What Else is There? Review of ‘Essays after Eighty’ by Donald Hall

by Chandra Ganguly

donald_hallAging and memories are part of the human landscape, tied together in a way that gives meaning to the whole human endeavour. Donald Hall sweeps across this metaphorical landscape with aplomb even as he describes his life in his aging body, the meaning of loss of a partner and loss of the functions of the human body. It is a book of nostalgia, but importantly, it is a book of courage, replete with the particular humour and intelligence of an unfading mind, a mind that is perhaps tired but in no way diminished or reduced by the aging body. There are memoirs galore on age and aging but what makes this particular collection, Essays after Eighty, stand out, is the humor.

The author spares nothing his gaze falls on, least of all himself. The pathos in the way he recalls his life is touching but in no way does it invoke pity. Humour as a device carries these essays into the sunset. He begins the collection describing the standing ovations his lectures now receive. Having just witnessed one such standing ovation at Bennington where he gave a lecture to a packed hall, it made me smile to read the raison d’etre of these standing ovations as, “The audience had just seen me stagger, waver with a cane, and labor to sit down, wheezing. They imagined my grandfather horrified, watching a cadaver gifted with speech. They stood and applauded because they knew they would never see me again.” (p.50) America’s erstwhile poet laureate is self-deprecating, his charm is in his humility, and his intelligence shines through in his dry humour. Even his wife, whose dying he still mourns deeply, is described as, “The more successful her poetry became, the more she permitted herself to be pretty.” (p.54)

But more than anything else, he himself, as he lives in his aging body, is the focus of his deadpan humour, “I push wheels ahead of me instead of pulling them behind me like a dog. With my forepaws holding the handles of a four-wheeled roller, my buckling hindquarters slowly shove my carcass forward. I drool as I walk, and now and then I sniff a tree.” (p.71) Writing about aging is a depressing business, as is the imminence of our decay and the end of our bodies and endeavours, but one way to counter it and give it grace and meaning is this almost funniness that Donald Hall employs all through as he looks back and forward on his life, not making light of his condition but constantly surprising the reader with his wit, “Like everyone at eighty, I assumed that I was a good driver.” (p.84) or “My goal in life is making it to the bathroom.” (p.93)

At the same time, may his self-deprecation not be mistaken for any softness in his head. He is as sharp as he ever must have been as a writer and poet of great and lasting repute. In the beginning of this collection, he gives pointers for writing, “After a three-page shift, maybe a one-line blurt.” And “Cut it out. Let the words flash a conclusion, then get out of the way. Sometimes the writer intrudes—me, myself, and I—between the reader and the page.” and “Avoid the personal pronoun when you can—but not the personal.” And finally, “…if the essay doesn’t include contraries, however small they be, the essay fails.” (p. 14-15)

In his collection of essays, Donald Hall continues to surprise and inform, and his gaze at how the world has changed and how little that change has bettered our lives in meaningful ways touches a chord. “Apparently Facebook exists to extinguish friendship. E-mail and texting destroy the post office. eBay replaces garage sales. Amazon eviscerates bookstores. Technology speeds, then doubles its speed, then doubles it again. Art takes naps.” (p. 121) Donald Hall leaves his readers smiling and sad but in no way feeling sorry for him. If anything, the readers are left with a wish to emulate—his writing, his spirit, his wit, his humor, his grace in an aging body, his sharp and personal view in a world of increasing speeds and social media where what is unique and special is daily replaced by the commonplace and mundane. And in the end what is left? Our art. In the words of this writer, “What else is there?”

Chandra Ganguly lives in Palo Alto, California.She writes about the clash of cultures, loss of identities and the search for meaning.She is a pursuing her MFA in writing at Bennington College.