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Sunday, December 05, 2021

Writing at twilight

In the winter of their lives,some novelists are at the peak of their form

Written by New York Times |
April 21, 2009 1:38:37 am

The 69-year-old novelist Margaret Drabble announced last week that she was turning off her word processor. “The older I get,the more I find myself repeating things,” she told friends,according to The Telegraph of London. “So I have resolved to write no more novels.” This will doubtless embolden her older sister,A.S. Byatt,72,to carry on. The two have been locked in a sibling rivalry for years,with Byatt even writing a novel in which one sister kills another. But it’s Byatt,with a new novel coming out in July,who these days seems to be the norm,not her sister — part of the swelling flood of writers who keep working into their 70s and even 80s. Gabriel García Márquez,for example,at 82 has lately been at pains to quell rumors that he is retiring. “Not only is it not true”,he told reporters,“but the only thing I do is write.”

The geriatric writer,the one who persists into the twilight years,is something new. There were always exceptions,of course — long-lived authors who defied the actuarial tables. Thomas Hardy,for example,wrote (poetry,not novels) well into his 80s and once modestly confided that he remained sexually active as an octogenarian. But by and large writing used to be a profession whose practitioners,the great ones especially,died relatively young. Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë both died in their 40s. Balzac,Proust and Dickens all checked out in their 50s — spent,if not burned out — and so did Shakespeare,come to think of it.

In this country the record was just as bad. Fitzgerald,it’s still shocking to remember,died at just 44. It used to be practically a paradigm,in fact,that the great novelistic career in America was one that blazed early and then fell into premature,often self-destructive decline.

What has changed,obviously,is improvements in health care. Shakespeare didn’t have Blue Cross. Saul Bellow published his last book just four years before died,at 89. John Ashbery,at 81,is writing poems just as provocative as the ones he published in his 20s. John Updike was still going strong when he died recently at 76,and his almost exact contemporary,Philip Roth,appears to be borne these days upon an extraordinary gust of second wind.

In a way writers are no different from most of the rest of us these days. They’re not stepping aside. The interesting question,though it’s hard to generalise,is whether writing changes as its practitioners age. There does seem to be a husbanding sometimes,a focusing of energy,and even a stylistic simplification. Roth’s last three novels — Everyman,Exit Ghost and Indignation — were all shorter,tauter,more single-minded than their predecessors. Not coincidentally,each of them was in one way or another concerned with death and mortality.

Flaubert’s last published book,Three Tales,suggests a similar kind of refinement and distillation,but on the other hand,at the time of his death (he lived to a relatively ancient 68) Flaubert was still trying to finish Bouvard and Pécuchet,a grand and immensely complicated satire on all human knowledge and human pretension. Bouvard and Pécuchet is a good example of what the critic Edward Said called “late style.” Said’s last book,unfinished and published posthumously,was a collection of essays,On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain,that examined the later works of writers and composers to see what they can tell us about the creative process as an artist begins to see the shadows lengthen. His conclusion,surprisingly,is that late style,far from being the serene product of accumulated wisdom and insight,is sometimes cranky and petulant and frequently displays “intransigence,difficulty and unresolved contradiction,” even an impatience with “coherent sense.”

Here perhaps there is a key to late literary style: it’s often sexy,the way Picasso’s late paintings are,suffused with memories of the flesh and stirred up by the connection between erotic love and creativity. In other words,Said was surely right about the lack of serenity. Late works tend to be full of ardour,real and remembered. García Márquez’s last book,Memories of My Melancholy Whores,was about the romance between a 90-year-old man and a prepubescent prostitute. In Updike’s last novel,The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick,the witches,now widowed and menopausal,have lost some of their witchy power,and the book makes an implicit,wistful connection between the magic of eros and the magic of witchcraft and sorcery. That magic,you don’t have to read far into the book to figure out,is not much different in the author’s mind from the magic of prose itself. Successful late writers,it turns out,may be the ones who most relish their powers even as they worry about losing them.

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