Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Spectator Bird

This was an interesting book for me to read. After reading it I remembered a comment from one of the Three Stooges, Curly who said, “I resemble that remark.”

It’s a novel about Joe Allston, a retired literary agent who is, in his own words, "just killing time until time gets around to killing me." His parents and his only son are long dead, leaving him with neither ancestors nor descendants, tradition nor ties. His job, trafficking the talent of others, had not been his choice. He passes through life as a spectator.

A postcard from a friend causes Allston to return to the journals of a trip he had taken years before, a journey to his mother's birthplace, where he'd sought a link with the past. The memories of that trip, both grotesque and poignant, move through layers of time and meaning, and reveal that Joe Allston isn't quite spectator enough.

Here are a few quotes:

“Some people, I am told, have memories like computers, nothing to do but punch the button and wait for the print-out. Mine is more like a Japanese library of the old style, without a card file or an indexing system or any systematic shelf plan. Nobody knows where anything is except the old geezer in felt slippers who has been shuffling up and down those stacks for sixty-nine years. When you hand him a problem he doesn't come back with a cartful and dump it before you, a jackpot of instant retrieval. He finds one thing, which reminds him of another, which leads him off to' the annex, which directs him to the east wing, which sends him back two tiers from where he started. Bit by bit he finds you what you want, but like his boss who seems to be under pressure to examine his life, he takes his time.”


“I can't see that Danish episode as an adventure, or a crisis survived, or a serious quest for anything definable. It was just another happening like today's luncheon, something I got into and got out of. And it reminds me too much of how little life changes: how, without dramatic events Or high resolves, without tragedy, without even pathos, a reasonably endowed, reasonably well-intentioned man can walk through the world's great kitchen from end to end and arrive at the back door hungry.”


“There is a feeling part of us that does not grow old at all. If we could peel off the callus, and wanted to, there we would be, un-touched by time, unwithered, vulnerable, afflicted and volatile and blind to consequence, a set of twitches as beyond control as an adolescent's erections.”


"Never disparage Marcus Aurelius," I said. "Did you know he was one of the earliest environmentalists? You could quote him to the Sierra Club. Here he says, 'That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bee,' and under that, in Allston's crabbed hand, is written, 'The world suffers from an increment of excrement,' which you might render into the vernacular as 'The world is full of shit.'''


“What did the Europeans gain by Columbus? The illusion of freedom, I suppose. But did they gain or lose when they gave up the tentative safety of countries and cultures where the rules were as well known as the dangers, and had been tailored to the dangers, and went raiding in a virgin continent that was neither country nor culture, and isn't yet, and may never be, and yet has never given up the dangerous illusion of infinite possibility? What good did it all do, if we end in confusion and purposelessness on the far Pacific shore of America, or come creeping back to our origins looking for something we have lost and can't name?

No sooner do I ask that than I have to admit that what brought my mother and a lot of others to the New World was precisely the hope of safety, not any lust for freedom. What do I want, a drawbridge between the continents, across which the cultures and hence the generations can meet, and pass, and meet again?”


“Today, among other junk mail, there was a questionnaire from some research outfit, addressed apparently to a sampling of senior citizens and wishing to know intimate things about my self-esteem. It is their hypothesis that a decline in self-esteem is responsible for many of the overt symptoms of aging. God knows where they got my name. Ben Alexander, maybe; his finger is in all those pies, and always stirring.

I looked at some of the questions and threw the thing in the fireplace. Another of those socio-psycho-physiological studies suitable for computerizing conclusions already known to anyone over fifty. Who was ever in any doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off their handbags and their Social Security checks? And which has a chilling capacity to look straight at them and never see them. The poor old senior citizen has two choices, assuming he is well enough off to have any choices at all. He can retire from that hostile culture to the shore of some shuffleboard court in a balmy climate, or he can shrink in his self-esteem and gradually become the cipher he is constantly reminded he is.”


“They have lived on the campus ever since he retired as editor of the New Republic many years ago. Since retiring, he has had about three heart attacks and written about five books, and it is a cinch that at eighty-five Or whatever he is he still contemplates five books more, and may be halfway through the next one. His last Christmas letter contained a line that should be engraved above every geriatric door. He says that when asked if he feels like an old man he replies that he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him. He has a sweet humorous face and an innocent resilience that make me ashamed of myself. As an apologist for old age he is better than Ben Alexander, even. And Rosie can make you feel good at a hundred yards, just by the sight of her. Bruce says she is always trying to help old ladies of sixty down steps.”


This is not a joyful read, but a thoughtful, introspective one. But it is well written and insightful. If you can handle the introspection of yourself it provokes, I’d recommend it.

The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner, Penguin Books, 1976, 214pp

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