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
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In considering why it took Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa until the age of 58 to begin work in earnest on his one and only novel, the luminous masterpiece Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, Julian Barnes wrote:
Lampedusa was afflicted with several handicaps (not so much to being a writer, but to being thrustful enough to dream of, and then achieve, publication): extreme shyness; enough money never to need take a job [he was a prince]; plus a sense that, as a Sicilian aristocrat, he came from an exhausted, irrelevant culture. There were other factors too, including a major nervous breakdown in his 20s, and a domineering mother.
The roots of such unthrustfulness notwithstanding, one laments whatever convergence of factors precluded Lampedusa from a more prolific literary career. I first fell in love with Il Gattopardo via Luchino Visconti’s sumptuous film version (I’d seen it three times in fact, before reading Lampedusa’s original). It is unusual for me to read a book after seeing the film adaptation, but I was aware that some had criticized Visconti for staying, believe it or not, too close to the novel. I was thus eager to read it, and it has become, like the film, among my very favorites.
One indisputable factor that deprived us of more opportunities to luxuriate in Lampedusa’s gifts was a diagnosis of lung cancer in the spring of 1957, at age 60. The diagnosis came just a few months after he finished the novel. He had two publisher rejections already in hand, a third would arrive weeks before he died in July of that year. The author note of the Pantheon edition goes as far as to say that this third rejection came from an Italian editor who told him that his novel was ”unpublishable”—that Lampedusa, in other words, died with that declaration stamped upon his late-blooming artistic soul.
One wonders just how shaped Lampedusa was by his exhausted, irrelevant culture, as he in fact lived a life highly atypical of a Sicilian of his era: influenced by his mother’s cosmopolitan bent, he was educated in Rome, read Latin and Greek, spoke German and French, and (almost unheard of at that time) eventually studied English. He served briefly as a lieutenant in the army during World War I and was imprisoned in a POW camp in Hungary. After the war, he traveled throughout northern Italy and Europe, and while visiting his uncle in England — of whose literature and culture he became (scandalously, for a Sicilian) enamored—he met Alexandra “Licy” Wolff Stomersee, a Latvian aristocrat and intellectual who studied psychoanalysis. The couple wed at Riga in 1932, in the Orthodox Church—another shocking departure from Sicilian cultural tradition—but eventually they lived apart, after his mother (domineering, yes, although some accounts additionally deem her “eccentric” and “open-minded”) forced her only son to choose between the two women. Licy was apparently no match for Signora Beatrice.
He spent the late years of the Second World War near the coastal town of Capo d’Orlando in Messina, with his mother and cousins, where he also reunited with his wife. After his mother died in 1946, Giuseppe and Licy returned to Palermo, where Lampedusa lived out his mature years, doing very little, strictly speaking: according to Barnes (whose source is David Gilmour’s biography, The Last Leopard), “on a typical day, he might first visit the bookshop and cakeshop, then sit reading in a cafe for hours, return home for tea and buns, and perhaps go out to the film club in the evening.” While most accounts confirm Lampedusa’s extreme taciturnity—a most “shut in” personality, someone you “met but did not know”—it was during these years that he began meeting regularly with a group of young intellectuals to discuss French and English literature.
What more can I say that has not been said about this beautiful novel? In 2008, for The Leopard’s 50th anniversary—for yes, obviously and thankfully, it was eventually published, in 1958, the year after Lampedusa’s death—Rachel Donadio wrote a wonderful essay for The New York Times which I recommend and refer you to for your basic plot and historical context. Donadio also describes an event that year at NYU at which Lanza Tomasi, a younger cousin whom Lampedusa adopted as a son (presumably the autobiographical seed for the character Tancredi Falconeri, beloved nephew to our main character, il gattopardo himself, Don Fabrizio Prince of Salina) spoke of class divisions in the novel—essentially two classes, nobility and peasantry—as “unredeemable.” And yet, Lanza said, like all great novels, The Leopard transcends such boundaries. Reading it, “no one believes he’s the lower class,” Lanza said. The “miracle” Lampedusa produced in this novel is that “everyone believes he’s the prince.”
Everyone, indeed—even this Korean American woman living in New York City circa 2012. One’s love for Il Gattopardo is nothing if not a love for Don Fabrizio, a lusty middle-aged nobleman, the last of his kind at a time of social and geopolitical upheaval, with a passion for mathematics and astronomy, a soft spot for beauty and charisma, and a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” He is a character with whom anyone who has found herself cultivating an independent soul, by choice or by necessity, feels an intimacy.
And so, it is not just with interest, but with tender fidelity, that we follow Don Fabrizio’s affecting evolution from irritable dreamer to wistful relic. Early in the novel, as both political and familial disturbances encroach—the novel opens in 1860, as the war hero Garibaldi is gathering rebel volunteers to overthrow the Bourbon King for the cause of risorgimento, or the unification of Italy—Don Fabrizio considers “the endless little subterfuges he had to submit to, he the Leopard, who for years had swept away difficulties with a wave of his paw.” Without yet a vision for how to cope, how to move along with his times, he turns, as always, to the comfort, the “morphia,” of the skies:
The stars looked turbid and their rays scarcely penetrated the pall of sultry air. The soul of the Prince reached out toward them, toward the intangible, the unattainable, which gave joy without laying claim to anything in return; as many other times, he tried to imagine himself in those icy tracts, a pure intellect armed with a notebook for calculations: difficult calculations, but ones which would always work out. “They’re the only really genuine, the only really decent beings […] who worries about dowries for the Pleiades, a political career for Sirius, matrimonial joy for Vega?”
At this point, the Prince is primarily worried about domestic matters—the gradual but inevitable disintegration of his royal wealth into the hands of the new money classes. He is also worried about his sweet but unsophisticated daughter Concetta, who is in love with her dashing cousin Tancredi (Alain Delon in Visconti’s film version), whose fortune was squandered by the Prince’s brother-in-law and in whose future, political and social, the Prince sees great things. And he is worried for Tancredi’s impending engagement, around which the bulk of the novel revolves—to the enchanting Angelica (a young Claudia Cardinale, who else?), whose father, Don Calogero di Sadera, is exemplary of these crude rags-to-riches merchant classes in whose hands the future of Sicily, not to mention great sums of wealth, seem to lie.
But later, as the lovely Angelica and the Sedara family become fixtures in his life, as Tacredi’s future solidifies with the assurance of Sedara’s wealth, and as a unified Italy dominated by power (not nobility) materializes as a foregone conclusion, the Prince
found an odd admiration growing in him for Sedara’s qualities […] he began to realize the man’s rare intelligence. Many problems that had seemed insoluble to the Prince were resolved in a trice by Don Calogero […] he moved through the jungle of life with the confidence of an elephant which advances in a straight line, rooting up trees and trampling down lairs, without even noticing scratches of thorns and moans from the crushed.
The Prince is not exactly resigned, not exactly accepting; but neither is he self-deluding. He faces the coming reality with neither self-pity nor false optimism. He is il gattopardo—regal in the hot sun, dignified, elegant, weary, solitary. Wise to threats but unmoved, a creature of both survival and indifference. When the Secretary to the Prefecture entreats the Prince to represent Sicily in the new Senate, he responds with a lengthy speech, at once fiery and aching with melancholy, as if all the stages of grief have collapsed into one gorgeous oratorial moment, saying of himself, and of men like him,
We are old, Chevalley, very old. For more than twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of a superb and heterogeneous civilization, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own. […] I don’t say that in complaint; it’s our fault.
Sleep, my dear Chevalley, sleep is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them […]
This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and these monuments, even, of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction, who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind […]
I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both […] but I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception.
Edward Said, writing about The Leopard in (his own late, last work) On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, characterized Don Fabrizio as
in effect the last Lampedusa, whose own cultivated melancholy, totally without self-pity, stands at the center of the novel, exiled from the continuing history of the 20th century, enacting a state of anachronistic lateness with a compelling authenticity and an unyielding ascetic principle that rules out sentimentality and nostalgia.
If I am reading Said correctly, he is associating lateness with both authenticity and asceticism, as well as a cultivated melancholia and exile. I prefer these associations to Barnes’s mere “unthrustfulness,” which Barnes (or perhaps the biographer Gilmour) in turn ties to exhaustion, irrelevance, reticence, nervousness, and submissiveness; for Said’s more appreciative assessment of “anachronistic lateness” applies not only to Lampedusa, but, it seems to me, to many of the late-life bloomers we’ve seen in this series; and to many of the artists I personally most admire.