How Old Are You? Aging in Literature

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  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?

Doubles in Elena Ferrante’s “The Story of a New Name” & Erica Jong’s “Fear of Dying;” And Books I’ll Never Blog About

Erica Jong Fear of Dying 41zXii1q0qL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Story of a New Name by Ferrante 41nSyupOdRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am far, far behind in blogging about books. Will I ever catch up?  Well, no.  I write Mirabile Dictu four to six days a week (whew!), so I sometimes choose only marginally bookish topics.

But today I had a brainstorm: doubling up on two novels about doubles, Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name and Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying.

In 2013 I read the first book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend.  I enjoyed it, but it was a bit like reading  an Italian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And I didn’t continue with the series, till every publication in the world had praised the tetralogy. I finally read the second novel, The Story of a New Name.

It is easy to see why these books are best-sellers. Ann Goldstein’s translations are elegant, and they are very fast reads.  There is something for the literary reader, and something for the reader of pop fiction.   On the Sept. 20 New York Times Best-Seller list, My Briliant Friend is No. 6 and the latest book, The Story of the Lost Child, is No. 7.

The Story of a New Name is a delightful realistic novel.  Still, I quickly sussed out that it is about doubles, and even possession,  rather than a literal friendship.   Elena, the novelist narrator, and Lila, the troublemaker, are childhood friends who squabble, compete, adore writing, read the same copy of Little Women, and grow up in a poor neighborhood in Naples.  Lila breaks all the rules, but is ultimately the least fortunate: she drops out of school to work in her father’s shoe shop and marries the grocer’s son at 16, while  Elena achieves their childhood dreams by graduating from secondary school, going to college, and becoming a writer.

The Story of a New Name begins with Elena’s destroying Lila’s secret childhood notebooks.  Lila, fearful that her husband will  read them, entrusts them to Elena.  Elena reads them, memorizes her favorite parts, and yet is disturbed by a certain artificiality.  She  pushes the box of notebooks off a bridge because  “I couldn’t stand feeling Lila on me and in me, even now that I was esteemed myself, even now that I had a life outside of Naples….”

Later in the book, when they are on vacation at the beach without Lila’s husband, Lila swipes Elena’s boyfriend, Nino, seemingly because she has to have whatever Elena has.  She also reads the books Nino lends to Elena and talks more intelligently about Beckett and politics.  She trumps whatever Elena or Nino says.

Elena is furious.

I couldn’t take it anymore.  What I already knew and what I nevertheless was hiding from myself became perfectly clear:  she, too, now saw Nino as the only person able to save her.  She had taken possession of my old feeling, had made it her own.  And, knowing what she was like, I had no doubts:  she would knock down every obstacle and continue to the end.

By the end of the book, Elena has written her thesis on Book IV of the Aeneid, graduated from college, and published her first novel.  At home in Naples, she receives her own package of  childhood notebooks from the sister of a dead teacher. The notebooks are charming, and Elena smiles at the spelling mistakes and the “good”s and “excellent”s in the margins.  But in the midst of her notebooks, she finds Lila’s little book, The Blue Fairy, which Lila wrote as a child.  And then she realizes that Lila’s The Blue Fairy had inspired her own novel. Their lives are parallel.  They are almost like one person.  Are Ferrante’s books autobiographical, as everyone speculates?  Yes, perhaps:  we all have difficult friendships; but these also seem to be about different aspects of the same person.  Elena and Lila are like Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

Erica Jong

   Erica Jong

Don’t underrate Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying a brilliant little novel about aging, sex, and death.  Jong, 73, is one of the old-style feminists who believe in power and sex for women.  She is often compared to Henry Miller, that risk-taking novelist whose lively, philosophical, autobiographical novels about sex were banned until 1964.

I thought this was a sequel to Fear of Flying, Jong’s first novel, the story of Isadora Wing, a writer in search of the “zipless fuck.” Alas, Fear of Dying is not about Isadora, but it hardly matters, because the narrator, Vanessa Wonderman, is Isadora’s friend.  They are so alike they might as well be doubles.

Vanessa, 60, is a retired actress, best known for her role as a villainess in a soap opera.  The daughter of two actors who owned a rare bookstore, she wears $1,000-shoes and is a believer in plastic surgery.  But ignore her wealth:  her feelings are the feelings of any older woman, hating the thought of moving beyond her prime.  Her rich husband, Asher,  is in the hospital after an aneurism.  When she is not at the hospital with Asher, she visits her parents, in their nineties, who are not always cognizant of who she is, and are dying in their apartment, with 24-hour caregivers, when they are not in the hospital.

Vanessa hates the prospect of losing her parents.  She also hates getting older herself.  She is losing her looks: now her daughter has them now.  Vanessa, who misses the days when men ogled her, badly needs sex. Can we blame her for looking for it at  She meets a normal-looking man who takes her to a hotel and wants her to wear a rubber suit.  When she says no, he calls her a bitch.

Vanessa’s and Isadora’s sharing of women’s wisdom at frequent meetings is one of the highlights of the book.At a coffehouse, Isadora joshes her about the rubber suit.  “HOw do you know you wouldn’t like it?”

But then…

“At one point in my life I may have been a love junkie, but it taught me a lot–and I would never be fooled by a site like Zipless now–even though I named it.  Sex on the internet is much overrated.”


“Because most people drawn there are confusing fantasy with reality.  They think they know what they want, but they don’t.”

“What do they really want?”

“Connection.  Slow sex in a fast world.  You can’t get that from a woman in a rubber suit.  Or a man.”

I think about it.  Isadora is right.  We all want connection, and the velocity of our culture makes it harder and harder to find.

And I think that both Isadora and Vanessa are right.

Surprisingly, the book follows the trajectory of a Jane Austen novel.  Marriage is stability, and we learn whether or not the sex can be repaired.  It’s a sad book, but a very good one.  Vanessa finds what she is looking for.

Before I go, here is a  short list of books I loved but will not be blogging about.

  1.  huxley point counter point c69eb10e5f34e9d21de54b8a8cbacb94Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, a brilliant 1920s satiric novel about Bright Young Things, with a huge cast of characters, writers, artists, scientists, anarchists and suicides.  So many miserable love affairs!
  2. Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.  Often compared to Hamlet, this Jacobean revenge tragedy makes Hamlet’s meditation and play within the play seem tame.  Vindice chats to his dead girlfriend’s skull, vowing revenge on the Duke who poisoned her when she refused to sleep with him. That skull is really creepy.  Vindice and his brother get so carried away that almost everybody dies!  (This fascinating play, which I’d love to see, used to be attributed to Cyril Tourneur.)
  3. Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse.  A classic mystery, said by A. S. Byatt to be her favorite.  She wrote the intro to the new Folio Society edition.
  4. Jean Kerr’s Penny Candy.  A delightful collection of humor pieces by the author of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.  I laughed hard when she goes to a play and  is wearing the same dress as the transvestite on stage.

Sex, Feminism, & How to Save Your Own Life

Remember this famous picture of the beautiful Erica Jong?

Erica Jong

Sometimes one wonders where feminism went.

We still spend hours listening to pop songs about the men who love us and dump us.  We still love rom/coms where the girl gets the guy, even if he’s obnoxious.  And we are supposed to want a romance with Edward in Twilight, a vampire, even though in Stephenie Meyer’s  fourth book, Breaking Dawn, Bella’s longed-for sex with Edward leaves bruises all over her body.  (Vampires and human aren’t meant to mate.)

How to Save Your Own LIfe erica JongI am reading Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own life, the sequel to Fear of Flying.  Jong sensitively explores Isadora Wing’s alienation from her husband, her affairs with unattractive male friends she loves, and with attractive men she doesn’t love, and her feminist philosophy in progress.

I wonder if this novel might be too radical for today’s audience.  It’s not necessarily the sex.  It’s the ideology.

It’s refreshing to read Erica Jong in 1977 on shopping and makeup as a substitute for sex.   Feminists used to try to escape the sexist image of women as dolls who made up their faces, dyed their hair, and shopped for shoes.

Suddenly I had a vision of a whole world of women starved for sex and making do with all sorts of buyable substitutes. Making up. A woman who spent her afternoons with a lover would never again find herself in Bloomingdale’s fingering Mary Cunt or lusting after Elizabeth Ardent. She’d go barefaced as a baby and throw her charge plate in the nearest sewer. Isn’t that the problem? That women have been swindled for centuries into substituting adornment for love, fashion (as it were) for passion? The main floor of Bloomingdale’s by Hieronymus Bosch!

Very funny!  And many women of my generation thought this in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,  and then we gave up.

What do you think about Jong’s radicalism?

The Summer of Aeschylus & Other Summer Reading

beach_books(2)I am always fascinated by summer reading articles.  They tell us that we won’t be able to read classics on vacation.  They tell us we have vowed to read Proust, but won’t do it.  They tell us we will apparently be too stoned on ganja on that island to read.

Well, they won’t tell us that.

I’m not going to an island this summer.

For me it will be the summer of Aeschylus.

My deepest regret is that I didn’t take that Aeschylus seminar in graduate school.  (Writing a freelance feature on my wedding day wasn’t a good choice, but it wasn’t life-changing.)

Aeschylus Prometheus BoundIf I could go back in time,  I would enroll in the Aeschylus seminar.

So now you see why I have to read Aeschylus.

I am making up for the semester that was my last chance to take an Aeschylus seminar.

This summer I will read parts of Aeschylus in Greek, parts in English.

I have begun with the David Grene translation of Prometheus Bound.

Bright light, swift-winged winds, springs of the river, numberless
laughter of the sea’s waves, earth, mother of all, and the all-seeing
circle of the sun:  I call on you to see what I, a God, suffer
at the hands of Gods–
see with what kind of torture
worn down I shall wrestle ten thousand
years of time–

As Grene says in the introduction,

We are never told why Zeus wished to destroy man.  There is no indication what sort of animal he wished to put in his place, but, insofar as Prometheus in disobedience to Zeus enlightened man by the gift of intelligence, it may be assumed that Zeus’s creation would have had no such dangerous potentialities of development.

Prometheus says:

In helping man I brought my troubles on me;
but yet I did not think that with such tortures
I should be wasted on these airy cliffs–

It is the Summer of Aeschylus.

OTHER SUMMER READING.  It is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. What do you think of the new cover for the Penguin Deluxe Classic edition of Fear of Flying?

Fear of Flying erica jong

Erica Jong’s heroine’s “zipless fuck” doesn’t look like much fun here, does it?  I mean, just lying there, unzipped?

I prefer the more feminist rendering of the “zipless” on the old cover art.

Erica Jong Fear of Flying originalAnd I prefer Jong’s narrative to the cover art.

What do you think?

I am now reading Jong’s fascinating sequel to FOF, How to Save Your Own Life, which has given me more ideas for summer reading.

How to Save Your Own LIfe erica JongThe heroine, Isadora Wing, now a famous writer, is stuck reading galleys of friends’ novels.

Reading was becoming more and more of a chore. I yearned for the days when I could sitdown with a copy of Bleak House or Tom Jones without thinking guiltily of the galleys on the floor by my desk.

Should I read Bleak House again?

Perhaps Tom Jones is more in the spirit of Jong’s books.

Tom_Jones_by_Henry_FieldingI do like this cover.