Plato’s "Republic" opens with a fascinating conversation about the nature of old age. The philosopher Socrates is attending a dinner party at the home of a wealthy old aristocrat named Cephalus, who scolds Socrates for not coming to visit more often. After all, Cephalus says, health problems make it difficult for an old man like him to travel to Athens from Piraeus. And as bodily pleasures become harder to enjoy, he increasingly craves the intellectual delight of good conversation.
Socrates replies with a charming and sincere bit of praise for the elderly: “I enjoy talking with the very aged. For to my thinking we have to learn from them as if from wayfarers who have preceded us along a road which we too, perhaps, must someday travel. What is it like? Is it rough and difficult, or smooth and easy to travel?” The old man’s response – he posits a link between happiness and virtue – foreshadows one of the major philosophical themes of the entire work. But Cephalus’s reflections on old age also satisfy some basic human curiosities: What is it like to be very old? What can make the final stage of life harder or easier?
The best parts of Roger Angell’s new book, This Old Man: All in Pieces, are dispatches from the far reaches of the same road that Cephalus and Socrates walked long ago. At 95, Angell has traveled within a whisker of a full century. It’s a small triumph for someone of any age to write prose as lucid, humane, and insightful as his, but to do so as a nonagenarian is extraordinary.
Perhaps most surprising is the suppleness and range of his writing. You might expect that after decades of experience a veteran author would sag with comfortable familiarity into the same tired tropes and predictable grooves, as if settling down in an old armchair that has molded itself to the contours of his body. But there are few signs of calcification in his thought or his prose; he moves with agility between humor, pathos, and playful metaphor, often within the same essay.
The son of a New Yorker fiction editor and the stepson of E. B. White, Angell grew up in the cultural shade of that magazine’s various physical and metaphysical branches. He played ping pong with James Thurber. He watched as E. B. White retreated to his study to polish yet another stretch of prose. He developed a perfect recall of New Yorker cartoons, a skill he once displayed as an adolescent at a dinner party.
In 1956 Angell joined the New Yorker as a fiction editor under William Maxwell. He held this post for almost four decades and presided over an excellent stable of contributors: John Updike, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, V. S. Pritchett, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and countless others. A major theme in his reminiscences is the nearly infinite patience and craftsmanship required to master the art of writing: “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” he says bluntly, a phrase that will resonate with any writer. Even the most famous New Yorker authors were not spared Angell’s microscopic examinations of their every sentence. Some luminaries had certain stories rejected.
It’s not shocking that a renowned editor and the stepson of the man behind one half of the famous Strunk & White style guide would express himself in clear and graceful prose. But his stylistic gifts go beyond limpid transparency. He describes the image of a baseball player leaping for a catch like this: “In the replays, he looked like a dissected frog splayed up there, and will remain so forever in the Bay Area unconscious.” The novelist V. S. Pritchett had “a strain of workaday London practicality about him,” and appeared at times “to be standing behind an invisible pub counter, or perhaps about to oversee the unloading of a shipment of crocuses or greyhounds.” His imagery is precise and evocative, conjuring essences in a few lines.
The pieces in "This Old Man" range from literary criticism to baseball writing to first-person essays to light verse and personal correspondence. The collection suffers slightly from an editorial penchant for over-inclusion. Fewer comic haikus and personal letters would have made for a slimmer, more consistently engaging volume.
But the best pieces are very good indeed. His 2014 New Yorker essay “This Old Man,” wanders amiably from blogging – “it’s a bit like making a paper airplane” – to back pain – “The lower-middle sector of my spine twists and jogs like a Connecticut county road, thanks to a herniated disc seven or eight years ago.”
Woven into all the humor and metaphor is the essay’s true subject: death. Waking from an afternoon nap, he half-expects to find his deceased wife, Carol, sitting in her habitual chair. His health is tenuous, and he wouldn’t be surprised to find himself suddenly “surrounded by family, gathered on short notice – they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here – to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now.” In that small imaginative excursion between the dashes he persuasively inhabits the point-of-view of his family, summoned on short notice after a hypothetical fall or stroke. It’s a wonderful touch, refreshingly unsentimental about the fact that whatever its pathos, mortality can also be an annoying interruption.
Later in the essay he extends the same marvelous imaginative range to his fox terrier, Harry, who died after “he became unhinged by a noisy thunderstorm” and leaped to his death from a fifth-floor apartment window. “I knew him well and could summon up his feelings during the brief moments of that leap: the welcome coolness of rain on his muzzle and shoulders, the excitement of air and space around his outstretched body.” For Angell this is a terrible moment; he and Carol retrieve the dog’s broken body and weep on the floor of their bathroom. But that deft slide into what Harry might have felt in his final seconds infuses the episode with something like joy.