the origin of some long-festering unhappiness. The suspicion is fed by the circumspect manner in which he treats his mother, “Mother” being a favorite dark presence among memoir writers.

Yet this is not the book of an unhappy man. A close reading suggests a contented man of the world whose temperament is sufficiently tinged by irony to make him interesting company. Though his life has had a “trickle of rotten news,” he concedes, the rotten news has not been notably plentiful. “Stuff piles up, and people my age [he is in his mid-eighties] come to understand that what’s been happening around them all this time is probably happening all over, in some version or other,” he writes.

An unboastful philosophical fellow, one thinks, imagining him in the attic poking through a trunk filled with all these memories, so pleasant most of them. Now he is a ten-year-old boy hooking school to immerse himself in the marvels of early 1930s movies: Lupe Velez and Bela Lugosi, Wheeler & Woolsey, Paul Muni in Scarface, Garbo in Mata Hari, all three Barrymores in Rasputin and the Empress, Cagney shot dead in gangster pinstripes, and all those supporting actors who still live on Turner Classic Movies—Andy Devine, Alan Hale, Edna Mae Oliver, Una Merkel, Roscoe Karns, Reginald Denny, Douglass Dumbrille.

Here he is at the Polo Grounds with his father watching Bill Terry’s Giants play in the afternoon sunshine. Now he is a young soldier packed into a trainload of new draftees off to fight Nazis or Japs; it’s hard to tell which, since their orders are secret and the train has stopped someplace unknown. Maybe Oregon, somebody guesses.

Time passes and the postwar age of the martini delights an America which has just won World War II on hard whiskey, Camels, Chesterfields, and Lucky Strikes, and is looking for something more sophisticated than rum and Coca-Cola. Angell revisits the martini years fondly, though confessing that he and his wife finally switched from the gin martini to the vodka version because vodka was “less argumentative.” This delicately evokes a time when the glow from the first martini could intensify with seconds and thirds until it produced an incandescence destructive to the household furniture, and sometimes marriage.

Most of these pieces were written over the past decade and published in the “Personal Memory” columns of The New Yorker. They were not meant to form a memoir and, as he says, certainly do not add up to a biography. Perhaps they belong to a new form to be called “glimpses.” “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,” Angell writes.

And yet a very definite story, and decidedly not a pleasant story, is threading its way through these entertaining glimpses. Because it promises the pleasures of narrative and perhaps because it goes to a certain tension in Angell’s life, it is this story that clamors for the reader’s attention. He gives it relatively little space, but it involves the four most interesting persons in his book, the people who provide narrative structure that holds the glimpses together. They are his parents, his stepfather, and Angell himself.

Angell seems at first to be trying not to tell this story. Maybe he is uneasy about trafficking in private family matters, maybe he doesn’t want his gracefully composed glimpses weighted down with narrative. Maybe because the book was written piecemeal for magazine publication the narrative was not even apparent until the parts were brought together in book form.

Still, it jumps off the page as the book begins:

One spring Saturday when I was seven going on eight, my mother brought me with her on an automobile outing with her young lover and future husband, E.B. White.

This is the book’s opening sentence. It sounds like the start of an entertaining novel. That the young lover is E.B. White immediately makes the story compelling to bookish readers sure to recognize the name of such a famous writer. The legendary essayist and prose stylist as young lover? We hadn’t thought of him that way before. Stately, monumental, yes, but not young and amorous. But if this is a tale of extramarital love, why has the mother brought along the child?

Never mind. Angell does not seem interested in telling that story. There is obviously a story to tell—he has already told us in that opening sentence that his mother and White were later married—but he seems to have been teasing. All that about his mother taking him out in the family car, the slope-nosed Franklin sedan, was just his way of dipping into the memory bank for some glimpses of automobiles and car journeys of long ago. Though he titles his opening chapter “Romance,” what he is getting at is the romance of bygone days when driving was still called motoring.

Now, all this about cars in the old days and traveling the country before the highway culture became boring and inhumane turns out to be very good reading. Angell is an elegant writer with an enviable power to evoke the sights and sense of the American landscape of fifty, sixty, seventy years ago as well as an ironic self-consciousness that keeps his touch pleasantly light. For example:

Grandchildren, clicking to 50 Cent or Eminem on their iPods in the back seat, sigh and roll their eyes whenever the old highwayman starts up again. Yes, car travel was bumpier and curvier back then, with more traffic lights and billboards, more cows and hillside graveyards, no air-conditioning and almost no interstates, and with tin cans and Nehi signs and red Burma-Shave jingles crowding the narrow roadside. Give us a break.

Good reading, yes, but a little puzzling too. Angell is holding something back, isn’t he? That outing with Mother in the Franklin sedan—could it have been more important to Angell than he is willing to admit? Readers tend to be suspicious like this when they enter memoir territory, especially when parents—those dark presences of Dr. Freud’s family circus—take the stage.

Angell is not built for the memoirist’s role. The work requires a willingness to gratify the public yearning for news of human frailty and the nerve to offend blood kin and old acquaintances. These qualities are usually associated with gossip columnists, whereas everything in Angell’s writing career suggests the soul of discretion. He has, after all, been both an editor and a writer for The New Yorker for fifty years. For many years he has been its highly acclaimed baseball writer, a reporter whose coverage of the most humdrum World Series is always distinguished by a thoroughness, subtlety, and complexity worthy of Marcel Proust recalling a dinner at Madame Verdurin’s.

The family memoirist, on the other hand, is “caught somewhere between feelings of disloyalty and the chic contemporary mode that demands that we tell all and affix damages,” he says. He is being unnecessarily apologetic. Since his book is a series of excursions back into memory it is hard to see how he can omit a painful part of his life because it involved his mother, his father, and “Andy” White.

Anyhow their story was not unusually scandalous for people of the 1920s: an ugly divorce, a mother quickly remarried, unhappy children, enduring bitterness and guilt, lives permanently twisted, anger smoldering for years and years. And it all happened so terribly long ago. His parents were born in the gaslight age, married during World War I, and divorced before the Great Depression. Angell, born in 1920, was only eight when it happened, and still seems uneasy about it. “What a marriage that must have been—hers and my father’s, I mean—stuffed with sex and brilliance and psychic murder, and imparting a lasting unease,” he writes in a chapter about his father.

Psychic murder and lasting unease! To people in their eighties, ghosts in the family closet usually seem more amusing than shameful, good conversational fodder for entertaining the grandchildren, but Angell is still not ready to smile. The unease is lasting indeed.

Ernest Angell, his wife Katharine, and E.B. White (“Andy” to friends and family) were the kind of people who seemed destined to amount to something back then. Ernest was from a well-to-do Cleveland family that took long trips to Europe. He was sent to prep schools, then to Paris and Munich for academic polishing before proceeding to Harvard. His father died en route to France when the ocean liner La Bourgogne collided with a merchant ship off Nova Scotia in 1898 and sank, taking 549 people to their deaths. Ernest was nine years old.

He seems to have been a model student. As a Harvard freshman he took six courses, including physics, Latin composition, Greek, and a German course in Goethe. He had taught himself trigonometry, Angell says. He resolved to try for Phi Beta Kappa, and made it. He attended sermons, concerts, galleries, and operas, including a Caruso performance of Il Trovatore. He performed in a German-language play and went to dances and football games. He failed to make the Crimson and the freshman baseball team, “but got over it,” Angell says.

Somehow he had also learned to tap dance, though not very well, and was a natural outdoorsman. Roger’s affectionate portrait of him is titled “The King of the Forest,” in tribute, he says, to the spirit he “brought to mountain climbing, to figure skating, to tap dancing, to tennis and trout fishing, to skiing and canoeing and gardening.”

In 1913 he graduated in law from Harvard and in 1915 married Katharine Sergeant. She was twenty-two. They had met at a resort in the New Hampshire mountains where their families summered. Katharine was Boston, old American stock, and notably bright, graduating close to the top of her college class, which was Bryn Mawr, 1914. Two years after their marriage the United States entered the First World War and Ernest went to France as a counterintelligence officer with the AEF. The marriage began to go bad on his return. The explanations Roger heard were curious, vague, and somewhat contradictory.

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