Let Me Finish

by Robert Angell
320 pages,
ISBN: 0151013500

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A Lifetime of Recollections
by Clara Thomas

LET ME FINISH is a memoir, though Angell repeatedly insists on the unreliability and instability of memory: "Most of the true stories in this book were written in the last three years and came as a surprise to me, the author. I'd never planned a memoir, if that is what this is, and never owned a diary or made notes about the passage of the days." The book is a compendium of memories from a long life, beginning in the days before radio and ending well after the terrorist attack on the twin towers of New York. The final chapter muses on several generations of family history, concluding that "we cling to the harsher bits of the past not just as a warning system to remind us that the next Indian raid or suddenly veering tower-bound 757 is always waiting, but as a passport to connect us to the rest of the world, whose horrors are always available each morning and evening on Television and in the Times." Angell not only remembers but muses on the meaning of what he remembers; his records are first and foremost narratives. One reviewer called them"evergreen epiphanies", fashioned from memories with all their trickiness.
In the same way that "army brat" is an often-used and telling description, Angell could be called a "New York brat" and also a New Yorker brat. His mother, Katharine White, was one of the magazine's founding editors, and his stepfather, E.B. White, was a contributor. Angell spent much of his working life as a staff member, a fiction editor, and a frequent contributor. The New Yorker published his baseball articles and he now ranks among America's very best baseball writers. Many would say that he is indisputably the best.
His stories are arranged in loose chronological order, though he digresses freely, going where memory takes him, an expansive method that adds greatly to the appeal of his text. He begins with a chapter on cars called "Romance", which to anyone of his generation (he was born in 1920) is guaranteed to be a beguiling trip into the past. Different models of cars, the thrill of early trips, constant blow-outs, the great pleasure in comparing performances with other novice owners, the hot dog stands that popped up everywhere as did tourist cabins¨all of these things became a part of daily life for many of us. Angell recalls both the joys and hazards of the era, and with the humourous slant that such old and treasured memories carry with them.
Next comes "Movie Kid", the story of the afternoons Angell spent at the movies, often sneaking off from school to attend screenings at the local cinema. He became a lifelong "moviegoer", as opposed to a person who simply goes to the movies. The Depression was at its peak and Hollywood was in its heyday. Every memory, every name is familiar to those of us who, like Angell, became moviegoers in those years. We never lost the magic of those times: "The great cresting tide of late-thirties and early-forties Hollywood¨an Augustan era when the studios were cranking out five hundred films each year¨swept over us and changed us forever: Astaire and Rogers, Bogart, Judy Garland, Olivier, Cary Grant . . . We were the lucky ones, we first citizens of film, and we trusted the movies for the rest of our lives."
The next chapter, "The King of the Forest", is about his father, an eccentric and a successful Manhattan lawyer. He is celebrated by his son with compassion and a certain awe at his exploits, but not with sentimental nostalgia. Angell depicts him as a highly idiosyncratic individual, and highly respected by all around him: "He has rewritten the worst moments of his life, and at whatever price, put them behind him." The divorce from Angell's mother had been a bitter one from which his father never really recovered: "I want to bring back this sad, formidable man as he was in the early nineteen-thirties when he and I and my older sister, Nancy, were living in a narrow brownstone on East Ninety-third Street." "Bringing back" is of course the ultimate aim of every memoirist, but like everyone who attempts this feat, Angell can only be partially successful.
He is, of course, particularly fortunate in his family and connections: "I've had a life sheltered by privilege and engrossing work, and shot through with good luck." His pages are laden with the names of those who were part of his circle from boyhood onward and he is certainly conscious of the importance of many of them. His father's success guaranteed a comfortable living and made possible Angell's early introduction to the joys of baseball and sailing.
Angell was drafted shortly after his graduation from Harvard. Like so many of his generation, he married and thereafter led the usual army life, moving from posting to posting and finding makeshift accommodation wherever he went. After his wartime service (in 1942 he was an armaments instructor, and afterwards he was involved as a journalist with a magazine for airforce personnel in the Pacific area), he became a full-time writer. In 1956 he gravitated naturally to The New Yorker. There he spent the rest of his working life, more than 10,000 days he says. His writing techniques show the New Yorker influence: much concrete detail is woven into each essay, giving it an authentic and authoritative feel as well as an impromptu aura belying the efficient and knowledgeable planning that lies just under the surface of each well-crafted sentence.
He offers no panaceas for the intense unpredictability of life: "Memory is fiction¨an anecdotal version of some scene or past event we need to store away for present or future use . . . But when do we get to throw away the piercing announcement, the over-contemplated morsel of bad news?" Angell provides no answer to this question, only a bemused amazement at the infinite variety of vignettes we can and do preserve. He does not write about the deeply emotional life-and-death passages that are part of everyone's experience. We can enjoy the stories of the past he has chosen to share with us and we can call up our own¨that is our privilege for each and every moment of our awareness.
Let me Finish is an entertaining memoir. The title is somewhat mysterious. Is he asking to finish his life or his story? The title is unexplained and we're left to ponder our own memories as well as the ones we have just read, those "true stories" that are so precious. ˛

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