The author asks if people of a certain age should embrace the quiet lifeby Margaret Drabble / February 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
In her memoir, novelist Penelope Lively describes herself as trapped in “the tiresome holding-pen of old age” © PATRICK ZACHMANN/MAGNUM PHOTOS
When Simone de Beauvoir published her study of old age, La Vieillesse, in 1970, she was a pioneer in the field. The Second Sex (1949) had been a groundbreaking, seminal and life-changing work, gaining instant recognition, but with Old Age, as the book was called in the UK, she ventured into territory that nobody else seemed willing to enter, and friends and colleagues expressed astonishment that she, in her early sixties, wished to go there. Her research took her back to the Ancients, to mythology and anthropology and literature, and she offered readings of writers from Plato to Proust, but her volume remained for decades a lone landmark. Few had wished to follow. That has all changed now. A shifting demography has altered the landscape. Her volume (which appeared, less bleakly, as The Coming of Age in the US), remains an essential point of reference for all subsequent studies, and the steady flow of these has now swelled into a torrent: into what has, disobligingly, been described as a “silver tsunami.” Memoirs and self-help and lifestyle books and advice about dementia have poured out from the press, some confessional, some jokey, some intended to be comforting, and some designed to sell the products that promise everlasting youth. Library shelves display titles such as Senior Moments and Keeping Mum and I Feel Bad About My Neck and Somewhere Towards the End and Crazy Age and Nothing To Be Frightened Of, all of them exploring aspects of age, and some of them confronting the approach of death. The 2013/14 batch includes Anne Karpf ’s How to Age, Lynne Segal’s Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing and Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. All of them acknowledge and quote from the inescapable de Beauvoir.
It’s time to commission a new translation of La Vieillesse as a tribute to the growth in the number of books being registered under Dewey classification 305. 2. The version we have in English was rendered, perhaps hastily (for it is a very long book) by Patrick O’Brian, better known for his maritime novels of the Napoleonic Wars, and it is at times very irritating. There is no index (which isn’t O’Brian’s fault) and a dearth of accurate source notes (again, not his responsibility). One suspects that at times there is pronoun gender confusion, offering perhaps unfair ammunition to feminist critiques of the great feminist. Worst of all, and most oddly, O’Brian has chosen to translate de Beauvoir’s prose translations of some of the most beautiful and pertinent poems in the English language back into a kind of English doggerel. The opening lines of Yeats’s “The Tower”:
I What shall I do with this absurdity— O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature, Decrepit age that has been tied to me As to a dog’s tail?
Have been turned into:
What shall I do with this nonsense, oh my heart, my troubled heart This caricature, this decrepitude tied to me as to the tail of a dog?
Similar indignities have been inflicted on his 1937 poem, “What then?” As late Yeats provides some of the greatest consolations available to the ageing reader, this is a pity. Poetry, as Yeats pointed out, endures while the body withers, but it doesn’t have quite the same restorative power if you mess it up like this.
It’s odd how fortifying Yeats’s rage remains. But that’s the paradox of great poetry, of tragedy, of catharsis.
Dylan Thomas, who died young, and Yeats, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Doris Lessing who didn’t, all have their place in discussions of age and rage, and all are cited in these three new works. Swift’s hideously haunting Struldbruggs, doomed to immortality and senile decay, make appearances. But only Anne Karpf, in her reflections on what she calls the “burden model” of ageing—which she claims was dismantled by Phil Mullan’s The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is Not a Social Problem (2002)— mentions Anthony Trollope’s strange dystopian novel, The Fixed Period (1882). I was first alerted to this work by an essay published by David Lodge in December 2012, outlining its subject: “the effects of a law passed by the youthful Britannula Assembly [a British Antipodean colony] making euthanasia compulsory for everybody between the age of 67 and 68”: and commenting on its relevance to “our own current social, economic and ethical concerns” in view of rising life expectancy and increasing public controversy about the legitimacy of assisted dying.
Following the double prompt, and expecting, as an advocate of voluntary euthanasia, to feel some sympathy for its highminded narrator Mr Neverbend, I read the novel, and rather wish I hadn’t. It is interesting but lowering. Britannula has abolished capital punishment but introduced something even worse: the obligation of each citizen not to choose, but to know, the time of his or her death. I felt quite bad while reading this book. I do think about death often, probably several times a day, but then I always have done, from an early age, and I forget about it as quickly as I envisage it, distracted by a multitude of smaller worries, hopes and projects. Unlike the authors of some old age testimonies, I certainly don’t think “it will never happen to me,” nor does the idea of it make me wake and howl in the night, as some (perhaps ostentatiously) claim to do. But Trollope’s proposition got me down, and as I read on, I realised that his “fixed period” was precisely the capital punishment his imaginary colony had idealistically abolished. Knowing the hour, when decided by others and not by oneself, is not a good prospect.
Karpf, born in 1950, is younger than Lively (1933) and Segal (1944) and me (1939), and her little ‘“how to” manual is appropriately high-spirited, even chirpy: she enthuses, she goes for uplift when she can, she mocks vanity and teen fears of wrinkles and middle-aged aspirations to look young forever, she praises creativity in old age (Goya, Frank Lloyd Wright, Verdi, Picasso) while admitting that “we can’t all be Goya.” (And, as Edward Said has pointed out, “Late Style” creativity isn’t always enjoyable.) She admits she may be a bit of a Pollyanna, though her optimism doesn’t lead her to ignore some of the grimmer facts. For instance, she tells us that Germany is now exporting or “deporting” thousands of sick and old people to retirement centres in Eastern Europe and Asia because it’s cheaper. But overall, she looks with determination at the bright side of the journey ahead.
Lively, in contrast, is reflective, accepting, open to admissions of loss. She misses her husband Jack and her gardening. But she has thought long and deeply about where she is now, where she is going, and where she doesn’t want to go anymore. Her attitudes to travel are relevant here. Born in Cairo, she remembers her Egyptian childhood vividly, and wrote of it in her memoir Oleander, Jacaranda; here she adds descriptions of wartime England, Oxfordshire, Exmoor, and professional visits to Moscow, Australia and other far flung places. But she no longer needs to wander further afield than her London home and the places of her West Somerset family roots. Trapped in “the tiresome holding-pen of old age” (a wonderful, stoic phrase) she travels in books and in the imagination. She doesn’t want to go on a cruise. She doesn’t want to go up the Amazon or the Congo, as (having endured a three-month spell of intense pain) she prefers to be comfortable, but she’s happy to read of Colin Turnbull and Redmond O’Hanlon’s adventures. She has always been a reader, always will be, and her curiosity about the origins and oddities of life is undimmed. She is always discovering and considering the new. Myopic herself, she explores in a characteristically objective but personal manner the facts about this allegedly modern condition. There are no myopic animals, she tells us, apart from domesticated dogs, which perhaps, she suggests, eat the wrong kind of dog biscuit.
Many old people with a little money long to go travelling. Today we go on cruises, not on pilgrimages. Companies like Saga profitably dedicate themselves to the happiness and comforts of the elderly: the Saga cruise my husband and I went on a few years ago was a little too long, but in many ways enjoyable, and reassuring for a couple at that time in very poor health. We were able to correct our proofs, in comfort, in our cabin, with views of new horizons from the deck. The perpetual movement provides an illusion of timeless progress. “Itchy feet” is a condition that afflicts the elderly as much as it afflicts students on their gap years, and Doris Lessing, who continued to undertake long and gruelling journeys for her publishers well into her later (though not her last) years, admitted to me once that she suffered from it. I was pleased to find endorsement for this passion in a passage from Eugene Ionesco’s Journal en Miettes, quoted with what seems to be approval by de Beauvoir: “I travel so as to recover a whole, undamaged world on which time has no hold. And indeed, two days of travelling and the sight of a new city does slow down the racing flow of events. Two days in a new country are worth 30 lived in familiar surroundings, 30 days worn and shorted, spoiled and damaged by habit.” (That phrase, “the racing flow of events,” refers to the oft discussed phenomenon experienced in ageing: the sense that time is slipping by at once extremely fast and tediously slowly.)
Against this inability to rest from travel, one may place Lively’s affection for her comforting breakfasts of “the right kind of muesli,” for her evenings with “a glass (or two) of wine” and her radio and her television; or the once (and still) militant Alice Walker’s appreciation, quoted by Segal, of the right, in her sixties, to take a nap “when I feel like it” with “my snuggler of choice.” What’s wrong, when old, in sitting on a bench feeling the sun on one’s face? It may be that, towards the end of a long life, the greatest wisdom lies in learning to do nothing, in giving up on projects and attainment. These questions are considered by de Beauvoir’s heir to the subject of the philosophy of ageing, Helen Small, whose authoritative book The Long Life is also invoked by Lively, Karpf and Segal: it is a true successor to La Vieillesse, although written, as the veteran Frank Kermode commented in his entertaining 2007 review in the London Review of Books when Small was only 42.
Small, in her survey, gives good space to philosopher Michael Slote, who appears to be largely on the glass-of-wine-and-snuggler side of the argument, as against the life of perpetual rage, desire, aspiration and inevitable defeat. Slote’s call “to apply less demanding criteria for a ‘good life’ in old age” is, says Small, “intuitively appealing,” although she questions its rationale, and prefers to set more exacting standards. I tend to vote for Slote—on some days, anyway. Slote kindly allows for the physical and mental variations that beset us in our later years; we cannot all fight on to the last, aided or unaided by viagra and statins and other medications, but may well honourably settle for shuffleboard, daytime TV, jigsaws and the quick crossword. The narratives of progress and goals, of Kermode’s tick-tock of time named in The Sense of an Ending, may not make sense in our later years, and our last illnesses and confusions and possibly cruel and undignified deaths do not necessarily invalidate what has gone before. Priam’s death undid him, but we do not all have a Troy to lose.
Small’s book is gripping reading for those approaching the plateau of the Struldbruggs and of Larkin’s “Old Fools,” and her philosophical distance, like the language of Yeats and King Lear, makes for a kind of calm rejoicing in the storm. Lynne Segal’s Out of Time maintains no such distance. Although wideranging in its analyses of feminist, political and social theory, and with a large frame of contemporary literary reference, its strength lies in its painful personal honesty, which allows Segal to explore without delusion the ills that beset the ageing woman. She writes about men too, and is very good on Roth’s fine but “disconcerting” late novel Everyman, but her most disconcerting reflections are on the status of ageing women, single, widowed or for other reasons living alone. She directly addresses the question of “gendered apprehensions” and issues of vanity, personal appearance (Nora Ephron’s notorious neck) and sexual desire, articulating some of the fears and regrets that many are too proud to own. Jane Miller, in Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old, had described her loss of desire, and her comparative happiness with the status of old age—better, happier, than being young—but, Segal points out, she’d been living comfortably for 40 years in the same house, “happily married” to the same husband, “a man of significant eminence.” The reader might think Segal is about to whinge—and old folk, as Lively reminds us, must not whinge or bore—but she doesn’t. She examines, she explores. Is it true that women suffer more from the loss of their looks than men suffer from the loss of their virility? These are interesting questions. Is it true that in dreams old people are never their own chronological age, but always dream (de Beauvoir again) that they are considerably younger?
(I have a recurrent dream that I am expecting another baby, and usually manage to reconcile myself to this by now unwelcome possibility while still asleep, but even in the dream I am on one level mercifully aware that this cannot be as I am far too old. Then I wake, and am reprieved, and truly glad to be in my seventies. Three children, some of them now in their fifties, are enough.)
Segal offers us fortifying examples of strong-minded older women: Germaine Greer, embracing celibacy; the prolific selfjustifying poet May Sarton, supported by her many acolytes; Grace Paley, writing before her time; Diana Athill, writing to the end; the critic Carolyn Heilbrun, and her tryst with suicide. De Beauvoir argued (though not very consistently) that women age less painfully than men, as they have less status to lose, and are better at making themselves useful about the house and in society. Men retire, women carry on working. Segal is not sure about this: she is openly and personally worried about loss, about the loss of lovers, of companionship, of comrades in the good causes to which in her prime she gave so much. She deplores the failure of those good causes, the poisonous dissension that infected some of them, and the loss of social hope that set in during the 1980s. Her dream of an egalitarian future dissolved, and although she has good words to say about the Occupy Wall Street protest, late moments of “public joy” and younger protestors, she clearly feels lonely and abandoned by the current that once bore her along. Many of us recognise that feeling.
Reading Trollope depressed me, but impelled me to remind myself of more cheering examples of age. Trollope died shortly after publishing The Fixed Period, as though he had written from sinking health or a darkling premonition, but a writer who without any hint of mauvaise foi relished old age was the extraordinary genius John Cowper Powys (1872-1963). It lifts the heart to think of this batty old werewolf of Wales, this ancient ichthyosaurus, dwelling crazily with his beloved in the slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog, and striding on, full of joy, into his nineties, on a regime of bread and butter and elective enemas. Unlike Wordsworth, with whom he had affinities, he never lost his sense of the splendour in the grass, and in The Art of Growing Old (1944) wrote ecstatically of the daily pleasures of old people: “Returning home past familiar landmarks, they greet each gnarled and twisted tree-root… as if it were a secret signal from old age to old age.” This was a hack work, a wartime “how to age” book, but it is full of energy and delight. He’d had a hard life, ill-paid, itinerant, often exhausted, but his last years were charged with a jubilant intensity.
Nearer home, I salute the late novels of my college friend Bernardine Bishop, which she wrote when she was in her seventies and, as it was to prove, mortally ill. I and other friends read them on our laptops as she wrote them and relayed them to us, and she lived to see the publication of the first of them, Unexpected Lessons in Love, and to enjoy the acclaim that greeted it (though not to see it prominently shortlisted for the Costa Prize). Two posthumous novels, The Street and Hidden Knowledge, are to appear over the next 12 months. So she has an afterlife. And for all I know she is in heaven, a prospect which we discussed, inconclusively, in her last months. A practising Catholic, she wasn’t at all sure about what happens next. But she did know that she admired the idea of a “good death,” and was particularly pleased with the dramatic last moments of one of the oldest characters in The Street. Unexpected Lessons is the story of an able and intelligent grandmother, a semi-retired psychotherapist, who finds herself landed with an unexpected baby grandson for whom she has to take responsibility, although she is living (as was Bishop) with bowel cancer and a colostomy bag. It is, I think, the first work of fiction prominently to feature a colostomy bag. (Karpf, incidentally, tells us that “the ageing rock star is invariably described as ‘grizzled’ and the music he makes as ‘colostomy rock.’” I’m not sure I wanted to know that, but I think Bernardine would have found it funny.) Her novel is curiously cheerful and entertaining, beautifully plotted, unsentimental, with a cast of likeable characters: as Adam Mars-Jones noted in his admiring Observer review, her “irony is unusual in type, because it is infused with warmth (most modern irony is cold, or smug, or both.)”
I wish now that I had reported to Bernardine my recurrent dream of having a baby in old age—an event which, in its way, happens to her protagonist. She would have been sure to have had an interesting interpretation
Too late now.
But louder sang that ghost, What then?