Like most South Africans in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about what it means to grow old, to grow weak and run out of time. If I take too much after my father, I’m already two-thirds of the way there. If I take after my grandmother, ninety-eight last weekend, I’m still short of halfway. Either way, it’s frightening to be this far along but calm mathematics shows there is still time left. The real fear is that the second half will be qualitatively worse than the first, that now entropy begins, energy winding down until coldness.
As afraid as I feel, I dislike the positive images of old age with which the culture tries to encourage me: happy old folk with the long labour behind them, stretching in tracksuits and taking appreciative walks well bundled beside the sea, twinkling with grateful pleasure over grandchildren and tea. There’s nothing there that appeals to me.
Life is a struggle, but some struggles are good. Old age shouldn’t be the pastoral coda tacked onto the end of the third Lord of the Rings film. A good old age after a good hard life isn’t a happy gentle ending: it’s more of the same.
James Salter is eighty-eight years old and has lived a professional life of frustration and perplexity. Before becoming a writer, he flew 100 missions in an F86 in the Korean War. He flew with Gus Grissom and Ed White, who became astronauts and died in the flames of Apollo 1. He was a contemporary of Mailer and Roth and Bellow and was regarded by them as among the finest of them. James Wolcott called him ‘our most underrated underrated writer’. He is often called a ‘writer’s writer’, which annoys him because any writer would rather be a reader’s writer. He wrote his first novel in 1956 and several more through the sixties and seventies, and was sidetracked into writing for the movies. In 1979 he published his sixth novel, Solo Faces, which was even more commercially unsuccessful than the previous five. Shortly afterwards he divorced and shortly after that his daughter was accidentally electrocuted in the shower he had rigged. For nearly sixty years he has made his living only by writing, without selling more than 10 000 copies of any book. In interviews and conversation James Salter is spiky and unsentimental, but his books are not embittered. In 1985 he married his second wife and promised to dedicate a novel to her. She waited twenty-eight years. This year, nearly ninety, he published All That Is, his seventh novel, his first since 1979, and his first bestseller.
‘It’s fine when it’s a warm morning and I sit in the sun. But the sun moves, and some of the words slip away. It’s like a little slit in your pocket. But it’s not brains that make you write, it’s energy and desire.’
Clive James taught me how to write columns. For ten years he was the television critic for The Observer. He taught me that nothing is too slight to be taken seriously or too weighty to be handled lightly, and he taught me compression of style to convey meaning. ‘All I can do,’ he once said, ‘is turn a phrase until it catches the light.’ He does more than that.
He was not always as kind as he was gifted. There are stories of his young days, biting at a subeditor who had changed his word order. ‘But if I wrote like you,’ he said, ‘I would be you’. Clive James could be arrogant and unlikeable and brilliant. He has written novels and TV series and essays and columns and poetry. He has taught himself six languages, including Japanese and Russian. He built a room in his home to practise the tango. I revere him like a father, and the thought of never meeting him makes me panic. Clive James is now seventy-three and has been diagnosed with leukaemia, emphysema and various carcinomas. The year after his diagnosis, his wife of forty-five years, a Dante scholar named Prudence Shaw, left him over tabloid details of his eight-year affair with the wife of an Australian billionaire.
James’s world is greatly reduced. He can scarcely hear and has difficulty moving. He can never be more than three weeks from his local hospital. He is, he says, ‘into extra-time’. This year he published his translation of Dante’s Inferno, rendering the 500-page poem into 14 000 lines of quatrains. It is a love letter to the language and to literature, a statement of faith in the value of art, but it is also a love letter to his estranged wife, an attempt by an old man, failing and fighting for the light, to woo the woman he still loves. It has all the power and ambition and creative intensity of a young man setting out to make his name.
P.D. James’s husband returned from the Second World War with a nervous breakdown that confined him to a psychiatric hospital for the remaining years until his death by suicide. She took a job as a civil servant to support him and their two young daughters. At the age of forty-two, a very good age to start, she wrote her first novel. The first became several. Despite being a bestselling crime writer, she kept her job as a civil servant until the age of retirement. Her most famous character, ‘myself as a man’, is Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. In 2008, at the age of eighty-eight, she published the fourteenth Dalgliesh novel. She began writing a fifteenth, but became concerned that she might die before completing it. She was afraid to leave Adam orphaned and unfinished, so instead she wrote Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder-mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, written in the style of Jane Austen. She didn’t die, so she has resumed work on the fifteenth Dalgleish novel, or I hope she has. P.D. James is ninety-three years old.
Herman Wouk wrote bestselling novels. He wrote The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. He keeps a daily journal and has kept it since 1937. It has more than 100 volumes and he considers it his greatest literary achievement. He published his most recent novel last year, The Lawgiver, an epistolary novel about Moses, written using SMSes, emails, tweets and Skype transcripts. His wife died last year. ‘Our relationship was only just getting started,’ he said, ‘but then she had to leave me.’ He wrote her into the book and included her photograph on the back page, the photo that she sent him when he was in the Pacific in World War II. They had been married for sixty-six years. In a recent Vanity Fair Proust interview, Herman Wouk described his current state of mind as ‘optimistic’. When asked how he would like to die, he replied: ‘Not much.’ He has already written a substantial part of his next book. He is ninety-seven years old.
Renoir and Monet were the same age and became friends when they were impressionable youths. They often sat side by side to paint the same scenes. ‘Forget the objects,’ Monet told Renoir. ‘Paint what you actually see.’ I saw Monet’s La Grenouillère in the Met in New York, and went to the National Museum in Stockholm to see Renoir’s version. When I was young I longed for a friend like Renoir. I imagined us working together and growing together, and taking walks in our old age and laughing at the days when we were young and still learning. I imagined us working in the mornings and meeting for beer and lunch and dominoes, and arguing into our old age. There were two problems with this daydream: one is that there are not many Renoirs who want to be your friend. Another is I am not Monet. At the age of fifty-one, Renoir developed rheumatoid arthritis that ruined his hands so badly his assistant had to wedge the brushes between his fingers. He painted for a further twenty years until his death at seventy-eight.
Monet was a painter of light. Cezanne described him as ‘only an eye, but – my God! – what an eye’. He developed cataracts. Two operations helped, but only for a short time. In his final years, while he painted the Nymphéas, the water lilies that today line the walls of the Orangerie, he was legally blind.
Monet kept faith in his art and painted what he saw, even as his vision collapsed. He painted the light and the water and the colours of the world, and created canvases of fierce life and dreamlike power. He invented impressionism and ended in an almost abstract expressionism. He painted until his death at the age of eighty-six, withdrawn from society, driven by a desire to create. Look at The Rose-Way in Giverny or the close-up canvases of the lily pond burning yellow and red with the sun. They burn against the dying of the light.
11 July 2013