April 19, 2011

UK: Fiction needs to get its act together when depicting the elderly

GLASGOW, Scotland / HeraldScotland / Arts & Ents / April 19, 2011

By Rosemary Goring

According to a European survey, happiness peaks at the age of 74.

That’s right. Not at 20, when you’re as fit and attractive as you’re ever likely to be, nor at 50, when you’ve got the children off your hands and finally have some time to yourself. No, at 74, when no employer will take your calls and your body is reminding you daily that, like a runaway bus, it and it alone is in charge and working to its own diabolical timetable.

I learnt this lovely little fact from a book called You’re Looking Very Well (Faber & Faber, £14.99). Its author, biologist Lewis Wolpert, who is in his eighties, has noticed that this is the phrase most often levelled at the more mature, so long as they’re not actually horizontal in a hospital bed. His subtitle, The Surprising Nature Of Getting Old, is spot-on. While it’s a rather mechanical, statistic-heavy book, each page contains a morsel of unexpected illumination. And while its catalogue of elderly ailments is decidedly bleak, this is nicely offset by the sagacity and humour he and others he quotes display in the face of that marching army of wrinkles.

Wolpert’s book is only the most recent in a spring tide of titles tackling old age head-on. One of the more inspiring is The Warmth Of The Heart Prevents Your Body From Rusting (Rodale, £12.99) by French psychologist Marie de Hennezel, which was a massive hit in France last year. In this thoughtful exploration, she addresses the subject of how to grow old, if not gracefully exactly, then with mind and soul not just intact, but hopeful and open.

This is an exceedingly tender, wise book that, like Wolpert’s, reinstates those over the age of 65 and far beyond to the place they deserve. And like Wolpert, de Hennezel dares to talk about that unmentionable, that final taboo of good taste, in other words, the sex life of seniors. The facts, and the stories they uncover, are fascinating and may help explain why 74 is a good place to be.

Interestingly, as Wolpert shows, many who hold entrenched ageist views are those of advancing years, who frequently castigate themselves as dithery or incompetent, when a 25-year-old who may also at times be forgetful, slow or clumsy, wouldn’t dream of blaming their body clock.

Some months ago I mentioned here a book I made a bee-line for as soon as the proof arrived. The Secret Life Of The Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch, an American science writer, published last week (Penguin, £9.99), is a distillation of evidence that while we all get more forgetful about things as we grow older, the adult brain is actually at its peak in terms of capability and the ability to juggle complex facts from the ages of 40 to the late 60s.

That’s nearly three decades of tip-top mental performance, even if much of it may have to be carried out without the spectacles or car keys which have somehow got lost.

The plethora of non-fiction aimed at encouraging and informing the west’s ageing population is a sign of our more affluent, healthy and compassionate times. I do wonder, though, about the depiction of the old in fiction, which has yet to catch up.

With a few exceptions, such as Muriel Spark with Memento Mori, the elderly play only a bit-part, if any, in literature, and unless they’re created by writers who are themselves growing old, they are invariably viewed as a stereotype of decay or eccentricity.

This isn’t really surprising, given that publishers don’t much like elderly writers unless, like Philip Roth or Paul Bailey, those laureates of the sad, aged male, they are already successful.

Yet who but the old can write about the complications and joys of later life? As the balance of the population tips towards a surfeit of over-65s, maybe aged first-time novelists will become fashionable.

And as older readers find themselves reflected in their books, maybe they’ll also be profitable.

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