Margaret Drabble: The art of growing old

When Simone de Beauvoir published her study of old age, La Vieillesse, in 1970, she was a pioneer in the field. The Second Sex (1949) had been a groundbreaking, seminal and life-changing work, gaining instant recognition, but with Old Age, as the book was called in the UK, she ventured into territory that nobody else seemed willing to enter, and friends and colleagues expressed astonishment that she, in her early sixties, wished to go there. Her research took her back to the Ancients, to mythology and anthropology and literature, and she offered readings of writers from Plato to Proust, but her volume remained for decades a lone landmark. Few had wished to follow. That has all changed now. A shifting demography has altered the landscape. Her volume (which appeared, less bleakly, as The Coming of Age in the US), remains an essential point of reference for all subsequent studies, and the steady flow of these has now swelled into a torrent: into what has, disobligingly, been described as a “silver tsunami.” Memoirs and self-help and lifestyle books and advice about dementia have poured out from the press, some confessional, some jokey, some intended to be comforting, and some designed to sell the products that promise everlasting youth. Library shelves display titles such as Senior Momentsand Keeping Mum and I Feel Bad About My Neck and Somewhere Towards the End and Crazy Age andNothing To Be Frightened Of, all of them exploring aspects of age, and some of them confronting the approach of death. The 2013/14 batch includes Anne Karpf ’s How to Age, Lynne Segal’s Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing and Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time.All of them acknowledge and quote from the inescapable de Beauvoir.
It’s time to commission a new translation of La Vieillesse as a tribute to the growth in the number of books being registered under Dewey classification 305. 2. The version we have in English was rendered, perhaps hastily (for it is a very long book) by Patrick O’Brian, better known for his maritime novels of the Napoleonic Wars, and it is at times very irritating. There is no index (which isn’t O’Brian’s fault) and a dearth of accurate source notes (again, not his responsibility). One suspects that at times there is pronoun gender confusion, offering perhaps unfair ammunition to feminist critiques of the great feminist. Worst of all, and most oddly, O’Brian has chosen to translate de Beauvoir’s prose translations of some of the most beautiful and pertinent poems in the English language back into a kind of English doggerel. The opening lines of Yeats’s “The Tower”:
What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
Have been turned into:
What shall I do with this nonsense, oh my heart, my troubled heart
This caricature, this decrepitude tied to me as to the tail of a dog?
Similar indignities have been inflicted on his 1937 poem, “What then?” As late Yeats provides some of the greatest consolations available to the ageing reader, this is a pity. Poetry, as Yeats pointed out, endures while the body withers, but it doesn’t have quite the same restorative power if you mess it up like this.
It’s odd how fortifying Yeats’s rage remains. But that’s the paradox of great poetry, of tragedy, of catharsis.
Dylan Thomas, who died young, and Yeats, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Doris Lessing who didn’t, all have their place in discussions of age and rage, and all are cited in these three new works. Swift’s hideously haunting Struldbruggs, doomed to immortality and senile decay, make appearances. But only Anne Karpf, in her reflections on what she calls the “burden model” of ageing—which she claims was dismantled by Phil Mullan’s The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is Not a Social Problem (2002)— mentions Anthony Trollope’s strange dystopian novel, The Fixed Period (1882). I was first alerted to this work by an essay published by David Lodge in December 2012, outlining its subject: “the effects of a law passed by the youthful Britannula Assembly [a British Antipodean colony] making euthanasia compulsory for everybody between the age of 67 and 68”: and commenting on its relevance to “our own current social, economic and ethical concerns” in view of rising life expectancy and increasing public controversy about the legitimacy of assisted dying.
Following the double prompt, and expecting, as an advocate of voluntary euthanasia, to feel some sympathy for its highminded narrator Mr Neverbend, I read the novel, and rather wish I hadn’t. It is interesting but lowering. Britannula has abolished capital punishment but introduced something even worse: the obligation of each citizen not to choose, but to know, the time of his or her death. I felt quite bad while reading this book. I do think about death often, probably several times a day, but then I always have done, from an early age, and I forget about it as quickly as I envisage it, distracted by a multitude of smaller worries, hopes and projects. Unlike the authors of some old age testimonies, I certainly don’t think “it will never happen to me,” nor does the idea of it make me wake and howl in the night, as some (perhaps ostentatiously) claim to do. But Trollope’s proposition got me down, and as I read on, I realised that his “fixed period” was precisely the capital punishment his imaginary colony had idealistically abolished. Knowing the hour, when decided by others and not by oneself, is not a good prospect.
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