Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for April, 2011

Spectator Bird – Wallace Stegner

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 27, 2011

……. The chances we take, getting born so accidentally!

For a while, I held a near unshakeable view that in its vitality, vigour and breadth, contemporary American writing was exceptional but a shade inferior to the diversity and creativity of writing coming out of England. I am not so sure now. My limited excursions into American writing covering Robert Maxwell, Andrea Barret, Philip Roth, Annie Proulx, William Styron, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, John O Hara, Irwin Shaw, Truman Capote and a few others has shaken this firmly held belief. Wallace Stegner’sSpectator Bird” – a recent read of mine – has swung this opinion further. In fact, I would not be surprised if the pendulum of my opinion reaches the other extreme very soon.

Spectator Bird” is a strange, gentle and generous book reflecting on growing old, death, dying, reconciliation and the temper of the sixties America. Written with deep erudition, sustained passion and tongue-in-cheek humor, the book illuminates human relationships and motives at a personal level with shades of autobiographical touches and also at a level that reflects a society that is in flux.

The story is told by Joe, a retired literary agent, who in his own words is

a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own” and who ” has been full of himself, uncertain, dismayed, dissatisfied with his life, his country, his civilization, his profession, and himself. He has always hunted himself in places where he has never been, he has always been trying to thread some needle with a string that was raveled at both ends. He has always been hungry for some continuity and assurance and sense of belonging, but has never had ancestors or descendants or place in the world. Little orphan Joe, what a sad case

What makes Joe remarkable and saves the reader from the gloom of his frustrations are his superbly refined sensibilities to laugh at himself and others without any malice and his ability to tell his story within the attributes used to build the self-portrait. 

More than a hunger for continuity, the lack of which he rues, Joe desires to resolve the issue of his lack of sense of belongingness. This drives him on a journey to Oberbringe, a small town in Denmark, where his mother has her origins and from where she emigrates to America to escape the stifling confines of the feudal Danish society. Joe’s journey to his roots is meticulously documented in his diaries and gives him an opportunity to juxtapose the civilizational temperaments of old Europe and the constantly fluxing America. Stegner brings out a very informed view of the mongrel nature of America and the implications and trade-offs for individuals who have been part of the waves of migration into America, especially that of Europeans when he says:

“What did 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 country that was neither country nor culture, and isn’t yet, and may never be, and as yet 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 shores 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 of freedom. What do I want, a drawbridge between the continents, across which cultures and hence generations can meet, and pass, and meet again?…. The fact is, I don’t know what I want, or should ever have wanted, and I don’t ever expect to know”

This mild but puzzled questioning is relevant to any migrant from anywhere into America. Stegner brings out the lack of a sense of belongingness to a place and the need for rootedness time and again in the book. There is haunting and recurring quality to this theme in the book. In making Joe think about these things, Stegner makes him richly ruminative and deeply judgmental. On his visit to Denmark, Joe meets the famous writer Karen Blixen (more famously known as Isak Denison) – who herself is an eternal wanderer in African societies but with permanent roots in Denmark. Together they discuss this core human need and the relative civilizational lacunae in fulfilling this need with a brilliant clarity:

“Is it bad to have a place to come back to?” I said. “An American, or at least one kind of American, would envy you. His parents or grandparents were immigrants, uprooted. He was born in transit; he has lived in fifty houses in fifteen places. When he moves, he doesn’t move back, he moves on. No accumulations. No traditions. A civilization without attics”

“Or rubbish piles,” said Karen Blixen. “Or dungeons. Or ghosts”

The contrast between the American and European ways of life is brief, brilliant and says it all succinctly

Joe is not alone in his journey to his mother’s roots. He is accompanied by his wife Ruth for whom he has enormous love, gratitude and enjoys a deep sense of companionship. In Denmark, Ruth and Joe share apartments with a countess who has fallen on hard times and shunned by the Danish society at large. Stegner unravels the tragic state of affairs of the countess gradually, layer by layer and page after page in his diary. Stegner travels between his present and past and uses his journal as an effective crutch to effect this passage between times and eras. It transpires that the village where Joe’s mother has roots is actually within the dominion of the now deceased countess’s father and presently run by her estranged brother. The difficulties of the countess are on account of the intensely incestuous nature between the countess and her father who is a brilliant scientist and a formidable practitioner of the emerging science of genetics (“Faustus of Genetics”). The countess’s father ascribes no moral judgment to this relationship and sees it as a service to science in promoting eugenics. Joe develops extremely sympathetic feelings for the countess which border on infatuation and offers to help her to immigrate to America – the offer which the countess refuses. Even as he oscillates between the ambivalent feelings for the countess, Joe is influenced by his awareness of the differences between Europeans and Americans for at one place he writes:

“I have a good look at her from up here. She wears a kerchief on her head, but her heavy, smooth, dull gold hair is uncovered in front and gathered behind in a bun that looks as if it might weigh a kilo. Something in the way she moves. Is it breeding, or do they train them? American women who have what is called “bearing” look as if they’d learned it in model school and need a mirror for its constant reassurance. This one, in her tweed suit and sensible walking shoes and utilitarian raincoat, throws it away and still has it”

Joe’s problems are not limited to his ancestors for he has had deep problems with his now deceased son. The problems are essentially generational and steeped in the changing nature of American society that Joe and his son live and jostle in. In a confession of sorts to Ruth, Joe summarizes this wonderfully:

“…In twenty years everything he has stood for has taken over. He was prophetic. The counterculture. The pleasure principle. Now. Wow. Junk everything good along with the bad. History is an exploded science, civility is a dirty word, self-restraint is not only unhealthy, it’s a laugh. Manners are hypocrisy, responsibility means you’ve sold out; adolescence lasts into the seventies, or will. And it’s okay to lush on the money civilization so long as you hate it. So the money civilization gets the word and adjusts itself to the new market and sells itself in a new package to its despisers and lushes”….

The language is lucidly livid and the damnation of the American way of life as money civilization is in many ways justifiable. Considering what is happening in America today, it sounds prophetic too

Joe is also aware of and a sufferer due to personal dilemmas that rage within him. As he grows old and as he witnesses the relentless reminders of the approaching death in the form of the gradual passing away of his close friends and his own frequent illnesses, Joe is frustrated enough to question his predicament in a way that is moving and thoughtful:

“The way the world wags” I said. “The difference between what we’d like to be and what we we’re able to be. How to respect myself when I know I’m confused and cowardly? How to respect a world where nothing I believe in is value? How to live and grow old inside a head I’m contemptuous of, in a culture I despise?”

Towards the end of the novel, Stegner redeems Joe by ascribing a wonderful sense of reconciliatory wisdom to him when he makes Joe conclude as follows:

“The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something – it can be everything – to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle”

I am yet to come across a writing that describes joys of companionship so elegantly, in such a simple language and yet so completely. Lucky are those who have this wisdom and blissfully blessed are those who have fellow birds like Ruth to share their lives with

Spectator Bird” is full of Stegner’s enormous scholarship that plays a subtle peekaboo with the reader and in the process proves why Stegner is considered one of the giants of American literature

A marvelous book and with enormous relevance and wisdom and above all a great joy to read

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