Is there a name for books structured as backward explorations — books like Moon Tiger, say, or Old Filth, or Stegner’s Angle of Repose or The Spectator Bird, framed by aged protagonists’ desire (part nostalgic, part existential) to understand the story of their own lives? It’s a simple enough device, and at least in the examples I can think of right now, there’s a similarity of tone, a blend of introspection and acerbity, as if the past chafes a bit uncomfortably, a bit ironically, against the present. “Put it down to historical queasiness,” says Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird: “I always did get a little seasick riding backwards.”
The Spectator Bird begins with Joe and Ruth retired, living a version of the good life but beset, as Joe is increasingly aware, by both the physical and the psychological effects of aging. Joe suffers from arthritis, for example, that pains and partially immobilizes him — and one side effect of his grating joints is a grating temper, a desire to assert his will in the face of changes he can’t control. A former literary agent, he has left the intensity of mid-town Manhattan for the more pastoral pleasures of California, which Stegner evokes with his characteristic sympathetic artistry:
Fat towhees sidle up to one another, pinheaded doves forage in the grass, the field next door is suddenly full of robins who arrive like blown leaves, picnic awhile, and depart all together as if summoned. From my study I can watch wrens and bush tits in the live oak outside. The wrens are nesting in a hole for the fifth straight year and are very busy: tilted tails going in, sharp heads with the white eyebrow stripe coming out. They are surly and aggressive, and I wonder idly why I, who seem to be as testy as the wrens, much prefer the sociable bush tits. Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around, paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide-and-sek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.
Instead of being carefree, Joe is “irritable and depressed,” and it doesn’t help to learn that yet another of their close friends is dying, or to be visited by a flamboyant Italian novelist, a vestige of the old literary scene, who can’t comprehend how they are living now: “You don’t want to sit in this imitation Umbria and dig in the mud and struggle against uncivilized nature. That is the way to grow old.” “By working our heads off,” Joe says acidly, “we managed to give Césare the dullest two and a half hours he has had since arriving in America.”
Still, Ruth and Joe seem likely to putter on, if not in perfect amity, at least in stolid companionship, without any new crises, until a postcard arrives from an old friend that prompts Joe to dig up his decades-old journals, which Ruth then encourages him to read aloud. They both know, it turns out, that the journals tell the story of a trip to Denmark that became a turning point in their relationship, one that has long gone unacknowledged but that has been a small irritation in their consciousness for decades. “You wanted the pebble out of the shoe,” says Joe to Ruth after she has forced a long-deferred confession; “I suppose,” she replies.
The Spectator Bird alternates between Joe and Ruth in the present and Joe’s journals. The Danish adventure the journals record begins as an escape from their own family drama — their son has died and Joe has just recovered from a serious illness — but takes them into one that’s even more fraught and complicated: an elegant Countess whose mysterious isolation turns out to be the result of her husband’s collaboration with the Nazis, and whose family’s past, intertwined, it turns out, with Joe’s, has secrets that make it, as Joe and Ruth observe, the stuff of Gothic novels.
Though I enjoyed the Danish segments a lot, I was a bit puzzled by the nature of those secrets, by why this kind of story provided the counterpoint Stegner wanted to the rest of Joe’s narrative. Its details seemed extreme and somewhat perverse, with no necessary thematic links to the life Joe is living now. But then I thought that maybe the contrast is deliberate: the Countess’s world is precisely not Joe’s, and though it’s enticing to imagine himself living in a Gothic romance, in the end — as he says — “there never was any real choice.” He doesn’t even feel any real regret. That’s not to say he doesn’t look back on those heady, confusing days and think about what might have been, but “jump[ing] into the Baltic, all for love and the world well lost” is not his way.
It’s tempting, perhaps, to look back with regret on a life that hasn’t turned out to be particularly memorable to anyone but the person who lived it. Early in the novel, Joe casts himself as a secondary character, a kind of Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, someone who watched other people live instead of really living himself:
As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year. He knows nothing that posterity needs to be told about.
The Spectator Bird does not end on a note of regret, though. Instead, thinking back on his past, revisiting the road not taken, brings Joe to a form of acceptance that is better, more forgiving, more insightful than simple resignation:
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’ve always liked books of this kind, but now as I approach 50 I feel them taking on new significance. While it’s true that things could still take an unexpected turn in my own life, that different possibilities of one kind or another could certainly (presumably) open up, this feels like a time when, for me, I am living out the consequences of my earlier choices more than I am making new ones. Like Joe, I have journals recording some of what I now understand as my formative years, some of my own decisive (if probably inevitable) choices, and I also have memories that cover many more years, and many more nuances, than those sparse volumes ever can. I think there’s value in recollection — in hanging on to and trying to understand the evidence of our own pasts — but retrospection can too quickly become brooding for me. The Spectator Bird is hardly a consoling picture (“in every choice,” Joe thinks, “there is a component, maybe a big component, of pain”), but I found something bracing in his refusal to consider himself a failure because he opted to do what he thought was, as far as he could figure out, right:
It has seemed to me that my commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue, there are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better, good and good.
It may make a better novel to choose what’s impulsive, dramatic, romantic — but The Spectator Bird proposes that it won’t necessarily, even probably, make a better life.