Of an Age
Late thoughts and latter-day visions
Kingsley Amis, dead in 1995 from drink and anger, wrote twenty novels and many works of non-fiction. They were all reliably diverting and funny. But Amis worried that his first book, Lucky Jim, which he published in 1954, would surpass all the rest, even though he was later twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and then won, in 1986, for The Old Devils (an inferior work). In his latter years, Amis grew cranky, sulky, paranoid, and sometimes abusive. His early joie de vivre, mostly sexual, was exhausted.
The critic Phillip Lopate, another young-life sexual athlete, wrote a wry essay in 1986, “Against Joie de Vivre,” which decried other people’s earthly pleasures even while regretting his own. I loved his elegant takedown of hedonism when I first read it as a youthful graduate student, but my balance went sideways when Lopate published a cranky and abusive review of my 2006 book about the Empire State Building. I suppose that is on me, not him? I don’t know. Maybe joie de vivre leaves us all behind eventually.
There are writers and artists who flourish or emerge in later life. Others, sadly, decline. Saul Bellow was reliably wonderful during his whole career, though his late-life fatherhood struck many as unseemly. There are those who would not agree with me that Ravelstein, his almost tossed-off roman à clef from 2000 about his intellectual friend Allan Bloom, is just as enjoyable as Seize the Day, the slender book from forty-four years before that many consider an early triumph. But his tenth novel, More Die of Heartbreak (1987), might be the best of all, a mid-career tour de force. On the other side of the Atlantic, Evelyn Waugh transitioned from the scathing early social satires of Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930) into the sombre, masterly, post-conversion tapestry of Brideshead Revisited (1945). Later Waugh works, including the Men at Arms (1952) trilogy, do not stack up to that pinnacle. It is a hard pilgrimage to manage a whole creative narrative over a lifetime.
In his last book, the critic Edward Said, who died in 2003, wrote insightfully about the feelings of complexity and contradictions that visit brilliant artists — including Ludwig van Beethoven, Thomas Mann, Jean Genet — as life moves them toward mortality. Said noted T. W. Adorno’s observation that “it is as if, confronted with the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favor of reality.”
Adorno, the uncompromising musicologist turned social critic who transformed twentieth-century discourse about cultural production and consumption, is also responsible for the phrase “late style,” or Spätstil. “The maturity of the late works,” he wrote in a 1937 study of Beethoven, “does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are for the most part not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation.”
This isn’t always the case when it comes to visual art and music. J. M. W. Turner invented the sunset in later life, critics say, and Picasso became more prolific with every passing year. Beethoven rose to sublime heights with the Ninth Symphony, when he could no longer hear it played. Their early fans did not necessarily view such creators as getting better during their lifetimes, but posterity has made them memorable.
The terrain is trickier elsewhere. Woody Allen inserted a couple of self-referential jokes in his 1980 film, Stardust Memories, a riff on Fellini’s 8½, where visiting aliens tell the director they prefer his early funny films to the faux-Bergman middle works. Later he migrated into self-imitation, self-parody, and, of course, documented creepiness. To watch the romantic comedy Manhattan now, and see Allen in middle age date the teenager Mariel Hemingway, is to be made distinctly uncomfortable. How did we all enjoy it so much back in 1979? In a non-sexual register, Allen has made such actors as John Cusack and Jesse Eisenberg basically imitate him on screen, which may be even more heinous than imitating yourself. If this is Spätstil, no thanks.
Literature, specifically fiction, is rockier territory still. Philip Roth says he has given up writing for good. In 2010, he articulated a late-style ars poetica with a searching retrospective called “Why Write?” The American author explained that he had “a strong suspicion that I’d done my best work and anything more would be inferior.” He no longer possessed “the mental vitality or the verbal energy or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack of any duration on a complex structure as demanding as a novel.” He went on: “Every talent has its terms — its nature, its scope, its force; also its term, a tenure, a life span.” It is surely true that “not everyone can be fruitful forever,” as Roth put it. But when do you stop, and who tells you to?
For years, famous writers, especially white men of a certain age, have been given wide leeway. Louis Begley’s books since the excellent The Man Who Was Late, from 1993, are notably inferior, even offensive. James Salter’s 2013 novel, All That Is, was scorched by young critics who considered it a celebration of an old-school, misogynistic New York publishing world. The book earned its place as a kind of mordant semi-autobiography, but it is not nearly as good as Salter’s earlier works, including his 1957 debut, The Hunters, about air combat during the Korean War, and the erotic A Sport and a Pastime, from 1967. Other male authors of esteem have come into later-life opprobrium. John le Carré’s strident anti-Americanism has marred his post–Cold War novels, though there are some exceptions, such as A Delicate Truth (2013), and earlier works that hold up extremely well. Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) both feature the future Circus master spy George Smiley, who reappears in le Carré’s iconic mid-period books. These books show the character as a smart man who negotiates a difficult mid-life divorce amid other challenges and reveal their author as a writer of great subtlety.
Fast forward to the punk and New Wave decades of last century. Before he turned thirty, Martin Amis put out three sparkling, prickly novels between 1973 and 1978: The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and Success. He penned three less punkish books almost immediately after: Other People (1981), Money (1984), and London Fields (1989). The scathing London scenes of his 2012 novel, Lionel Asbo, a title that riffs on the anti-social behaviour orders then being issued by U.K. courts, were a welcome return to this early form, and the linguistic agility of his 2003 book, Yellow Dog, was dazzling if unresolved (as I was able to tell him in person while we shared a sidewalk smoke some years ago). Perhaps this kind of circle‑back constitutes its own kind of late style, superior to mere self-parody. But by the time Amis came to write Inside Story, his meandering 2020 tribute to his late friend Christopher Hitchens, all perspective and editorial restraint were lost. It was unreadable, full of distracting asides and footnotes.
I sense that all this egotistical male introspection is over for good. In days gone by, Gore Vidal, Jerzy Kosinski, and Norman Mailer could be seen on the covers of mainstream magazines and on late-night television chat shows, where they expounded on the state of their work. Even the liberal thinker and aspiring politician Michael Ignatieff hosted his own chat show, if you can imagine, on the BBC back in premillennium days. Such appearances now seem like ancient history. Successive waves of new writers and new voices — more diverse, more agile, more innovative, more prominent on social media — have transformed a once settled hierarchy into a thousand plateaux. These plateaux are, to quote the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, themselves referencing the psychologist Gregory Bateson, “continuous, self-vibrating regions of intensities.”
Despite relentless media commentary, generations are not self-vibrating regions but are instead social constructs. There is no such thing as a reified, capital-letter Zoomer, Millennial, or Boomer. Birth year determines many things, but basic identity and interest in the world and even technological competence are not among them. Moses Znaimer was correct when he suggested we replace the term “demographic” with the more accurate “psychographic.” Pitting young people against the old is a game as ancient as time — Socrates complained about generational conflict in Plato’s dialogues — and certainly youth is no lever of quality or even innovation. Margaret Atwood, for instance, has been criticized many times by younger people who want to “explain” things to her, because they think her social media presence invites their input. Maybe she just wants to express herself, as she always has. Atwood’s output over the years is consistent in tone, power, and theme. There is no decline there, just a gain in volume. One could likewise cite Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, and the late Ursula Le Guin, who have all gone from strength to strength.
So what are the lessons to draw? One is that contemporary recognition is not aesthetic success. There are many prizes for “emerging writers,” and that is great. New talent on the literary scene, whatever its author’s age, must be encouraged in every possible way. But then there are those awards for “mid-career” or even “lifetime” achievements. These poisoned chalices are either death sentences or apologies for past neglect. Smart authors know how to respond.
When Mordecai Richler won the 1997 Giller Prize for Barney’s Version — a layered late-life story and my father’s favourite, but for me not the author’s best — he took to the stage looking dishevelled and rumpled, hair all out of place, his dinner jacket and bow tie raffishly undone. Richler thanked the judges and the crowd for the accolade and then said that the only prize he ever really coveted was the Cy Young Award, for pitching excellence in Major League Baseball. When the novelist Michael Winter was given the Writers’ Trust Notable Author Award in 2008, he addressed the podium in sly Newfoundland style, saying that he was grateful to be labelled a “Not Able Author,” since who among us is able? Still, he declared, he would take the money and try to use it well.
Perhaps the second, deeper lesson is that we ought to allow artists of any age or description or fashion to progress as their vision dictates. “Late style” is a useful concept but not a definitive one, at least when tied to years on the planet. Edward Said noted that one of the gifts of advanced creative bursts was that they allowed established artists to go against the grain, to pivot and go forward on a different front. But this ability is not a function of age or generation. We can all aspire to do so, at any point, driven by circumstance and opportunity.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein offers another insight about late style. He died at sixty-two, and his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) is considered one of the most significant works of thought in the last hundred years. But his breakout book was a very early, very odd, number-coded survey work called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, from 1921. It was allegedly conceived and partially written while the young genius was serving in the trenches of the First World War against Russian forces. Wittgenstein offers this notion: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”
He meant an epistemological picture, a way of seeing the world that blocks imagination or change. We cannot get outside of language, but we can attempt to adjust the picture and so free ourselves from a kind of ideological captivity. Numerical age is meaningless. There are no “generations,” there are just people who happen to be here together at different times with different experiences. There are no early or late books, just ones that follow a winding, usually incoherent temporal path. Some artists get better, some get worse, some stay the same, some are just amazing but short-lived. Michael Jackson and Glenn Gould both died at fifty. Prince, born the same year as Jackson, died at fifty-seven from pain and its medication. We will never know what great works these gifted musicians might have fashioned in later life. That does not diminish what they did while they were here.
Does youth bring vigorous brashness and old age solid wisdom? Sometimes, but not always. “Age is no guarantee of efficiency,” Q tells James Bond in Skyfall. “And youth is no guarantee of innovation,” 007 replies. This clever exchange takes place on a bench in London’s National Gallery, where the two are looking at — what else — a Turner. The painting, from 1839, depicts HMS Fighting Temeraire, a battered veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, as it’s towed away for scrap. Age-based claims remain alive, like all reductive and comfortable clichés.
There’s one more lesson from Wittgenstein, perhaps inspired by William Blake’s “eternity in an hour” line from Auguries of Innocence. “Death is not an event in life,” the philosopher wrote in a much-quoted apophthegm. “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” The Grim Reaper fetches us all — early or late. We are furrowed, even ravaged. We are not here for delectation; we are bitter and spiny. We all abdicate in favour of reality. And so we must live in the present, since there is nothing else. Then the work we do has to fend for itself, now and forever.