Everyone who writes about aging “Boomers”—how “they” have ruined “our” society, and so on, ad nauseum—should be required to memorize Lewis Carroll’s “You Are Old, Father William” (from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and recite it aloud before an audience of men and women age seventy or older. If you don’t recall the poem, you can find it readily online. I love what Hugh Haughton says about it in his notes to the Penguin Classics edition of the Alice books. Haughton explains that Carroll’s poem is a response to a now little-read poem by Robert Southey: “Carroll’s parody,” Haughton says, “undermines the pious didacticism of Southey’s dialogue and gives Father William an eccentric vitality that rebounds upon his idiot questioner.”
If, in Carroll’s time, sententious piety about old age still enjoyed a fair degree of currency and hence required deflating, the discourse of old age in our own time is quite different and requires a different line of attack. One possibility would be to parody one of the most prominent forms of “pious didacticism” in the first decades of the twenty-first century. Why are old people so invisible in our “culture”? Where are the lists of “Hot New Writers Over 70”? Why do so few of the expensive, risible fashion ads in the New York Times Magazine and its equivalent at the Wall Street Journal feature oldsters? You get the picture.
In the last several years, two writer friends of mine have told me the same story: Their (very savvy) editors advised them to change the age of the protagonists in their novels-in-progress, making them considerably younger; otherwise, their books wouldn’t be publishable. Of course, these editors would concede, there are outliers. Another friend of ours—she’s a book scout—gave my wife, Wendy, a copy of Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove, an international bestseller with a grumpy yet endearing old man at its heart. Wendy loved it. But such exceptions merely prove the rule.
This seems very strange to me. The world of old age today has a good deal in common with old age as it has been for thousands of years while at the same time being quite different. People are living longer: a banality, yes, but one that overlays a vast range of experience, mundane and extraordinary, joyful and sad, irreducibly individual yet also subject to generalizations, above all inexhaustibly interesting and wildly messy. No wonder that some writers, at least—they’re living longer, too, along with the rest of us—are exploring this world.
Writing in 2014 about Ruth Rendell’s next-to-last novel, The Girl Next Door (she died the year after it appeared, at the age of eighty-five), I noted that Jane Austen was forty-one when she died; Charles Dickens, fifty-eight (the same as James Joyce). Of course there have always been long-lived writers (consider Sophocles!), but only quite recently have novelists routinely worked into their late seventies and beyond—not producing new work that’s sadly below the standard of their best years but writing at a very high level, as Rendell and her compatriot P. D. James did. Oddly, this plot twist, one of the most distinctive features of contemporary literature, is also one of the least discussed.
Not that a writer must him- or herself be venerable to enter imaginatively into the strange country of old age. Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori is one of the best novels of aging I’ve ever read; Spark turned thirty-nine the year that it was published. Iris Murdoch was fifty when Bruno’s Dream was published in 1969, with the title character in his eighties. Another example—wildly different from Spark’s and Murdoch’s books but also indispensable—is Irvin Faust’s largely forgotten novel Willy Remembers, published in 1971.
You may recall the last stanza of Lewis Carroll’s poem, but just in case, here it is:
“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”
I would like to see more of this salutary belligerence among my fellow oldsters.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.