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?

Sigrid Undset’s Marta Oulie & Goodreads Gladiators


Sigrid Undset Marta Oulie 31vrQ2hXW6L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Sigrid  Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, is best known for her brilliant historical trilogy, Kristin Lavrandsatter, and The Master of Hestviken tetralogy.  I recently reread Kristin Lavransdatter, one of my favorite books of all time.  (I wrote about it here.)

I just read Sigrid Undset’s breathtaking novella, Marta Oulie (1907), her first published book, available in a new translation by Tina Nunnally.

Told in the form of a diary, this beautifully-written novella is the story of Marta Oulie, a woman crushed with guilt because she has been unfaithful to her husband, Otto.  He is dying of tuberculosis in a sanatorium, and his letters bore her, another cause for guilt.  He knows nothing about her affair with Henrik, her cousin and his business partner.  He always asks about their youngest daughter, Ase, his favorite child, but she is actually Henrik’s child.

She knows it would shatter him to learn the truth.  She has to bear the burden of her guilt.

I know only his life would be destroyed so thoroughly that nothing would be left of it.  Where would he turns with such a boundless, appalling grievance?  The fact that we betrayed him, while he himself was so faithful, painfully faithful in every way.  Ever since we were married, I’ve seen how he lives for his home, for me and the children–as if we were his creditors, and it was our right to take every hour that he could spare and every ore he earned.

Marta Oulie is reminiscent of Tolstoy’s early story, Family Happiness, a predecessor of Anna Karenina.

tolstoy family happiness 1c94ec11a4834908724063c680f68249In both stories, a marriage begins happily, but becomes boring to the women.  Both heroines (Marta and Tolstoy’s Masha) tire of their constricted lives. Marta, a teacher, is restless. She was very much in love with Otto when they married, but after her second child she needed something else.

I think it actually began as a kind of weariness.  I had become sated with happiness.  I’ve read somewhere that happiness is always the same. And it was.

This is a powerful allusion to the opening of Anna Karenina :  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  And it certainly foreshadows the tragedy of Undset’s plot.

Happiness can turn into unhappiness very quickly.The heroine of Marta shifts speedily from the mere flirtatiousness of Masha in Family Happiness to the infidelity of Anna Karenina. Otto, a successful if not very bright businessman,  is annoyed when she returns to teaching after the birth of their second child.  He wants her at home, where it can be seen that he supports her financially, and he also objects to her spending time at  women’s clubs where she discusses, among other things, women’s rights.  She does not want to be reduced to “nothing more than one of the entries” in her husband’s “catalog of blessings.”

Her affair with Henrik began because she noticed he was attracted to her.  He says he has been in love with her since childhood.  Of course they break it off eventually, but Otto’s illness is a heavy price to pay.  Not only does she realize that Otto is a good man as he lies dying but frantically realizes she is losing the protection of a man.  Otto converts to a dramatic form of Christianity before he dies; Marta cannot believe. What will her future be without Otto?

This book is billed as “a novel of betrayal,” but it is actually a “novella of betrayal” (just so you’ll know! ).  It is a perfect little book.  Not my favorite Undset, but one i’ll reread.


kingsley amis the old devils vintage 41c1d74LerL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ I know, I know:  you don’t expect me to wrtie about Goodreads.  I trashed it at this blog once. But I am now a full-fledged gladiator of the consumer culture.  “We who are about to read salute you!”

Some of the reviews are great, others absurdly brash.  What do I enjoy?  The star ratings. I disapprove, but they’re so much fun! Sigrid Undset’s Marta Oulie?   I gave it 5 stars out of 5. Kristin Lavransdatter?  5 stars.  D. E. Stevenson’s Katherine Wentworth?  5 stars.  Laura Caspary’s Bedelia?  5 stars.

I gave everything 5 stars!


amis_the-old-devils-fcx-700pxI gave 4 stars to Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils.

And now I’m guilt-racked.

I haven’t blogged about Amis’s brilliant Booker Prize-winning novel because I didn’t enjoy it much.  It’s not that it’s not a perfect book:  it is!  But Bookerish?  I’m not sure.   I was in the mood for another satiric Lucky Jim. and naturally he did not write the same book over and over.

In the short, sharp-edged novel, The Old Devils, Amis portrays a group of elderly couples in Wales whose lives are disrupted when their friend Alun Weaver, a self-promoting Welsh poet,  returns from England to retire. His cronies, who spend their days drinking hard, have their own problems (constipation, nightmares, not being able to reach down to cut their own toenails), and are not impressed by Alun.  In fact, they disapprove of his schmoozing with reporters.

Their hard-drinking wives also”know’ Alun a little too well.  But this story of old people drinking together is amusing , because of his perfect characterizations and honest sketches of the indignity of aging.  Charlieo has panic attacks and nightmares but shoots straight from the hip when it comes to criticism of Alun’s work; Dorothy is always drunk and ranting about New Zealand, where her daughter lives, but her old friends put up with her; Peter, an unhappily married fat man who had an affair long ago with Alun’s wife, Rhiannon, still loves her; and Rhiannon, my favorite character in any Kingsley book, is both charming and kind.  Honestly, if we could all be that kind and charming.  And as good-looking!  The novel rolls along easily but…

Why CAN’T I give it four stars? It’s not my favorite, and the average rating is 3.35.  But I just can’t do it.  IT’S  THE FORMER SCHOOLMARM IN ME. My professors would be spinning in their graves if they saw Goodreads. Thank you for the liberal arts education, by the way.   The average Goodreads rating for The Old Devils  is 3.35–a C!  I have to laugh… and if I’m going to be a Goodreads Gladiator I must change my four-star rating to a five in the pursuit of fairness!  Let’s face it:  whether or not I enjoyed it, it is brilliant book.

Here’s a synopsis of the Goodreads page (sans consumer reviews).  Sorry, it doesn’t allow me to copy the page with stars and images for some reason.  But it looks sort of like this.

the-old-devils amisThe Old Devils by Kingsley Amis, John Banville (Introduction)
3.35 · Rating Details · 1,989 Ratings · 143 Reviews
Age has done everything except mellow the characters in Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, which turns its humane and ironic gaze on a group of Welsh married couples who have been spending their golden years—when “all of a sudden the evening starts starting after breakfast”—nattering, complaining, reminiscing, and, above all, drinking. This more or less orderly social world i …more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published October 2nd 2012 by NYRB Classics (first published 1986)

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim: Is It Funny?

AMis lucky jim t100_novels_lucky_jimI chortled as I reread Lucky Jim.

In Kingsley Amis’s brilliant academic satire, a novel I have loved since my college days, the hero, Jim Dixon, teaches medieval history at a provincial university.   He has no interest in his subject, makes faces behind the back of the department chair, steals a taxi from one of the more genial professors, and is aware of the absurdity of an article he is trying to publish, which has the farcical title, ” The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”

How could I not laugh? Kingsley Amis was an “angry young man.”  Jim is an angry young man. Jim’s article is tripe.

I reread Lucky Jim for a peculiar reason: Patricia Meyer Spacks trashed it in her fascinating book, On Rereading.

Spacks on Rereading 41ePBMKeIOL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Spacks’s vigorous, opinionated book is worth a look for the brilliant essay on Jane Austen’s Emma, but her readings of many twentieth-century novels are conservative.  Yes, she likes P. G. Wodehouse, but she dismisses Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as anti-male, hates J. D. Salinger’s classic, Catcher in the Rye, and deems Lucky Jim unfunny.  These three novels all challenge the assumptions of a capitalist society.

I’m wondering if Spacks so disliked Lucky Jim because it ridicules her profession.  She is the Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia.

Amis’s entire novel is hysterically funny, but I especially like the scenes at the department chair Professor Welch’s arty weekend. They are expected to sing part-songs and madrigals, read a French play aloud (Jim has an odd accent), and watch a demonstration of sword-dance steps.

Although the other participants sing along jovially, Jim is unhappy.

Dixon ran his eyes along the lines of black dots, which seemed to go up and down a good deal, and was able to assure himself that everyone was going to have to sing all the time.  He’d had a bad setback twenty minutes ago in some Brahms rubbish which began with some ten seconds of unsupported tenor–more accurately, of unsupported Goldsmith, who’d twice dried up in face of a tricky interval and left him opening and shutting his mouth in silence….  Why hadn’t they had the decency to ask him if he wanted to join in, instead of driving him up on to this platform arrangement and forcing sheets of paper into his hand.

Jim escapes to the pub after a quarrel with Welch’s son, Bernard, a pompous artist. He is drunk when he returns.

I  had a similar, though less traumatic, experience as a young woman.  I was invited (I hope kindly) to a sophisticated colleague’s party.  We stood around the piano singing Gilbert and Sullivan.  It was a nightmare.

I can’t sing.  I grew up on the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Not a single Gilbert and Sullivan record in the house.  Nope.   I drank three imported beers.  This was frowned upon.  Perhaps those three beers were for the entire party!

Lucky Jim Amis penguin 0002It is not just Amis’s satire of academia that amuses me, but Jim’s alienation of those with control over his teaching contract.  Most of us have had jobs we don’t care for.  I wonder from Spacks’s criticism if we are allowed to admit this anymore.

And then there is the episode of the burnt sheets.

After Jim returns from the pub, he falls asleep while smoking.  When he awakes, he finds  he has burned holes in Mrs. Welch’s sheets, the blanket, the rug, and a table.  He cuts the holes into rectangles.  Despairingly, he shows the damage to Bertrand’s girlfriend, Christine, who laughs as she helps him smuggle the table into a storeroom.

Will Jim’s contract be renewed?

Such a charming, hilarious book!