I heard Roger Angell interviewed on NPR this evening. He has a new book out, a memoir, excerpts of which I have been reading in the New Yorker over the last year or so. Roger Angell is 85, so he knows his days are numbered. He sounds, by the way, as if he is 35. Angell is responsible for some of the best baseball writing ever to be written. Along with Ernie Harwell, voice of the Tigers for 50 years, Angell exemplifies the nostalgic yearning for summer which baseball brings out in so many of us. Angell’s stepfather was the writer, E.B. White, who wrote (among other things) “Once More To the Lake”, a heart-rending piece about attempting to step back into time during a trip to the summer cabin resort of his youth.
Angell seems to have been close to E.B. White, and much of his memoir seems to feature stories which concern White. Angell is the consummate writer himself. What caught my attention in the interview was when he said that the memories which he brought up and wrote down – captured, as it were – were now trapped and inaccessible to his active memory. Like a lark’s tongue in aspic, the memories have been preserved, but also made inaccessible. Angell did not complain about this, but went on to emphasize the provisional nature of the “truth” of a story. Anecdotes are a vehicle for remembering family stories, but anecdotes are rigid. Likewise stories, once written down, become official, like anecdotes, but are none the more true for that. The memoir, then, for Angell (and I am working from my own memory of the interview here) is a highly subjective exercise. Moreover, in writing down the remembered stories as they come welling up and flickering past, the writer lays the memory to rest, which is sad for Angell, because the memory is now out of him and inaccessible to his imagination. In effect the writer has written the memory away.
As for those family stories which Angell mentions – they are a damn nuisance. They are handy little filing cabinets used by loved ones to pigeonhole and limit us. It becomes almost impossible to rise above them. And you know what Philip Larkin had to say about families.
David Blaine, the amazing illusionist who recently attempted to hold his breath for nine minutes, was being interviewed on Larry King last week, and I happened to see the tail end of the interview. In the interview, Blaine hinted broadly at his intention to try the stunt again, but with a twist, somewhere down the road. King asked Blaine to elaborate, or risk being called a tease, but Blaine refused to elaborate, claiming he “did not want to talk it away.” The phrase struck me, and Blaine repeated it later, insisting that his reticence had more to do with determination than showmanship. So, the talking would tend to dissipate the action. Like Roger Angell, Blaine was aware of the power of the word, written or spoken, to limit, to frame, to take away from the active imagination.
I am on the South Beach Diet. It’s the second time. There is something exhilarating about making the commitment. It’s been a week now and it is working, and damn it.. this time I will make it last. It’s actually very empowering to commit to change. I feel good about it. There, I have said it (and written it). I have taken the risk of “talking it away”. But no, this time the talk is different. It’s not empty, not hopeful, just a statement of intention, made public. No pressure, just intention, finally, after months of passive drifting. In this case the action and the words support each other, and it feels good to be moving toward clarity.