How old are you? Rude question, isn’t it? Tempus fugit.
The seasons go faster and faster. Yes, it’s fall–again! There are pumpkins at the grocery store and the homemade ice cream stand has closed for the season.
And since I seem to get older every year, I ponder on aging in literature. Is it harder for men or women? And isn’t it odd that the two women’s novels above, Fear of Dying and The Summer Before the Dark, have dark covers and titles, while the men’s novels about aging, The Old Devils and An After-Dinner’s Sleep, have light green on the covers?
Aging women in literature face the challenge of losing the power of their sexuality. In Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying, a brilliant novel about aging, sex, and death, sixty-year-old Vanessa, a retired actress who played a villainess in a soap opera, hates the thought of being past her prime. She has had plastic surgery, but misses the days when men ogled her. Her rich husband, Asher, is in the hospital after an aneurism. When she is not at the hospital, she is visiting her parents, who are in their nineties and not always cognizant of who she is. They have 24-hour caregivers and are dying in their apartment when they are not ill in the hospital.
You know what Vanessa badly needs? Sex. Who can blame her for looking at Zipless.com? But does it turn out well? Of course not. Still. she comes to terms with what she wants from life.
In Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, the forties prove just as difficult as the sixties. The 45-year-old heroine Kate comes to term with middle age. Her husband is away in America for the summer (and having an affair), and she had planned to stay home with their son. When her son takes off on a trip, she accepts a summer job as an interpreter at a food conference. She has bought beautiful clothes and is newly attractive; she has an affair, which is nice, but ephemeral. Later, after the conference, she has a kind of controlled breakdown in a rented room in a young drug-taking hippie’s house. Kate lets her hair go and experiments with walking in front of construction workers in different outfits. Naturally, they whistle when she looks young, and ignore her when she wears baggy clothes. By the end of the summer she knows herself and returns to her family. She stays the same for her family–except for her hair, which she stops cutting and dying. This is a beautifully-written short book, one of Lessing’s best.
Is aging easier for men? Well, no, judging from literature. In Kingsley Amis’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Old Devils, one of the aging characters has a difficult time dressing himself but he still imbibes an incredible quantity of alcohol with his friends. In Stanley Middleton’s brilliant novel, An After-Hour’s Sleep, the 65-year-old protagonist, Alistair, is mature: he feels that he is getting old, mainly because he is retired and feels stiff after walking several miles. He he not only meditates on the past, but embarks on a friendship with an ex-girlfriend. And he finds a new purpose through writing. Like Jong’s Vanessa and Lessing’s Kate, he comes to term with aging.
I wonder if I can count E. F. Benson’s Lucia books as novels about aging? Probably not, but the characters are not young.
What are your favorite novels about aging?
I loved The Summer Before Dark. I do love Doris Lessing’s realistic novels, or those with a naturalistic surface as well as her memoirs and essays.
Yes, that is her strength! This is one of my favorites.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, and almost anything by May Sarton.
Thanks, Julie! I saw the movie “Mrs. Palfrey” but have not read the book. I must remedy that because I love Elizabeth Taylor.!
I loved Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population (sci-fi, but I don’t hesitate to mention that to you!) and Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (though as much about her past as her present state of deterioration). Also I adore Joan Barfoot’s Exit Lines, but I understand that it’s too dark for some.
Thank you for the recommendations! I have read a couple of Moon’s books and loved them, but completely missed out on Remnant Population. Margaret Laurence is so good I should reread her. I don’t know Joan Barfoot. Well, dark is dark and I might try it anyway!