Yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive. And yes, he’s still writing, superbly. On the eve of his 100th birthday—it arrives Sunday, March 24—the poet laureate of San Francisco has produced a delightful little mongrel of a book called Little Boy. It opens by lulling the reader into believing it’s going to be a conventional memoir and then–blammo!–it veers into a scintillating free-form riff on…on…on what, exactly? Youth and philosophy and aging and death? Kerouac and Cervantes and Ginsberg and Henry Miller? Yes and no and I can’t say for sure. Here’s a sample that will give you a taste of this autobiographical novel’s delicious heedlessness:
Jack Kerouac and his merry band and not so merry as all that in fact quite the opposite in their imagined quest for you name it an America that no longer existed even as he embarked to find it with his crazy crew oh and it wasn’t just America they were looking for driven as they were by testosterone and the rage of living personified by one Neal Cassady the driven driver of their beat jalopy…
Maybe the best way to appreciate this bawdy, ebullient book’s nearly punctuation-free river of prose is to dip into it at random. Here’s Ferlinghetti on Henry Miller, another writer who lived a very long life:
AND it’s our last Hurrah and keep your pecker up for if you outlive your pecker where does that leave you like Henry from Brooklyn with the great gift of gab who all his life kept it up and wrote great books with it but then kept writing when his pecker couldn’t write anymore like an old fountain pen run dry oh daddy call me a cab…
Here’s a confession: “I was never much of a rebel back then or now.” And here’s a lament: “Oh the time lost and no other memory of it…”
For all its verbal sparks and wordplay, the book provides solid documentation that Ferlinghetti’s was a rich and eventful life. His father died before he was born. His first language was French. “I thought I was Tom Sawyer catching crayfish in the Bronx River and imagining the Mississippi,” he writes, “I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion at five in the afternoon and the Herald Trib at five in the morning…I saw Lindbergh land…I chopped trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps and sat on them, I landed in Normandy in a row boat that turned over…” He also witnessed the devastation of Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped, an experience that turned him into a lifelong pacifist.
After surviving the Second World War he made his way to California, where he was reborn as a poet and publisher, translator and social activist, promoter of Beat writers but, he insisted, not one of them. “I was never a Beat poet,” he declared in a documentary. But he was certainly a fellow traveler. He was arrested, and later acquitted, on an obscenity charge for publishing a 75-cent paperback copy of Allen Ginsberg’s monumental Howl.
Ferlinghetti, founder of San Francisco’s revered City Lights bookstore, has written more than 50 volumes of poetry, fiction, art criticism, and translation. His best-known book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, has sold more than a million copies, a staggering number. Along the way, Ferlinghetti has become something much larger than a poet or a writer, a Beat or a Buddhist. He’s our longest-living ambassador of the written word, a relic from a time when a certain type of person treated books as sacred objects rather than as products that could be sold at a profit. I realized this way back in the early 1970s, when I was wandering up and down the coast of California, working odd jobs, traveling in a retrofitted pickup with my dog, trying to write an apprentice novel, living out my own Travels With Charley meets On the Road fantasy. Whenever I passed through San Francisco I went straight to City Lights, where I spent countless hours doing something that went way beyond any definition of browsing. I read entire books, in installments, but rarely spent any money because I was always broke. Yet I never once got a filthy look from a clerk when I exited the store empty-handed. It was that kind of place. Amazing to realize the store was already two decades old and that it’s still in business today, nearly half a century later. Only a true believer could create such a cathedral of the written word. Given the staff’s forbearance, it’s a miracle the place ever turned a profit.
That miracle is the doing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it. I’m also grateful for his wondrous new book Little Boy, a valediction, a summing up, a rosy exclamation point at the end of a life well lived.
Image credit: Flickr/Christopher Michel.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Bryan Washington, Siri Hustvedt, Polly Rosenwaike, Claudia Rankine and more—that are publishing this week.
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Look How Happy I’m Making You: “The 12 stories in Rosenwaike’s striking debut collection portray women of childbearing age confronting the challenges of becoming, or not becoming, a mother. In ‘Grow Your Eyelashes,’ a web developer admires a baby on a bus while recalling her own fruitless efforts to get pregnant. Freelance editor Cora, of ‘Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,’ has a miscarriage. In incisive language, Rosenwaike evokes the baby’s miniature hands and swollen cheeks; the cavernous, windowless institute where Leah works; and Cora writing pleasant work emails despite her throbbing uterus. Longing and anxiety pervade ‘White Carnations’ as four motherless, childless friends celebrate Mother’s Day together, and ‘June,’ in which an expectant mother feels torn between her unborn daughter and dying aunt. Self-aware humor helps baby Alice’s parents through her first Christmas/Hanukkah gathering in ‘Welcome to Your Family’ and a wakeful infant’s parents through the night in ‘Parental Fade.’ The road to parenthood is paved with denial in ‘The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy,’ resistance in ‘Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression,’ and overwhelming affection in ‘Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.’ Rosenwaike’s edgy stories are endearingly honest, excruciatingly detailed, and irresistibly intimate, expertly depicting what motherhood means to millennials.”
Far Country by Franco Moretti
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Far Country: ‘Short in pages, and compressed in style,’ according to the author, this smart collection from Moretti (The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature), cofounder of the Stanford Literary Lab, takes five introductory lectures on literary history out of the classroom. His selections pair authors in unexpected ways, such as Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire, or Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, or, branching out from literature, Jans Vermeer and Edward Hopper. Moretti has a penchant for grammatical analysis, at one point counting the number of prepositional phrases (25) in a passage from Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ He observes that sentences such as ‘In his shirt the breast pockets bulged against him with his lunch and his fly book’ tell the reader what the character has already done, so that action is implied, but ‘not really visible anymore.’ This interest in the invisible or the ‘missing thing’ also gets applied to the use of repetition in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (Moretti argues that the difficulty of Stein’s language duplicates the problem of expressing one’s inner state), and to the sense of mystery Vermeer creates about what might have happened just before the scene depicted in a painting. Learned without being difficult or jargony, Moretti proves that criticism can be both thought provoking and fun.”
Horizon by Barry Lopez
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Horizon: “A globe-trotting nature writer meditates on the fraught interactions between people and ecosystems in this sprawling environmentalist travelogue. Essayist Lopez (Arctic Dreams) recounts episodes from decades of his travels, most of them tied to scientific investigations: camping on the Oregon coast while considering the exploits of British explorer James Cook; examining archaeological sites in the high Arctic while reflecting on the harshness of life there; hunting for hominin fossils in Kenya while weighing human evolution; scuba-diving under an Antarctic ice shelf while observing the rich marine biota. His free-associative essays blend vivid reportage on landscapes, wildlife, and the knotty relationships among the scientists he accompanies with larger musings on natural history, environmental and climate crises, and the sins of Western imperialism in erasing indigenous cultures. It’s often hard to tell where Lopez is going with his frequent digressions: one two-page section skitters from global cancer rates past a one-eyed goshawk he once saw in Namibia to an astrophysics experiment at the South Pole to detect dark matter, with no particular conclusion. Still, his prose is so evocative—during a tempest at sea, ‘veils of storm-ripped water ballooned in the air around us’ amid ‘the high-pitched mewling of albatrosses, teetering impossibly forty feet away from us on the wind’—and his curiosity so infectious that readers will be captivated.”
Lot by Bryan Washington
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lot: “Washington debuts with a stellar collection in which he turns his gaze onto Houston, mapping the sprawl of both the city and the relationships within it, especially those between young black and brown boys. About half of the stories share a narrator, whose transition into manhood is complicated by an adulterous and absent father, a hypermasculine brother, a sister who leaves their neighborhood the first chance she gets, and a mother who learns that she and her restaurant may no longer be welcome in a gentrifying Houston. All this is on top of his grappling with the revelation that he might be attracted to men. Washington is exact and empathetic, and the character that emerges is refreshingly unapologetic about his sexuality, even as it creates rifts in his family. In general, there is a vein of queerness in these stories that runs deep and rich. Washington excels when he gets playful with his narration, like the Greek chorus of ‘Alief,’ in which the residents of an apartment complex acknowledge their role in an affair and its disastrous ending. And in the best stories, such as ‘South Congress,’ ‘Waugh,’ and ‘Elgin,’ Washington captures the dual severity and tenderness of the world for young people. Washington is a dynamic writer with a sharp eye for character, voice, and setting. This is a remarkable collection from a writer to watch.”
The Parade by Dave Eggers
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Parade: “Eggers’s unremarkable latest (after The Monk of Mokha) follows two unnamed men sent to an unnamed country by an unnamed corporation to pave a road. The country—tropical, malarial—is emerging from years of civil war, and a new road running through the heart of the country is intended to be a first step by the government to unite the populace. The men charged with paving it are code-named Four and Nine. Four is a stoic company man intent on getting the job done ahead of schedule and with as little fuss as possible. Nine exists seemingly only to annoy Four; he talks incessantly, has no problem breaking company protocol—particularly when it comes to interacting with locals, which the company prohibits but he engages in endlessly—and does pretty much anything other than his job, including playing in a potentially contaminated river. As Four gets to work, Nine becomes increasingly irresponsible, and after his antics predictably get him ill and in trouble with the locals, both men end up in a precarious, possibly grave, situation. The repetitive narrative, sparse prose, and overall vagueness lend this an allegorical feel, and because the reader spends the whole book waiting for the hammer to drop, when it finally does (on the last page), it lands with more a thud than a wallop. There’s nothing particularly bad about this, but it comes across as more an exercise than a full-blooded novel.”
Waiting for Bojangles by Olivier Bourdeaut (translated by Regan Kramer)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Waiting for Bojangles: “Bourdeaut’s debut, an international bestseller, is a wacky, melancholy tribute by a loving young son to his charmed life in the company of his eccentric parents. In his own words, and quoting diaries his father kept—each often falling into rhyming verse—the boy recalls his unconventional upbringing. His mother is beautiful and mad, and dances her way through his childhood. His father is indulgent and kind, giving up his job when his son is born and always telling ‘such beautiful lies for love.’ The two met and married one night on a whim, and their life proceeds as a succession of parties and holidays, even after the boy’s birth. The narrator chronicles alcohol-fueled evenings, an old-fashioned turntable always playing Nina Simone’s ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ sunlit weeks in Spain after being confronted by the taxman, and so many days late to school that the boy is simply allowed to stop going altogether. Their household is chaotic, and includes an exotic squawking crane and occasionally a famous senator (whom the father worked for). But the boy’s mother teeters on the brink of insanity, and sorrows fall on her ‘from somewhere very, very high.’ When darkness threatens to overcome the intensity of light she has always thrown off, father and son go to great lengths to try to protect her. This fanciful love story, fraught with sadness, is a sweet meditation on the more unorthodox gifts that parents leave the children they cherish.”
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Memories of the Future: “This provocative, experimental novel from Hustvedt (The Blazing World) joins several narratives to illustrate the roles of memory and perspective in making sense of a life. A version of the author, called S.H. and nicknamed Minnesota by her friends for her state of origin, stumbles through her first year in New York, which begins in August, 1978. Having saved up her money and postponed graduate school, she has given herself a year to write a novel in a ‘grim apartment in a scraped, chipped, battered building.’ Passages from that dryly humorous, meandering novel, which follows a misfit pair of teenage detectives, are interspersed with the memories of the now 61-year-old narrator, selections from her journals in 1978 and ’79, and slices of the life of ‘proto-punk’ Dada poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who serves as a sort of muse. Dominating S.H.’s memories of her year in New York is her fascination with the disturbed older woman in the next apartment, Lucy Brite, to whose rants she listens regularly with a stethoscope pressed to the wall, and for whom she becomes an unexpected savior when Lucy is assaulted. The many moods and flavors of this brash ‘portrait of the artist as a young woman’ constantly reframe and complicate the story, making for a fascinating shape-shifter of a novel.”
Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Boy: “‘I’ve always been off in my own burb in some suburb of consciousness dreaming away or otherwise goofing off,’ writes the author of this wonderfully effusive autobiographical prose poem. Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, etc.), who turns 100 this year, offers a lyrical accounting of his life, both the ‘Me-me-me,’ with whom he identifies, and ‘the Other,’ who is his ‘shadow self.’ He also reflects on his private preoccupations with such broader issues as ‘ecological meltdown,’ third-world politics, and the ‘bad breath… of industrial civilization’—what he refers to as a way ‘to find the universal in the particular.’ He provides vivid memories of his tumultuous childhood, shuttled between family, orphanages, and the foster family he eventually chose for his own, and his wartime experiences as part of the D-Day invasion. Ferlinghetti’s prose pulses with the enjambments that energized the beats, whose work he published (famously, Ginsberg’s Howl), and it’s punctuated with such stunningly evocative metaphors as his recall of himself in Paris in 1948 as ‘a little like Conrad carrying Coleridge’s albatross and the albatross my past’—one of the numerous literary allusions that pepper the text. This book is a Proustian celebration of both memory and moments that will delight readers.”
Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Oksana, Behave!: “Kuznetsova’s standout debut offers a fresh and funny look into the life of a bold young immigrant woman. Told in a series of long vignettes, Oksana’s story begins in her last moments in Ukraine as a young girl and traverses the U.S. from Florida to Ohio, the East Coast to the West Coast over the next 20-odd years. Along with her fiery, sexy grandmother, her gentle and brilliant father, and her nervous but loving mother, Oksana attempts to assimilate, but her efforts are thwarted by her own bad behavior. Known as ‘little idiot’ to her family, Oksana seems incapable of taking on the role of Model Immigrant. In middle school, she attempts to blackmail the principal of her school; by high school, she has an illicit relationship with her troubled track coach. And in her young adulthood, she sleeps around and relies on substances to help repress her family’s painful past. Using light humor, Kuznetsova tackles difficult themes in her sparky narrator’s life; the nuances of trauma and campus rape culture are particularly well handled. While a yearning and affection for her homeland underlie much of the novel, Oksana’s story is that of a young woman making her own place in a world both new and familiar. This accomplished and frank work is a new take on an immigrant girl’s complicated coming-of-age.”
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Island of Sea Women: “See (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane) once again explores how culture survives and morphs in this story of a real-life Korean female diving collective. Young-Sook and Mi-Ja meet as young girls in 1939 in Hado, a village on the island of Jeju, where traditionally the women earn a living while their husbands care for the children and home. The two girls begin training as haenyeo, divers who harvest oysters, sea slugs, and octopi from the sea. But after WWII when American occupation of southern Korea begins, the two grow apart. While Young-Sook struggles to make ends meet for her family, Mi-Ja’s husband’s role in the government spares her the economic suffering endured by most of the country. But after Mi-Ja’s family betrays Young-Sook, Young-Sook struggles for decades to reconcile her anger with fond memories of her friend, even after their families cross paths again. Jumping between the WWII era and 2008, See perceptively depicts challenges faced by Koreans over the course of the 20th century, particularly homing in on the ways the haenyeo have struggled to maintain their way of life. Exposing the depths of human cruelty and resilience, See’s lush tale is a wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women.”
American book publishers have forever been on the lookout for the next hot young thing. In a country built by people who shucked the old world in favor of a new one they got to make up on the fly, this hunger for newness — in books and just about everything else — was probably an inevitable strain of the national character. And it hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. A very cursory list of American writers who got published before they turned 25 includes Truman Capote, Michael Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Karen Russell, Gore Vidal, and David Foster Wallace. Not a single dog in that pack.
But for every hot young thing who went on to a long and venerable career, there are dozens, hundreds, who blazed briefly and then vanished. Moreover, publishing’s abiding obsession with fresh voices ignores a curious fact about our current literary scene: a startling number of the finest writers at work today are not twentysomethings; they’re eightysomethings. Yes, we’re witnessing the unlikely rise of the octogenarian hottie. (Fellow staff writer Sonya Chung explores and celebrates the work of later-in-life writers at our sister site, Bloom.) Here are sketches of a half-dozen members of this implausibly durable and prolific tribe.
At the age of 84, Gay Talese has just published his 14th work of non-fiction. As we have come to expect from one of our greatest living journalists, The Voyeur’s Motel is richly reported, elegantly written — and deeply disturbing. Above all, it’s a testament to the payoffs when a skilled reporter stays in for the long haul. Talese, who once wrote for and then wrote a book about our newspaper of record, calls himself “a man of record.” In bulging file cabinets in his subterranean bunker in New York City, he tucks away every scrap of research for possible use at a later date. He discards nothing because he understands that everything has the potential to become a story.
This obsessive collecting accounts for the existence of The Voyeur’s Motel. The titular character is Gerald Foos, who bought a motel near Denver in the 1960s for the express purpose of spying on his guests. He cut holes in the ceilings of several rooms, then installed fake vents that allowed him to climb into the attic and observe everything that happened in the rooms below. In 1980, Foos wrote an anonymous letter about his project to Talese, who was about to publish his best-seller about sex in America, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not just as some deranged voyeur,” Foos wrote, adding, “I have logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I have watched, and compiled interesting statistics on each…”
Intrigued, Talese eventually visited the Manor House Motel and accompanied Foos into his attic observatory for several voyeuristic sessions. But since Foos was not willing to reveal his identity — and since Talese insists on using real names — the notes went into Talese’s file cabinets, along with the copious journal entries Foos began to send. Foos insisted that his retrofitted motel was not the lair of “some pervert or Peeping Tom,” but rather “the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state.” He saw himself as a “pioneering sex researcher” in a league with Masters and Johnson.
Foos’s journals chronicled every imaginable kind of participant in every imaginable scenario: sex between happily and unhappily married couples, group sex, swingers, cross-dressers, a nun, drug dealers, prostitutes, con artists, wounded Vietnam veterans, and one guy who had sex with a teddy bear. Foos even witnessed a murder. But since the voyeur remained unwilling to go on the record, Talese filed away the journal entries and eventually forgot about Gerald Foos.
Then in 2013 — 33 years after he first wrote to Talese, and several years after he sold his two motels — Foos called Talese to announce that he was finally willing to go public with his story. Talese was ready. He had everything he needed in chronological order in his file cabinets, including the fact that the voyeur’s experiment became a long slide into misanthropy. After decades of peeping, Foos concluded: “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest. They are part of a fantasy world of exaggerators, game players, tricksters, intriguers, thieves, and people in private who are never what they portray themselves as being in public.”
When Talese made one last research trip to Colorado in the summer of 2015, Foos took him to the site of the recently demolished Manor House Motel. Foos was hoping to find a souvenir in the fenced-in platter of dirt, but after a while he gave up. When his wife suggested they go home, he said, “Yes, I’ve seen enough.” There was to be one major hiccup. As the book was going to press, a Washington Post reporter dug up the fact that Gerald Foos had failed to tell Talese that he had sold his the Manor House Motel and then repurchased it in the 1980s — after the events recorded in The Voyeur’s Motel. Talese warned in the book that Foos could be “an inaccurate and unreliable narrator,” adding, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.” Despite these clear caveats, Talese blurted to a Post reporter that his book’s credibility was “down the toilet” and he would not be promoting it. Happily, Talese quickly came to his senses and disavowed his disavowal, then vigorously set about promoting a book that only a “man of record” and a gifted journalist could have written.
At the age of 88 — “piano keys,” as she merrily puts it — Cynthia Ozick has just published her seventh volume of criticism, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, the yin to the yang of her high-minded novels (read our interview with Ozick here). A self-proclaimed “fanatic” in the cause of literature, Ozick is not ashamed to be wistful about the passing of a time when “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event.” In a sense, Ozick is a keeper of a guttering flame, but she presses on, living in the bedroom community of New Rochelle where she has lived since the 1960s, not far from her girlhood home in the Bronx. She rarely ventures beyond the neighborhood supermarket these days, and she still writes late into the night at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood.
One sign of greatness in a writer of fiction is the ability to make readers care about characters and worlds that would ordinarily be of no interest to them. I approached Ozick’s 2004 novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, with more than a little trepidation. It’s the story of a young woman named Rose Meadows who accepts a job as assistant to Rudolf Mitwisser, an imposing scholar of a medieval Jewish heresy known as Karaism. The novel unfolds in the Bronx in the mid-1930s, amid an enclave of refugees from Europe’s gathering storm. Not exactly my kind of set-up, but my trepidation vanished before I reached the bottom of the first page. I was beguiled, swept away.
The publication of that novel also served as a reminder that Ozick can be funny in a brazen, Buster-Keaton kind of way. Thirty-eight years after publishing her first novel, Ozick got sent out on her first book tour to promote Heir, a form of exquisite torture and humiliation that she chronicled for the New York Times in a story that should be required reading for every aspiring novelist and every comedy writer. Yes, high literature may be all but dead in America, but it helps that a keeper of the flame is still able to make us laugh out loud.
Last year, at the age of 84, Toni Morrison, our only living Nobel laureate, published a slender novel called God Help the Child. Unlike her previous 10 novels, this one avoids large historical themes — particularly slavery and its unending repercussions — and instead tells a fable-like story of a well-off cosmetics executive named Bride living in modern-day California. The damage done to children has been an abiding preoccupation of Morrison’s, going all the way back to her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which an 11-year-old girl is pregnant after being raped by her father. In God Help the Child the damage is less brutal but no less insidious. Bride’s mother, Sweetness, was instantly and forever appalled by her daughter’s dark skin: “It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black.”
While God Help the Child is not Morrison’s finest work — how many novels rise to the level of Beloved? — it offers an insight into the sources of one writer’s late-career flowering. Arthritis has put Morrison in a wheelchair, and writing is not only a way out of physical pain, but a way to control her world. As she told The New York Times Magazine last year:
I know how to write forever. I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It’s control… Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing. It is dangerous because I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.
This fall, nearly two years after he died at the age of 87, the poet Philip Levine will posthumously publish a slim but sumptuous miscellany called My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. A former U.S. poet laureate who came up through the infernos of his native Detroit’s auto factories, Levine was productive right up to the end of his long life, producing the essays, speeches, journal entries and verse fragments that make up this welcome new collection. It is, in essence, the story of how one poet got made, and it’s best read in tandem with Levine’s only other book of prose, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, from 1994. The new book offers a lovely description of Levine’s very first poems, composed when he was a teenager, at night, in woods near his home in Detroit. He called them “secret little speeches addressed to the moon.” Years later, on a return visit to his hometown, Levine encounters an elderly black man who is scratching out a garden and an existence amid the city’s ruins. As the two men talk, life and poetry merge. As Levine put it: “There are those rare times in my life when I know that what I’m living is in a poem I’ve still to write.”
Now 81, Joan Didion has produced three fairly recent memoirs that prove beyond all doubt that she is a master stylist and one of our keenest social observers. The first of the three books, Where I Was From, is my favorite, a cold-eyed reassessment of the myths and assumptions Didion once held about her family and her native California, what she now scorns as “the local dreamtime.” The other two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are unflinching dissections of the grief Didion lived through after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Bravery, it turns out, is not the exclusive province of the young.
At the age of 97 — which makes him the only nonagenarian in this tribe — the poet, publisher and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti is shopping a new book called To the Lighthouse, a surrealistic blend of fiction and autobiography. Ferlinghetti, who has published some 50 volumes of poetry, including the million-copy-seller A Coney Island of the Mind, is still represented by his long-time literary agent Sterling Lord, who is a spry 95.
So why is it that some writers dry up while others keep producing good work deep into the twilight of their lives? There is no single reason for this late-career productivity, just as there is no single approach that unifies these writers. Talese and Ozick continue to plow the same furrows they’ve been plowing for decades, to great effect. For Morrison, writing is a way to escape physical pain and assert control. For Levine and Didion, the late years became a time of looking back, of revisiting origins and reassessing beliefs. For Ferlinghetti, it’s a chance to explore a new form. If their motivations and methods vary, it’s safe to say that all of these writers share Morrison’s need to write forever, that they’re in the grip of what the writer Roger Rosenblatt has called “the perpetually evolving yearning.” There will always be something new to say, maybe even some new way to say it.
In his posthumous collection of essays, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said contended that late-life work isn’t always a summing up, or a display of accumulated wisdom, or a reassessment; it can also be “a form of exile” marked by “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.” Said cited Jean Genet and Ludwig von Beethoven, among others, as exemplars of this intransigence. Late style can also be a response to the breakdown of the body, as when Henri Matisse underwent colon surgery at age 71 and, no longer able to stand and work at an easel, gleefully embarked on what he called his “second life,” a 13-year flurry when he sat in a wheelchair and used simple scissors and sheets of colored paper to create the ebullient, child-like cutouts that would become the exclamation point of his long career. He kept at it until he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 84. The painter Chuck Close, who underwent a major stylistic shift of his own in his mid-70s, recently said, “The late stage can be very interesting. Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. It omits countless octogenarians who are still doing fine work, as well as writers who were productive until they died in their 80s (and beyond), including: Maya Angelou, who died at 86 in 2014; the poet John Ashbery, still prolific at 89; Saul Bellow, who died at 89 in 2005; E.L. Doctorow, who died last year at 84 and will posthumously publish his Collected Stories next year; Elizabeth Hardwick, who died at 91 in 2007; Gabriel García Márquez, who died at 87 in 2014; the Canadian short story master and Nobel laureate, Alice Munro, still working at 85; Philip Roth, (who is currently in retirement but was productive into his 80s); James Salter, who died last year at 90; and Tom Wolfe (85).
As different as these writers are, they do have one thing in common: they were all in for the long haul, and they all found a way to keep up the good work.
Image: Wikipedia, Girolamo Nerli
Books are our first, and sometimes best, teachers. I inherited the books of my older brothers. While they were away at college, I went into their rooms and stacked and arranged the titles by color and letter. My two favorite relics from their childhood were Punt, Pass and Kick and The How and Why Wonder Book of Stars. The diagrams of movement across the gridiron reminded me of the constellation maps. I appreciated that athletic bodies and celestial bodies were in constant motion, and yet might be captured in a single glance.
I was years away from the writing instruction of workshops and line edits, or the training of literary analysis. Those early years of reading were charged with the stuff of raw imagination. After I exhausted the books of my brothers, my parents took me to the library and used book sales. I wanted to run and play basketball, but I also wanted to read until I fell asleep, chin planted on open pages. My father had been a college football player who studied theology; my mother read history and poetry and told stories with layers and layers of detail. I was raised to appreciate words and to embrace wonder.
It might be because I teach young students, but I am endlessly fascinated by the routes of our reading lives. I seek interviews with writers because I look for their origin stories. I want to pinpoint the moment reading became a life-breathing activity. I am particularly drawn to the memories of writers whose imaginations remains raw and jarring; writers who are “charged,” to borrow the language of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I contacted six writers with such imaginations, and am happy to share their memories about the books that were most formative during their childhoods.
1. Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians:
It’s hard to grow up in the American West and not read Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all the Little House on the Prairie books at a young age, and I was in love with the whole pioneer narrative. Like Laura, my parents had traveled far to make a home in the West. I also came to love the simplicity of her language and her storytelling. She had no sentimentality. She would so matter-of-factly say the worst news: Mary was blind. The crops failed. It was a sad day though when I realized Laura and I would not have been friends. Her ma hated Indians (albeit the other kind), and the books weren’t that kind to others or brown people. But I marveled over her making a lot out of little — sewing, canning, simple pleasures. But I mostly connected with how Laura loved the land—the prairies and woods, the sky and open– which were so important to me as a little girl in Wyoming.
Since my parents both grew up in colonized countries — India and Ireland, much of what they read as children was British. So, as a little girl, I was introduced to Enid Blyton, who seemed to be the most prolific writer ever. She wrote several series from the Famous Five and Secret Seven to scores of boarding school narratives like The O’Sullivan Twins or The Naughtiest Girl. But what I loved were her fairy stories. She wrote a trilogy about a magic tree which started with The Enchanted Wood. In the book, three children found a magic tree, and climbed it — and at the top was a series of ever-changing lands — The Land of Birthdays, The Land of Sweets. I think as a brown kid living in Wyoming, these books were the ultimate in escapism. I was transported into a forest in England where the world was constantly shifting. I found this extremely comforting. I would often find myself climbing the big cottonwood tree in our backyard, hoping I would be taken away by something bigger than me.
2. William Giraldi, author of Hold the Dark:
In the late 1980s, Time-Life Books had a popular, 33-volume series called Mysteries of the Unknown. At 11 years old, I didn’t know enough to be irked by the redundant title — all mysteries are unknown: that’s the definition of “mystery” — and so I grabbed the phone (Time-Life advertised on television) and soon began receiving books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster, poltergeists and Sasquatch, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle and the Great Pyramid of Giza, werewolves and vampires and witches. For a cradle Roman Catholic reared in only one acceptable species of the supernatural, these titles seemed great feats of transgression and betrayal, fonts of the extraordinary and occult, a concussion of the spiritual and the cerebral, the factual and the fantastical. The books were mostly cascades of conjecture and fatuity, of course, but they rubbed against my imagination in all the ways I needed then. Mystery is another word for hope; monsters are how we make sense of ourselves. New Jersey seemed so drab without them. In the years after the Time-Life series, I’d be found by Poe and Stoker, by Stevenson and Wells, and then it was off into the more “serious” stuff: important books, yes, but hardly ever as wondrous.
3. Sara Eliza Johnson, author of Bone Map:
I remember loving Black Beauty and A Little Princess, which was my mother’s favorite book as a girl (and one reason for my name, which has no “h!”). I also read a lot of series meant for young girls — Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club, the Ramona Quimby books — though my absolute favorite series was Goosebumps. R.L. Stine wrote the original series in my prime formative reading years, from 1992 (when I was eight years old) to 1997 (when I was 13), and I was always so excited when a new one came out. My early love of Goosebumps (as well as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series) blossomed into the unapologetic affection for the horror genre I have today, a lonely affection to have in adulthood! But my favorite book as a child was probably The Giver, which, like many in my generation, I read for English class at the beginning of sixth grade. It was my first taste of dystopia, and so, in some ways, the first challenge to my world, and the first literary protagonist with whom I truly felt a kinship. When Jonas receives from the Giver the unwieldy collection of memories his monotone community has buried — of pain, war, starvation, but also pleasure and art — he becomes isolated and lonely in a way I think that I sometimes felt then, as a shy child without siblings. In the Receiving process, memory is a physical phenomenon literally subsumed and experienced by the body, as when Jonas receives the memory of a broken leg and feels as if his leg is broken — an early reminder that these entities we often consider purely psychological, such as memory, language, and dream, have physical and even physiological presences. I never read the rest of the books in the series, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I think perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the book — one of its lessons for even adult authors — is how it ends, in that it doesn’t quite end, leaves us in the aperture of uncertainty: “Behind him, across the vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo.”
4. Dimitry Elias Léger, author of God Loves Haiti:
The books that absolutely rocked my world as a kid, before my 10th grade teacher introduced me to The New York Times Book Review and Great Classic Literature, were a French series dating back to the early 20th century. You see, the first novels I read were in French because I lived in Haiti from ages eight to 14. Somewhere around the age of 10 probably I met Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief. The clever master of disguise starred in 16 novels and 36 short stories starting in 1905. The novels were thrilling. As befitting a French answer to the cerebral Sherlock Holmes, Lupin was a darkly humorous lady-killer. Come to think of it, he may well indeed be a good precursor to James Bond. I devoured Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin stories, and, during summer vacations in New York City, the books that slayed my pre-teen imagination were Chris Claremont’s X-Men. The Phoenix Saga may very well be the greatest, most epic comic story of all time, much as the love story of Cyclops, with his death-ray eyes, and Jean Grey, an unsuspecting world consuming telepath, was the most riveting love story. The tragic story of the brooding band of mutants and the stories of a leaping, thieving lover of Parisian rooftops and the jewels of Parisian nobles were my favorite books as a kid. These series’ gentle high-low balance rewards rereads to this day.
5. Tony Ardizzone, author of The Whale Chaser:
I grew up on the North Side of Chicago, the oldest boy in a large working-class Italian-American family. We lived in a basement flat, then a second-floor flat across the street from a liquor store, and finally in a brick two-flat, with tenants upstairs. I grew up in a house without books. We always had newspapers — when I was a boy Chicago had four daily newspapers — because my father sold newspapers. I went to Roman-Catholic schools and read the books they gave us: the Baltimore Catechism (much of which I still know by heart) and Bible stories. In school after lunch each day, the Sister of Christian Charity who taught us read to the class a chapter or so from a series of books about a boy named Tom Playfair, a rough-and-tumble kid sent off to Catholic school, who had to struggle to live up to his name.
After we moved to the brick two-flat in Chicago’s Edgewater district, I discovered a mobile library van parked about six blocks away, and I got a library card and checked out as many books as I could carry. The librarian often questioned me, asking if I was sure I could read all the books I wanted in one week. I told her I could, and I did. Reading was a sort of sanctuary to me. Our flat was small and our family had a lot of kids and reading was a way for me to be by myself for a while. I read every book the mobile van had about dinosaurs. I also read what were considered the classics at the time: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Robinson Crusoe, an edited version of Moby Dick. I supplemented these books by reading every Classic Illustrated comic I could get my hands on. Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Time Machine were among my favorites. I often read these while standing around those circular comic book displays in a neighborhood drugstore. When the owner yelled for me to quit browsing, I’d do my best to remember my place, then pick up the comic the next time I was in the store.
A middle-aged woman cashier in the grocery store where I was often sent to buy milk and eggs took a liking to me and one day gave me a big, marvelous hardback anthology of dog stories. The book had a blue cover. I wish I still had it. I read and re-read every story in the book several times. Best of all, it was my book, not one I’d have to return to the mobile library van on Saturday morning.
My turning point came years later when I was in high school. On Saturdays my friends and I would go down to Chicago’s Old Town, where we’d knock around the neighborhood. I always ended up spending hours in Barbara’s Bookstore on Wells Street. It was a big, wonderful place, full of books and posters and poetry on placards and broadsides up on the walls. It was there in Barbara’s Bookstore that I saw a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book of poetry, Coney Island of the Mind. It knocked me out. I never before realized that poetry could be written this way. The book made me truly want to be writer.
6. Christa Parravani, author of Her:
Most every street of our Tarawa Terrace neighborhood on Camp Lejeune was named after a battle: Bougainville drive. Inchon Street. Iowa Jima Boulevard. The battle of Tarawa was for a small Pacific atoll in 1943. The battle of growing up with a Marine stepfather, was he believed that children should be seen and not heard.
Marines have a way of saying things. Houses are housing. Dinner is chow. A bed is a rack. Teeth are fangs. But get lost was still get lost.
I escaped silently into books. I read whatever my teachers gave me.
I was 13 the summer my stepfather left. The Persian Gulf War was televised that January. I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried not too long after. The novel was live in my hands, my first real touch of literature’s flame. The story of Vietnam, how it haunted every military family I knew, how its lure was part of me like my family’s story was. My stepfather may not have loved me, but I had to love him, and those years on Lejeune gave me a love of country, of the fighter. O’Brien opened my heart with a story that arguably has nothing to do with a teenage girl. But I’d shut up for far too long. The war was alive in me.