A Carnival of Losses:
Notes Nearing Ninety
by donald hall
houghton mifflin harcourt, 224 pages, $25
Even in antiquity, some writers lived to a ripe old age. (Sophocles was ninety or ninety-one when he died.) Until recently, though, they were the exception rather than the rule. Today, many have continued writing into their eighties (Ursula K. Le Guin and P. D. James, for example) and even their nineties (Czesław Miłosz comes to mind). Readers are living longer too, of course. Maybe we’ll soon have a new literary category, Old Adult, to match Young Adult. A major publisher and a commercial enterprise with a vested interest in the elderly could work together to get this category off the ground, establishing a hefty annual prize for the best OA novel.
A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, Donald Hall’s splendid miscellany, was published in July, just a couple of weeks after his death at age eighty-nine. Although he was best known as a poet, I’ve always preferred his prose. There is no continuous narrative in A Carnival of Losses, and only a perfunctory gesture at organizing the contents: What we get is precisely what the subtitle promises, and I rejoice in it. Speaking from the vantage of a seventy-year-old, I am already familiar with the associative leaps and seeming arbitrariness of the aging mind: a nuisance in some respects but a boon in others. In a loose series remembering a wild assortment of poets, all Hall has to say about Allen Tate is, “My recollections of some poets are brief. Allen Tate always looked grumpy.”
One piece is titled “Seven Hundred Words.” In it, Hall traces a writer’s life from youth (“When I was sixteen I read ten books a week”) to old age (“At night I watch baseball on television and between innings run through the New York Times Book Review”). Here’s how the piece ends: “Striving to pay the mortgage in the late 1970s and ’80s, some years I published four books. Now it takes me a month to finish 700 words. Here they are.”
Years ago in the Times Literary Supplement, Gore Vidal sneered at academics afraid to say what they really thought, and gloried in his own freedom. I didn’t care for Vidal, but what he said there was largely true: Old age confers a certain freedom to say what one thinks. Of course it matters whether what’s said is of any interest, and no points are awarded for boorish “plain speaking.” Handing out compliments, teasing, settling scores, relishing the sheer oddity of the individual human being, Hall is unfailingly interesting and rarely boorish, if occasionally a bit unkind.
In part, the pleasure of a book such as this is in its glimpses of days gone by. That they are “random” here, not assembled to support any thesis, adds to that satisfaction. In one piece, “Pharmacies and Treasuries,” Hall begins by recalling drugstores of yore, “where you could sit on a stool to sip a cherry Coke assembled by the pharmacist.” There were also books: “There used to be a lending library in every drugstore.” (That was before my time.) “Also you could buy a ‘drugstore paperback’—John Steinbeck or Agatha Christie or Pearl Buck—for a quarter or half a buck or a dollar, depending on the decade.” (That was still true when I was young.) “You could even find an anthology of poetry.” And this is the principal subject of the essay, in which—among other things—Hall recalls his own experiences as a reader, as an anthologized poet, and as a maker of anthologies. It’s a marvel of concision, wit, and remembrance of things past, without a bit of false nostalgia.
When old people in America aren’t invisible, they tend to be sentimentalized or used as counters in this or that argument. There’s sentiment aplenty in A Carnival of Losses. In “Solitude Double Solitude,” Hall writes about his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who “died of leukemia at forty-seven in 1995.” The loss was keenly felt, but several years ago, Hall writes, he “grieved for her in a way I had never grieved before.” He thought he was dying (though he would live for another three years), and he grieved “that she would not sit over me as I died.” Sentiment, yes, but no sentimentality, for which (and for much else) many thanks, Donald Hall.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.