It’s fitting, I suppose, that I’m only belatedly getting around to Edward Said’s posthumously-published On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (2006). The multi-talented Said, who died in 2003 of leukemia, at age 67, was a long-time Columbia University literature professor; a cultural critic, the author of the groundbreaking if tendentious Orientalism as well as Culture and Imperialism; a Palestinian political activist; the subtle memoirist of Out of Place; and a non-professional but accomplished pianist. In On Late Style, Said is interested, “for obvious personal reasons” — i.e., his own medical condition — in “the last or late period of life, the decay of the body, the onset of ill health or other factors that… bring on the possibility of an untimely end.” He proposes to “focus on great artists and how, near the end of their lives, their work and thought acquires a new idiom, what I shall be calling a late style.”
As literary critic Michael Wood, who edited and introduces this final volume of Said’s writing, says about one of the two key terms in On Late Style, “It’s worth pausing over the delicately shifting meanings of the word late, ranging from missed appointments through the cycles of nature to vanished life. Most frequently perhaps late just means ‘too late,’ later than we should be, not on time. But late evenings, late blossoms, and late autumns are perfectly punctual… Dead persons have certainly got themselves beyond time, but then what difficult temporal longing lurks in our calling them ‘late’? Lateness doesn’t name a single relation to time, but it always brings time in its wake.”
Said’s notion of late style carries a particular twist. We’re all familiar with “last works that reflect a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of common reality,” such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “Each of us can readily supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavour,” Said says, then asks, “But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradictions?” Troubled lateness is what Said seeks to explore, what he describes as “late style that involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against…” (ellipsis in the original).
The idea of “late style” that Said elaborates is directly inspired by Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School critical theorist, who first broached the concept in an essay in 1937 on “Beethoven’s Late Style.” In Said’s essays on the subject, he takes up, among his examples, Beethoven, Adorno’s reading of that composer as well as Adorno himself, and a diverse array of other musicians, writers, filmmakers and performers ranging from Mozart to pianist Glenn Gould, with Jean Genet, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Thomas Mann, and Constantine Cavafy included along the way. While the individual judgments may be contestable, the scope and context of Said’s discussion are consistently stimulating.
At the very outset, under the heading of “timeliness and lateness,” Said’s initial contention is that “all of us, by virtue of the simple fact of being conscious, are involved in constantly thinking about and making something of our lives, self-making being one of the bases of history…” The important distinction, Said declares, “is that between the realm of nature on the one hand and secular human history on the other.” The body, in all its conditions, belongs “to the order of nature; what we understand of that nature, however, how we see and live it in our consciousness, how we create a sense of our life individually and collectively, subjectively as well as socially, how we divide it into periods, belongs roughly speaking to the order of history.” Our reflections on our selves are part of the process of making those selves.
“I have for years been studying this self-making process through three great problematics,” Said notes. The first, he says, is the whole notion of beginnings, a topic that was the theme of one of his earliest books, Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975), a work “about how the mind finds it necessary at certain times to retrospectively locate a point of origin for itself.” Things begin “in the most elementary sense with birth,” of course, but there is also the moment of giving birth to ourselves, that moment, to take a famous philosophic example, when Kant first reads David Hume and is awakened from his “dogmatic slumber.”
As well, Said sees a rough parallel to this human schema in art, particularly in Western literature, where the “form of the novel is coincidental with the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the late seventeenth century,” and where, not so coincidentally, the novel’s first century is often about “birth, possible orphanhood, the discovery of roots and the creation of a new world.” He cites Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy as examples of the preoccupation with beginnings.
The second great problematic “is about the continuity that occurs after birth, the exfoliation from a beginning” toward “youth, reproductive generation, maturity.” In the history of the novel, which Said regards as “the Western aesthetic form that offers the largest and most complex image of ourselves that we have,” we find as a parallel to this stage of life, “the Bildungsroman or novel of education, the novel of idealism and disappointment (Education sentimentale, Illusions Perdues), the novel of immaturity and community, like George Eliot’s Middlemarch…”
In the passages of human life, “there is assumed to be a generally abiding timeliness,” meaning “that what is appropriate to earlier life is not appropriate to later stages.” Those “later stages” of life are the third problematic and the focus of Said’s book. It’s at this point, at the end of one’s time, that Said raises the possibility not of timeliness – “the accepted notion of age and wisdom in some last works that reflect… a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity” — but its obverse, lateness. For Said, the artistic lateness of most interest is not that of “harmony and resolution,” but “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradictions.” Said doesn’t exactly say why he’s so fascinated with this “nonharmonious, nonserene tension,” this “sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against… ,” but perhaps it lies in Said’s self-description as a “profoundly secular person.” For someone who doesn’t allow him- or herself metaphysical consolation, perhaps the prospect of death ought to provoke not reconciliation but unresolved contradiction. Anything else would be, in the existentialist sense, bad faith.
It is here that Said turns to Adorno on Beethoven’s late works: the last piano sonatas and bagatelles, the Ninth Symphony, and the last half-dozen string quartets. “For Adorno, far more than for anyone who has spoken of Beethoven’s last works,” Said says, “those compositions… constitute an event in the history of modern culture: a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works constitute a form of exile.” In Beethoven, and in Adorno’s reading of him, Said says, “Late style is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.”
He adds, “The reason Beethoven’s late style so gripped Adorno throughout his writing is that in a completely paradoxical way, Beethoven’s immobilized and socially resistant final works are at the core of what is new in modern music of our own time.” Here, we must recall that these are hardly judgments from the sidelines: Adorno, as an occasional composer and pianist himself, and the musically competent Said are both speaking from the keyboard and not merely from a lectern.
Said then addresses Adorno’s own “lateness,” and finds in his “astonishingly bold and bleak ruminations on the position of the aging artist” something close to what seems, for Adorno, to be “the fundamental aspect of aesthetics and of his own work as critical theorist and philosopher.” Said is quick to admit that “no one needs to be reminded that Adorno is exceptionally difficult to read, whether in his original German or in any number of translations.” Adorno’s prose style, says Said, “violates various norms: he assumes little community of understanding between himself and his audience; he is slow, unjournalistic, unpackageable, unskimmable. Even an autobiographical text like Minima Moralia is an assault on biography, narrative, or anecdotal community; its form exactly replicates its subtitle — Reflections from damaged life — a cascading series of discontinuous fragments, all of them in some way assaulting suspicious ‘wholes.'”
Perhaps this is a sufficient tracking of Said’s text to suggest the richness of his writing and thought. In each of the essays, no matter how unpromising the subject may seem at the outset, I found some observation of Said’s, some thought worth underlining in order to return to it again, later.
For example, writing about Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte, a late work only by the retrospective fact of the composer’s very early death, Said notes, “Most people concede that the music is extremely wonderful, but the unsaid implication is that it is wasted on a silly story, silly characters, and an even sillier setting.” The plot, it might be recalled, turns on two girls whose lovers are persuaded to test their fidelity. They disguise themselves as foreigners and woo each other’s partner, and discover, to everyone’s unease, that they succeed all too easily. From these improbable materials, Said arrives at the notion that Mozart is daringly portraying “a universe shorn of any redemptive or palliative scheme, one whose law is motion and instability expressed as the power of libertinage and manipulation.” Now, I’m not sure if Said makes his case for this as an example of late style, or even how persuasive his reading of the opera is, but what’s characteristic of Said here is that he makes even a skeptical reader tempted to take another look at whatever it is that’s engaged Said’s attention.
I find myself, somewhat unusually, little inclined to argue with Said’s judgments about, say, Lampadusa’s The Leopard or Jean Genet’s final book, Prisoner of Love. Instead, I’m content to be appreciative of, as one reviewer of Late Style put it, “the supple intelligence Said brings to bear” on his material. No doubt my mood is shaded by consciousness of the death of Said, and the many other fertile thinkers — Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard — that we have lost in this decade.
In a summary moment in his not quite completed final book, Said says, “Each of the figures I have discussed here makes of lateness or untimeliness, and a vulnerable maturity, a platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity, at the same time that each — like the late Beethoven — has a lifetime of technical effort and preparation.” All of them, from Adorno to Glenn Gould, says Said, “play off the great totalizing codes” of their culture and times. “It is as if having achieved age, they want none of its supposed serenity or maturity, or any of its amiability or official ingratiation. Yet in none of them is mortality denied or evaded, but keeps coming back as the theme of death which undermines, and strangely elevates their uses of language and the aesthetic.”
Although Said’s concept of late-work-against-the-grain is provocative, my own interest in this subject is rather more orthodox. Lately (pun inevitable), like most literary critics of “a certain age,” I’ve become more focused on writers of pensionable vintage. Not only are they agemates of mine, but the first decade of the 21st century marks the ending of a writing generation born mostly in the 1920s, 30s and 40s (but sometimes earlier), whose careers shaped the literary landscape of the second half of the preceding century. My attention is not so much on artists whose late works “constitute a form of exile,” as Said describes them, but simply with how various writers have dealt/are dealing with their old age in terms of productivity and subject matter, as well as style.
My focus is more on what might be called “exit strategies,” in Thomas Hobbes’s blunt sense of seeking “a hole to crawl out of this world from.” In some instances, such as those of John Updike, Norman Mailer, and possibly Kurt Vonnegut, all of whom died in this decade, while their last years were more or less prolific (Updike, moreso; Vonnegut less), their late writings don’t strike me as crucial to their body of work, either in terms of resistance or resolution. Something similar can be said about the later works of V.S. Naipaul, Gore Vidal, and perhaps Doris Lessing, at least to date. (I hesitate about Vonnegut because his final novel, Timequake (1997), written a decade before his death, seems to me a masterpiece, though that’s not a view shared by most critics. Similarly, I hesitate about Lessing because of how taken I am with the title novella of her The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels (2003), a wicked adult fairy tale about pederastic love that she published in her mid-80s.)
It also seems to me that whether or not a writer produces memorable late works should not be regarded as a crucial measure of that writer’s oeuvre. If a writer does, that provides an additional dimension to our understanding of the work; if not, then not. That is, I don’t want to overburden the idea of late work. But with writers like Saul Bellow, Czeslaw Milosz, Mordecai Richler, J.M. Coetzee, Jose Saramago and Philip Roth (the last three still in progress), the exit strategies have been explicit and profoundly interesting. There are no doubt many others who might be considered — Gunter Grass and Gabriel Garcia Marquez come to mind — but let’s refrain from an infinite list or else, as Coetzee says, We’ll be here all afternoon.
Bellow, who died in 2005 at age 89, opened the new century with an elegiac yet surprisingly buoyant last novel written in his mid-80s, Ravelstein (2000). It’s a portrait of his late friend and sometime intellectual mentor, Allan Bloom, the conservative thinker and author of The Closing of the American Mind, who died of Aids in the early 1990s. I don’t know if Ravelstein exhibits late style in Said’s sense, but then again, none of the eponymous protagonists of Bellow’s earlier novels, The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift can be said to bask in “a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity.”
Certainly, there’s a noticeable stylistic difference between Bellow’s first major novel, Augie March (1953) and his last one, and the source of the difference is to be found in the constrictions of old age. Compared to the full-bodied impasto oil portraits and detailed scenes of his early work, Ravelstein offers looser, sketched-in, watercolour-like backgrounds. Instead of every object receiving equally impartial attention, Bellow picks out a luminescent, surrealistic detail, like the appearance of flocks of wild green parrots on the South Side of Chicago who built “their long sac-like nests in the lake-front park and later colonized the alleys… in bird tenements that hung from utility poles.” Various characters can be casually limned; Bellow only needs to etch with Dureresque precision the figure of Ravelstein who “with his bald powerful head, was at ease with large statements, big issues, and famous men,” but whose “Japanese kimono fell away from legs paler than milk… the calves of a sedentary man — the shinbone long and the calf muscle abrupt, without roundness.” It’s as if Bellow no longer has time to fill in the whole of the picture, but of necessity now has to practice what Philip Roth calls “compression.” And perhaps also as a function of age, he views the fuzzier whole with more compassion.
Bellow’s fond portrait of his friend Bloom cuts plenty of slack for a man who might be read as dogmatic, bullying, fiscally wasteful, and painfully self-indulgent. But as Bellow’s narrator Chick says, “In my trade you have to make more allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account — to avoid hard-edged judgments. All this refraining may resemble naivete. But it isn’t quite that. In art you become familiar with due process. You can’t simply write people off or send them to hell.”
The debt that instigates Bellow’s pitch-perfect short novel, tinged with death on all sides (including an account of the author’s own near-death from food poisoning), as well as the always surprising flare-up of desire, is the duty of friendship:
Ravelstein would frequently say to me, “‘There’s something in the way you tell anecdotes that gets to me, Chick. But you need a real subject. I’d like you to write me up, after I’m gone…”
“It depends, doesn’t it, on who beats whom to the barn?”
“Let’s not have any bullshit about it. You know perfectly well that I’m about to die…”
Of course I knew it. Indeed I did.
“You could do a really fine memoir. It’s not just a request,” he added. “‘I’m laying this on you as an obligation. Do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re laid back and making remarks… I’ve often thought how well you deal with a story when you’re laid back.”
There was no way I could refuse to do this.
And if Ravelstein is wonderfully laid-back, it’s also the case that, as Bellow says, “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death.”
Each of the writers whose “exit strategies” interest me turns the prism, through which the refractions of suffering, desire, sickness, old age and death are seen, in his own distinctive way. Bellow’s younger Canadian contemporary, Mordecai Richler (who died at age 70 in 2001), conjured up an equally cranky and satisfyingly unsatisfied baggy monster in his final novel, Barney’s Version (1997). In Barney Panofsky, Richler gives us a last version of the character who bespoke Richler’s self-knowledge of his own grumpy, almost parodic, public persona, and a creature far removed from the youthful ambitions of the eponymous protagonist of Richler’s early main work, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
By contrast, the late work of the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, is probably closer to Edward Said’s notion of “serene maturity.” As Milosz, who died in 2004 at age 93, says in the poem “Late Ripeness,”
Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered the clarity of early morning
But in Milosz’s ABC’s (1997-98; English translation, 2001), in a passage on “Adam and Eve” and our enduring fascination with the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Milosz says, “In our deepest convictions, reaching into the very depths of our being, we deserve to live forever. We experience our transitoriness and mortality as an act of violence perpetrated against us.”
That unreconciled tone is undergirded with melancholy resignation in a late prose poem, “Pity,” which appeared in Road-side Dog (1997): “In the ninth decade of my life, the feeling which rises in me is pity, useless. A multitude, an immense number of faces, shapes, fates of particular beings, and a sort of merging with them from inside, but at the same time my awareness that I will not find anymore the means to offer a home in my poems to these guests of mine, for it is too late.”
If Richler and Milosz make a contrasting if arbitrary pairing, so do two other prominent senior writers at work throughout the century’s first decade, the transplanted-to-Australia, South African-born J.M. Coetzee, and Portugal’s Jose Saramago, both, like Bellow and Milosz, Nobel Prize winners. Coetzee, at 69, is often described as reclusive, coldly dour, and decidedly unreconciled (in Said’s sense), bearing a seldom-smiling spare visage and temperament that puts me in mind of the great Austrian novelist, Thomas Bernhard. And yet in three novels written in this decade, Elizabeth Costello (2003), Slow Man (2005), and Diary of a Bad Year (2007), Coetzee ranks with the very best of writers who have unflinchingly faced the grotesqueries of late life, and who have remained committed to technical innovation in fiction. Perhaps I should say that Coetzee “arguably” ranks with the best, since there is a fairly long line of critics prepared to argue the worth of his late strategy.
Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, I think, is unarguably readable and engaging. The framing device that Coetzee comes up with is that each “lesson” is a little story about a lecture given, often reluctantly, by an aging and famous Australian woman novelist, the title character. Several of these stories, especially those about the pain we inflict on other animals, were delivered as actual lectures by Coetzee. Right from the opening line of the first story, “Realism,” there is, in addition to Costello and her son John who is accompanying his aged mother, and various others, also an unnamed narrator who offers observations or instructions about the storymaking in which he is engaged. Sometimes it’s no more than a blunt stage direction to get on with it: “There is a scene in a restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip.” Or, having described Elizabeth Costello preparing herself for an evening out, the narrator intervenes:
The blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of a moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe, cast up on the beach, looks around for his shipmates. But there are none. “I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them,” says he, “except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.” Two shoes, not fellows: by not being fellows, the shoes have ceased to be footwear and become proofs of death, torn by the foaming seas off the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore. No large words, no despair, just hats and caps and shoes.
Costello is presented with an award, prior to giving an acceptance speech, titled “What is Realism?” But first Coetzee steps in: “The presentation scene itself we skip. It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, suspended by the time and space of the fiction.” Coetzee admits that breaking into the narrative “plays havoc with the realist illusion.” However, unless he skips, “we will be here all afternoon,” he says, mock-impatiently. In any case, “the skips are not part of the text, they are part of the performance.” I suppose postmodern critics would describe all this as “destabilizing the text,” but whatever it is Coetzee is doing in this virtuoso performance, it’s surprisingly compelling. At which point, Elizabeth Costello dons her reading glasses and commences her lecture.
It’s about Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy,” a story in which an ape gives a lecture to a learned society about his former life as an ape. Costello says, “We don’t know and will never know, with certainty, what is really going on in this story.” Then she adds,
There used to be a time when we knew. We used to believe that when the text said, “On the table stood a glass of water,” there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them.
But all that had ended. The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems. About what is really going on in the lecture hall your guess is as good as mine: men and men, men and apes, apes and men, apes and apes… The words on the page will no longer stand up and be counted, each proclaiming “I mean what I mean!”
Each of the stories has a similar literally eccentric, off-centre, character about it. Each says something about art, about aging, about the world, and, at the end, about waiting “at the gate,” a Kafkaesque gate on whose far side might or might not be another world.
Coetzee’s subsequent novels, Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year are far more contested “performances,” to put it gently, than the innovative Elizabeth Costello. One critic, the novelist Francine Prose, was practically driven up the wall by Slow Man, the story of an aging Australian photographer hit by a car while bicycling, and his lengthy recuperation after the amputation of part of his leg. “My mixed feelings about Coetzee’s earlier work hardly prepared me for, or explained, the strong emotions — feelings that ranged from impatience to a dull rage to a sort of despairing boredom — that overcame me…” (Francine Prose, “The Plot Doesn’t Thicken,” www.slate.com, Sept. 14, 2005.)
Another reviewer, Robert MacFarlane, in the London Sunday Times, who wittily describes Coetzee as “one of the great novelists of omission… He has always eschewed more than he has bitten off,” judged that Slow Man “is not only unmistakably Coetzee’s least accomplished work, it is also, by more general standards, a mediocre novel.” Few critics were much kinder, and most of them were appalled that in the middle of the novel, almost out of nowhere, Elizabeth Costello, the protagonist of Coetzee’s previous novel, turns up at the Slow Man’s door in order to try to speed him up. The critics resented getting halfway into a book only to be met by the possibility that the protagonist was merely the creature of a story being written by a fictional author.
Yet, in a curious way, isn’t Coetzee’s Slow Man an example of Edward Said’s notion of late style? The elderly Nobel Prize winner eschews all notion of reconciliation and serenity, instead giving us characters filled with “intransigance, difficulty and unresolved contradiction,” and to make matters worse, a narrative of tottering uncertainty. Despite all, including longeurs in the text that made me at one point fantasize about what it would be like if Coetzee suddenly decided to turn the Slow Man’s tale into Rocket Man pornography, there is something there, something about the struggle, not necessarily successful, against stasis and silence in our diminishing existence.
Coetzee’s more recent Diary of a Bad Year fared better with the critics. In it, Coetzee tells the story of an aging, prominent South African novelist now resident in Australia, who bears more than a passing resemblance to J. Coetzee, as he writes a series of op-ed pieces under the heading “Strong Opinions,” and at the same time is “uselessly afflicted with desire” (as critic James Wood puts it) for a young woman neighbour named Anya who lives in his apartment building and whom he hires to type his writing. Coetzee divides the printed page into three parts: at the top is the “strong opinion” piece he’s writing, in the middle his account of his infatuation with the young woman, and at the bottom, her view of the awkward relationship, although there are occasional variations.
The exit strategy here is a weaving of worldly reflections with a tale of not entirely futile desire in late life. The opinions traverse a wide range of topics: democracy, terrorism, Guantanamo Bay prison camp, pedophilia, the fate of animals (as always), intelligent design, Bach, aging, and inevitably, the writing life. About the latter, Coetzee or his alter ego says,
During the years I spent as a professor of literature, conducting young people on tours of books that would always mean more to me than to them, I would cheer myself up by telling myself that at heart I was not a teacher but a novelist. And indeed, it was as a novelist rather than as a teacher that I won a modest reputation.
But now the critics voice a new refrain. At heart he is not a novelist after all, they say, but a pedant who dabbles in fiction. And I have reached a stage in my life when I begin to wonder whether they are not right — whether, all the time I thought I was going about in disguise, I was in fact naked.
Meanwhile, down in the apartment tower’s basement laundry room (and at the bottom of the page), “As I watched her an ache, a metaphysical ache, crept over me that I did nothing to stem. And in an intuitive way she knew about it, knew that in the old man in the plastic chair there was something personal going on, something to do with age and regret and the tears of things.”
So, that’s the way it is. We have, as long as we’re able, something to say about the world, and we recognize, as one poet put it, that “the love I never conquered when young / will remain as such” as we prepare to “pay death’s duty.”
At the far end of the emotional spectrum from Coetzee are the late works of Jose Saramago, the octegenarian author of an extraordinary series of a half-dozen or more, playfully grim “what if” fables. The best known is Blindness (1995), in which a city is struck by a mysterious and contagious plague of sightlessness, and soon reduced to conditions of barbarism. Both before and after that landmark novel, there are equally innovative fantasies: in one, the Iberian landmass is detached from Europe and sails the oceans as The Stone Raft (1986); in another, a lonely proofreader willfully changes a single word in a text about The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) in an effort to alter the course of history. More recently, writing in his mid-80s, Saramago proposes, in Death with Interruptions (2006; English translation 2008), that death herself (but only lower-case “death,” she insists) takes a sort of romantic holiday, leaving in her wake social chaos.
In a sense, all of Saramago’s writings are late works, considering that he had such an unusually belated beginning, only becoming a full-time writer in his mid-50s. Born to a family of impoverished peasants in 1922, Saramago was educated and worked as a mechanic, and only gradually and tentatively, by way of journalism, made his way to his present trade. After an initial attempt at writing, Saramago fell into a sort of literary silence for some three decades, finally emerging in the late 1970s with something equivalent to a “first novel.” Only in his mid-60s did he write what is consensually regarded as a masterpiece, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1986), a meditation on the greatest writer in 20th century Portugal, Fernando Pessoa, and the conditions of life under the Iberian dictatorships of the 1930s. To make matters more personally difficult, Saramago became and has remained an unrepentent communist, to the dismay of some of his admirers. As the American literary scholar Harold Bloom puts it, “Saramago’s novels are endlessly inventive, endlessly good-natured, endlessly skillful, but it baffles me why the man can’t grow up politically.”
In Saramago’s mordantly comic Death with Interruptions, people suddenly stop dying on New Year’s Eve in an unnamed landlocked country of 10 million inhabitants, one equipped with the usual institutional accoutrements of modern society. Though some may object to the immaturity of Saramago’s leftist politics, his political satire on church, government, media, “maphia,” and various branches of the funeral industry (now reduced to burying cats and dogs) will strike most readers as “deadly” accurate in this depiction of the effects of temporary immortality.
From the outset, the pace is simultaneously brisk but leisurely, and the tone is mock-dry:
The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first.
At first ordinary people are thrilled, at last in possession of “humanity’s greatest dream since the beginning of time.” But cooler, more calculating minds, those of authority soon prevail. All the major institutions of power quickly come to view the end of death as a calamity. If people live forever, what will happen to the pension system? Funeral homes and life insurance companies will be driven out of business. “The absence of death, at first good news, now threatens to be every bit as big a social catastrophe as the plague of blindness was in Saramago’s novel of that name,” notes reviewer D.T. Max (“Stay of Execution,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2008). “If we don’t start dying again, we have no future,” the prime minister tells the king.
All of this is delivered with Saramago’s trademark eccentric punctuation. His tales are constructed in long run-on sentences marked only by commas, a “flood of prose,” one critic remarks, in which the characters’ thoughts and dialogue, as well as the observations of the narrator are undifferentiated. And who is the presiding narrative personality of this and other fictions? Critic James Wood describes the narrator’s voice as that of “a sly old Portuguese peasant, who knows everything and nothing.”
Then, halfway through, after we’ve pretty much got the absurdist picture, and just as death has suspended the “moratorium” on death as a botched experiment, there’s a surprising turn in the tale. The surprise is for the title character, that shrouded rack of bones with only a scythe for companionship, who nonetheless has the shape-shifting power to become a corporeal being, say, an attractive young woman in her 30s. In the course of her professional duties, death runs into a cellist. Not a great cellist like Rostropovich, perhaps, but one good enough to perform the occasional solo when it’s called for by the symphony orchestra that employs him. He’s a rather lonely cellist of 50, with a dog, whose amusements are as modest as walks in the park, and whose evening repast is as humble as cellophane-wrapped sandwiches. Something about this cellist, not to put too fine a pun on it, strikes a chord in death.
What makes this late work of Saramago’s not only thoroughly enjoyable, but in fact joyous, at least to my mind (other critics accorded it those dreaded “mixed reviews”), is that its creator allows us to momentarily imagine an eternal version of the only paradise worth having, life itself. For a stretch of just under two hundred pages we are permitted to doff the unbearable weightiness of being that is contained in the perpetual reminder of mortality. All the while, of course, we continue to know what’s in store for us, though as Saramago says in a recent interview, “The worst that death has is that you were here, and now you’re not.”
Finally, there’s Philip Roth. Or perhaps I should say, best of all, there’s Philip Roth. Of all the writers of this decade whose late works invite consideration, no account of a writer’s development is more remarkable than that of Roth. For many readers, fellow writers, and critics (including myself), Roth, who marked his 75th year in 2008, is regarded as the pre-eminent living novelist in the United States.
Born in 1933, Roth was recognized as early as his first books, Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Letting Go (1962), as a leading literary figure of his generation, as well as the heir to the Jewish-American novelists of the preceding period, Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Henry Roth.
With his scandalous bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), appearing in the midst of the so-called sexual revolution, and ever since, through a dozen subsequent volumes that brought him into mid-life, Roth has been something of a controversial figure, often described as a disloyal troublemaker within his own ethnic community. It was that infra-Jewish discomfiture that partially inspired Roth to pen The Ghost Writer (1979), the first of what would turn out to be a nine-volume cycle of novels featuring a sort of literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.
In that brief novel, a retrospectively seen account written some two decades after the events it depicts, set in the mid-1950s, the young Zuckerman, who has published only his first troublemaking-among-his-Jewish-kin stories, visits the New England rural retreat of his literary hero, E.I. Lonoff, a short-story author of esquisite restraint, thought to be partly modeled on Malamud. The aesthetic argument of the book in fact turns on Lonoff’s controlled passion and isolated operating mode, turning a sentence over again and again, versus Zuckerman’s raging exuberance.
By the way, the question of the relationship or identity between Zuckerman and Roth, or even between “Philip Roth” and Roth (the former turns up as a narrator in several of Roth’s books), or even of that between the fictional Lonoff and his real-life sources, is, as the critic Clive James notes, “a Mobius striptease” issue that has no resolution, and really doesn’t need one.
The living muse of The Ghost Writer, a young woman graduate student of Lonoff’s, is named Amy Bellette. In the uproarious course of this one-night sleepover at the backwoods home of Lonoff and his wife of some 30 years, young Zuckerman witnesses the breakup of Lonoff’s marriage in favour of life with his mistress. In addition, the exuberant Zuckerman conjures up an erotic fantasy of his own about Amy Bellette in which the 20-something European immigrant is somehow transformed into the Holocaust martyr Anne Frank (who has survived, and resurfaced, incognito, in literary America). What better solution to Zuckerman’s problem with the Jews than to out-do his compatriots with a marriage to the ultimate orthodox Jewish heroine of the age? The whole tale, by now characteristic of Roth, the author of Portnoy, is blasphemous, disruptive, obscene, and hilarious.
In subsequent Zuckerman novels, Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), and The Prague Orgy (1985), Zuckerman is the successful, indeed notorious, author of Carnovsky, a scandalous Portnoy-like, sex-and-Jewish- troublemaking novel that he has to live down while figuring out how to write on. All of the tangles, rages, and rants, and the Mobius strip twists between biography and imagination are there with mischief aforethought.
Then, just as many writers of his era were tailing off, something remarkable happened in the work of Roth, then approaching 60. While the work of others was diminishing in intensity and perhaps relevance, Roth experienced an extraordinary late flowering. It wasn’t a break, or comeback, or return after long silence, since Roth was a steady producer who could be counted on for a book every couple of years.
I think I first noticed it when Roth published Patrimony: A True Story (1991), a memoir and meditation about the recent death of his 85-year-old father. It read as unembellished reportage, written with classic restraint and great beauty, about the death of an ordinary, aged, former insurance salesman. It was, as Edward Said says about other mature works, a “miraculous transfiguration of common reality.”
If Patrimony was Roth’s soberest work, the subsequent Operation Shylock (1993) was his most riotous. The protagonist is a troubled “Philip Roth” who goes to Israel to cover the trial of an alleged Nazi concentration camp guard, but is shadowed by an imposter “Philip Roth” who can reproduce the real Roth’s every mannerism. This roccoco satire on Israel and Palestine not only plays on Roth’s own shifting identity, but also drags in the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld for a cameo role and a Palestinian figure who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Edward Said. Its scope is near-epic, the competing rage of all its characters as unstoppable as the political conflict that motivates it. It’s without question the great American novel about the seemingly perpetual and savage Israeli-Palestinian war.
As well, in the decade of the 1990s, Roth produced three more full-scale novels, Sabbath’s Theatre (1995), and the first two volumes of a loose Zuckerman-narrated trilogy, American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998). The trilogy’s concluding piece-de-resistance was The Human Stain (2000), a brilliant investigation of racial identity, old age, late desire, and American national and academic politics during the Bill Clinton era, all set in the small New England college town of Athena, not far from Zuckerman’s Berkshire Hills rural retreat, itself a stone’s throw from the former home of Zuckerman’s old mentor, E.I. Lonoff.
The Human Stain was merely Roth’s opening salvo in the first decade of the new century, a decade in which Roth’s astonishing rate of productivity continued apace. The prolificness is notable, but other writers have been prolific, especially Roth’s contemporary, John Updike who, until his death, almost obsessively published a volume or more per year. What’s remarkable about Roth is the variety, quality and pertinence of each new book
The indelible Human Stain was followed by The Dying Animal (2001); then another “Roth” novel, The Plot Against America (2004); Everyman (2006), the second of a sort of trilogy about death; and its conclusion, Exit Ghost (2007); Indignation (2008); and the announcement in early 2009 of two forthcoming books, The Humbling (2009) and Nemesis (set for 2010).
Exit Ghost takes its title from a terse stage direction in Hamlet. Roth declares that old age isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre, and in this likely final Zuckerman novel, he’s not the least bit squeamish about providing the details. The 71-year-old Zuckerman, having been holed up for the past decade in nearly total seclusion in his Berkshire Hills retreat, doggedly writing away and doing little else, suddenly comes to New York in autumn 2004 for medical treatment to repair some of the damage, particularly incontinence, caused by a prostectomy operation several years before. A young clinician is offering a technique that supposedly reduces the leakage, and which will hopefully do away with Zuckerman’s mortification at having to trundle around in adult diapers. It’s not only Zuckerman’s leaky, impotent spigot at issue, there’s also the leakage of his mind: forgotten names, faces, telephone numbers, even pages from Zuckerman’s own hand.
The plot is about the return of The Ghost Writer, a half-century later, and Zuckerman’s “rash moments” in attempting to revivify his life. Amy Bellette turns up, the former muse a now 75-year-old woman with a partially shaved head and a disfiguring scar across her skull from a recent brain cancer operation. Lonoff, now literally a ghost, is there, too, on the urine-reeking stairs of a Lower East Side walk-up.
When Zuckerman rashly decides to answer an ad to exchange residences for a year (a New York apartment in return for his rural hermitage), he meets a young couple, both aspiring writers, Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan, and through them the noxious Richard Kliman, a would-be biographer of the forgotten Lonoff, who intends to reveal the ghost writer’s darkest sexual secret, apparently an adolescent incestuous affair with his older stepsister. (Here, Roth is merging Lonoff-Malamud with Henry Roth, whose belated last novels suggested such an affair.)
Of course, once Zuckerman sets eyes on the langourous but troubled Jamie, the insane infatuation is inevitable, and produces not only futile/fertile desire but a “He and She” playlet, penned by Zuckerman, that imagines even further twists and near-erotic turns. Against all this is the loosely sketched-in background of 2004 America in which people are ceaselessly jabbering into their cellphones, and the hopes of young liberals like Billy and Jamie are crushed by the reelection of George W. Bush. There are resemblances to Bellow’s Ravelstein, though no one would ever accuse Roth of being laid-back, and in the afflictions of desire, there are parallels to Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year.
Perhaps Exit Ghost is a novel more for devotees of the Zuckerman series than for a general readership, but, even at worst, it almost works. It sets out Lonoff’s spare credo: “The end is so immense, it is its own poetry. It requires little rhetoric. Just state it plainly.” To which it counterposes the rage of the toothless old lion and the handsome virile bull, Zuckerman and Kliman screaming at each other in the middle of New York’s Central Park over the fate of Lonoff’s ghost.
The other evening, as I was writing these paragraphs, I sat down for a few hours and re-read Exit Ghost, just to be sure that my own grip wasn’t entirely slipping. It’s an uncomfortable text, squirm-making in places, but on the whole pretty persuasive, if you’re willing, as Bellow advises, to make allowances. I probably would do something other, something slightly more practical, with those “useless passions.” In one of Coetzee’s novels, Disgrace, the distressed protagonist makes a regular arrangement with a local sex-worker, which at least dispells some of the illusions of late longing.
But Zuckerman’s Rip van Winkle-like return to New York and the quick-sketch of the depths of the Bush era and a vacuous trivial culture, the embattled ruminations on biography and identity, the massacre of old age, the absence of “serenity and reconciliation” (in Said’s sense), all that seems pretty much right.
It makes sense that late works address the frailties of the flesh and mind, cast a cold eye on the passing caravan, play endgames with ever fewer pieces on the board. “Late style”? Well, it can be both timely and untimely. Milosz’s grave serenity and Saramago’s critical playfulness are as possible, as plausible as Coetzee’s and Roth’s raging against the dying of the light. Yeats was right that “No single story would they find / Of an unbroken happy mind, / A finish worthy of the start. Young men know nothing of this sort, / Observant old men know it well.” We’ve been graced, in this decade, and others, with “observant old men.” And, as Yeats also asked, in the title of that poem, “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?”
Berlin, March 1, 2009