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…