Sunday, August 20, 2017

Top 10 books about old men

Top 10 books about old men

From King Lear to Père Goriot, Monet’s biographer chooses some of the best portrayals of men who hold our attention at an age when most writers are no longer interested
Ross King
Wednesday 5 October 2016 09.30 BST

re history and literature no country for old men? The demographics of literary heroes can be a bit depressing for anyone over a certain age. It’s easy to find books about school days, comings of age, first kisses, great expectations, artists as young men, the faults in our stars. The middle-aged, especially middle-aged men in full crisis mode, likewise get their share of attention: thank you Richard Ford, Martin Amis, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen, John Updike and several thousand others. But what about older people, those in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who don’t want merely to be plot devices in rocking-chairs, encumbered with memories and regrets, reminiscing about what happened many decades earlier when their lives were actually interesting?

As I researched and wrote Mad Enchantment, my biography of the last dozen years in the long life of Claude Monet, I was struck by the painter’s vigour, fortitude, ambition and (if I can declare some personal interest) sheer narrative traction. Monet in those years, his 70s and 80s, was very much an old man in a hurry, emerging from self-imposed retirement on the eve of the first world war to create some of the most daringly experimental pigmentary effects he had ever attempted. He offers proof that an eightysomething can propel a narrative without an author having to resort to wistful recollections of a vanished prime. So what other older men appear in literature on their own terms, holding our attention with all their wisdom, folly and singularity? Here, in random order, are some of my favourites.

Mauriac’s novel takes the form of a written confession by a wonderfully malevolent and calculating narrator, a miserly barrister whose final ambition, following a lifetime of avarice and hatred, is to disinherit his equally greedy children. Yet, as his plotting unfolds, this appalling paterfamilias slowly uncoils the knot of vipers in his heart and reveals his life to be one of haunting tragedy, deep pathos, and even a redeeming love. Not everyone will appreciate the whiff of incense at the end – Mauriac certainly had his share of detractors, including those on the Catholic right – but the journey is absolutely mesmerising.

Here we have another gruesome protagonist propelled through the pages by a search for revenge. In response to the impending autobiography of a former friend, TV producer Barney Panofsky, in an act of self-exculpation, tries to piece together his life story. Both his life and the autobiography are, as he admits with diverting frankness, a shambles, encompassing a trio of wives, various cuckoldings and a possible murder. His attempts are marred by the fact that he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, a diagnosis that results in an compellingly unreliable narrator. Wonderful, spleen-venting satire from a great literary curmudgeon.

Ulysses may get only 52 lines of text, but he sets the canto alight. Dante manages to chronicle an epic voyage in this short passage, describing an aged Ulysses and his equally elderly seafaring companions leaving behind the comforts of home (Penelope apparently did all that waiting around for nothing) and daring to sail beyond the boundaries of the known world. Spoiler alert: this “foolish flight” ends badly, but the episode features some of the most affecting passages in the entire Divine Comedy. Ulysses is in hell, thanks to a certain trick with a wooden horse, but there’s no doubting Dante’s sympathy with and admiration for the old boy.

Through his mouthpiece, Marcus Cato, Cicero talks about the techniques and benefits of ageing. Along the way, we get pleasing vignettes of many indefatigable ancients: Isocrates, who was still penning books in his 90s, and a certain Gorgias of Leontini, who lived to be 107 “without ever relaxing his diligence or giving up work”. He also tells the marvellous story of the aged Sophocles neglecting his household affairs so he can keep writing his plays. Hauled before the courts by his children, who want him declared mentally unfit to manage his property, Sophocles offers the ultimate riposte: he reads the judges his latest play, Oedipus at Colonus, then demands to know if it sounds like the work of a man of unsound mind. Case dismissed.

5. Lettres à une Amie, 1923-29 by Georges Clémenceau (1960)

Clémenceau met Marguerite Baldensperger when he was 81 and she was the 40-year-old married wife of a Sorbonne professor grieving for her dead daughter. “We must recapture our zest for life,” he told her. “We must fight. I shall help you. Put your hand in mine. I’ll help you to live and you will help me to die.” But he was by no means ready to die. The two of them conducted a secretive (and platonic) liaison. He wrote almost 700 letters to her in the last six years of his life, chronicling a flourishing old age: gadding about the countryside in his Rolls-Royce, entertaining dignitaries at his seaside bungalow, and coaxing Claude Monet to finish his water lily paintings. A zest for life indeed.

The inevitable template for all stories of aged fathers dealing with selfish children, from Balzac and Mauriac to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991). Recent speculation puts Lear’s difficulties down to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. But his problems didn’t begin with age, and his senility – such as it might be – is hardly his defining trait (and, tellingly, it’s not deployed by either Kurosawa or Smiley). As Goneril and Regan pointedly note, their father was always a bit bonkers at the best of times and old age has only exacerbated “the imperfections of long-engrafted condition”.


Goriot is fond and foolish like Lear, but endlessly patient and loving. He impoverishes himself to help out his two greedy, frivolous daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, who almost make Goneril and Regan look like paragons of filial gratitude. Balzac lays it on thick in the deathbed and funeral scenes, giving us (like Mauriac) a bleak view of a money- and status-obsessed society tragically adrift from its familial moorings.

The poet John Shade is not exactly old: he has died, we learn from the “Foreword”, a few weeks past his 61st birthday. But his 999-line poem is an eloquent and moving meditation on death, loss, age (including the logistics of shaving a dewlap) and the afterlife. The fantastical and famously baffling commentary – with its obsessions with political machinations in faraway Zembla – tends to make readers overlook the dastardly brilliance of the Shade/Nabokov poem. Here’s Shade on 40 years of marriage: “Four hundred thousand times/The tall clock with the hoarse Westminster chimes/Has marked our common hour. How many more/Free calendars shall grace the kitchen door?”

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” How can we not cheer on Santiago, the luckless fisherman, 84 days without a catch, who on day 85 hooks the huge marlin far off the coast of Cuba? Hemingway was only in his early 50s when he wrote the novel, but it’s tempting to read his own plight – poor health, writer’s block, a spate of vicious reviews – in to that of the struggling Santiago. Luckily, The Old Man and the Sea turned out to be Hemingway’s literary marlin. He then landed the Pulitzer and, in 1954, the Nobel prize.

The first in a wonderful trilogy (with The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends) about the courteous but astringent Sir Edward Feathers. Gardam gives a pitch-perfect portrait of this long-time expat, retired QC, and bravely grieving widower whose shoes “shone like conkers”. His white-knuckle motorway odyssey to Teesside in his Mercedes in the wake of his wife’s death is a hilarious, poignant and impeccably unsentimental portrait of discombobulation, loss and unbowing determination.


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood / Review by Sam Jordison

Ernes Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn
Sun Valley, Idaho, 1940

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – review

Naomi Wood's novel about Ernest Hemingway and his four women brings their story convincingly, movingly to life

Sam Jordison
Sunday 23 February 2014 10.30 GMT

as there ever been a writer as good at personal myth-making as Ernest Hemingway? Papa. He who who led the lost generation of injured and traumatised after the first world war. Who symbolised the bohemian dream life in 1920s Paris. Who changed English literature with his unadorned, brutal and yet still tender prose. Who liberated the Paris Ritz after the second world war. Who drank the most, who caught the biggest fish, who bedded the most beautiful women, and who grew the most impressive beard. Who was also, as Naomi Wood is fond of telling us, devastatingly handsome; a "beauty" with "broad shoulders", and an all-conquering "grin".

"What pull he has! What magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone."

So thinks his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, anyway. She, Hadley Richardson, Martha Gelhorn, and Mary Welsh, the four women in this tetralogy of marital strife and disintegration, all have different ways of coping with their errant husband – and they are all variously engaging. There's a melodramatic edge, even something of the soap opera in the way Wood has them all confronting their problems, throwing their drinks at one another and vocalising their torment. But who wouldn't want to watch a glossy drama starring Papa and set on location in Florida, Cuba and Paris?
There are also more cerebral rewards, especially in contemplation of the fifth woman in this arrangement: the author herself. Naomi Wood has to wrestle Hemingway on to the page, and make him seem a believable domestic husband as well as that 20th century-striding colossus. Sometimes he slips away, and the story falters. More often it feels like we're seeing the real man behind the Papa legend. Or at least, a convincing fiction of him. The measure of Wood's success comes in the emotional impact of the final pages. She has made Hemingway's famous tragedy seem moving all over again – and that's no mean feat.

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood / Review by Lara Feigel XLISTO

Hemingway with his fourth wife, Mary, in 1950
Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – review

The story of how Hemingway moved from mistress to marriage – told by each of his four wives – is as enticing as it is mysterious
Lara Feigel
Thursday 20 February 2014 08.00 GMT

Ernest Hemingway was unusual not in the number of women he loved, but in the number of those women he wanted to marry. There was Hadley Richardson, the generous, homely older woman, Pauline Pfeiffer, the rich society vamp, Martha Gellhorn, the restless long-legged war correspondent and Mary Welsh, the adoring journalist who took the risky step of giving up her own career to become the fourth Mrs Hemingway. "A feat," Martha Gellhorn says in Naomi Wood's accomplished new novel, "to want to marry every woman he fucks."
Hemingway loved the stability of marriage. As a writer, he found that his nerves were calmer when he knew there was someone there to protect him from the world. But his writing was fuelled by excitement, so he also needed the novelty of other women. And he didn't feel obliged to reconcile these contradictions. He once told F Scott Fitzgerald that his vision of heaven comprised two lovely houses in town, one containing his wife and children, where he would "be monogamous and love them truly and well", the other "where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on nine different floors".
Unfortunately, he wouldn't have been able to stop himself proposing to the mistresses. Mrs Hemingway lays bare the absurdity of this trait by fast‑forwarding between the start and end of all four marriages. Wood manipulates four sets of past-and-present with ease, telling the story from the perspective of each wife in turn. She creates narrative momentum despite the expansive time frame, because holding the novel together is the question of whether Hemingway will ever find a woman to last the course.

Each new wife believes that she alone can provide the requisite mixture of comfort and excitement needed to redeem Hemingway, but only Mary Welsh succeeds in retaining the Mrs Hemingway title until his death. Arguably, by this stage Hemingway is too drunk, depressive and irascible to convince any of his new conquests to marry him. But in Wood's portrait he has also found the complete and restful love he craved for years. The scenes where Mary mourns her husband after his suicide in 1961 are moving in their understated tenderness. We see Mary burning the obituaries and adding a lock of her hair to Hemingway's secret box of conjugal keepsakes.
It is not surprising that Mary's tone is the most assured in the book. The task of ventriloquism is relatively straightforward when the voice is as natural and wry as Mary's. It is harder when it is the less eloquent Hadley. The opening section where Wood tries to impersonate Hemingway's diffident first wife sometimes has an anachronistic chick-lit quality. It is difficult, too, when it is Pfeiffer, whose lazy wit is caught at moments but lost when Wood has her "long for the cherished life as newlyweds". It is almost impossible when it is Gellhorn, whose acerbic war reportage is well known enough for any imitation to feel flat.
For all this, Wood succeeds remarkably well in capturing the best-known voice, that of Hemingway himself, whose dialogue is almost entirely convincing. With anyone else, lines such as "I'm cockeyed crazy about you, Rabbit" would sound absurdly mannered, but Wood is right to think that, with Hemingway, you cannot take it too far. She could have gone further, though, in her psychological analysis of the hero (or villain) of the story. The motivation behind Hemingway's continual desire for marriage remains mysterious.
Reading Wood's book you would think that women flocked to him because he was brilliant in bed. In fact he had lengthy periods of impotence and was often too insecure to be generous (Gellhorn once described sex with Hemingway as, "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am without the thank you"). Wood could have included these contradictions as a way to open up the question of what it was he wanted and never quite found in marriage. At one point Martha thinks: "He is not so much greedy for women as blind to what he thinks he needs and so he grabs at everything." This seems true, but why is he blind and what does he actually need? Admittedly, this conundrum has resisted the analysis of Hemingway's chroniclers for many years, so Wood may be right not to offer her own solution. Certainly her portrayal of Hemingway is enticing, maddening and haunting enough to leave us trying to solve it for ourselves.
 Lara Feigel is the author of The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury).

Friday, August 18, 2017

Hemingway / The Old Man at the Bridge

Illustration by T.A.

The Old Man at the Bridge

by Ernest Hemingway

An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road. There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther.

It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.

“Where do you come from?” I asked him.

“From San Carlos,” he said, and smiled.
That was his native town and so it gave him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
“I was taking care of animals,” he explained. “Oh,” I said, not quite understanding.
“Yes,” he said, “I stayed, you see, taking care of animals. I was the last one to leave the town of San Carlos.”
He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his gray dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, “What animals were they?”
“Various animals,” he said, and shook his head. “I had to leave them.”
I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there.
“What animals were they?” I asked.
“There were three animals altogether,” he explained. “There were two goats and a cat and then there were four pairs of pigeons.”
“And you had to leave them?” I asked.
“Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery.”
“And you have no family?” I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank.
“No,” he said, “only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others.”
“What politics have you?” I asked.
“I am without politics,” he said. “I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometers now and I think now I can go no further.” “This is not a good place to stop,” I said. “If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa.”
“I will wait a while,” he said, “and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?”
“Towards Barcelona,” I told him.
“I know no one in that direction,” he said, “but thank you very much. Thank you again very much.”
He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, “The cat will be all right, I am sure. There is no need to be unquiet about the cat. But the others. Now what do you think about the others?”
“Why they’ll probably come through it all right.” “You think so?”
“Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts.
“But what will they do under the artillery when I was told to leave because of the artillery?”
“Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” I asked. “Yes.”
“Then they’ll fly.”
“Yes, certainly they’ll fly. But the others. It’s better not to think about the others,” he said.
“If you are rested I would go,” I urged. “Get up and try to walk now.”
“Thank you,” he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust.
“I was taking care of animals,” he said dully, but no longer to me. “I was only taking care of animals.”
There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hemingway / Indian Camp

Indian Camp

by Ernest Hemingway

At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.
Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row. Uncle George sat in the stern of the camp rowboat. The young Indian shoved the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George.
The two boats started off in the dark. Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat quite a way ahead of them in the mist. The Indians rowed with quick choppy strokes. Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him. It was cold on the water. The Indian who was rowing them was working very hard, but the other boat moved further ahead in the mist all the time.
“Where are we going, Dad?” Nick asked.
“Over to the Indian camp. There is an Indian lady very sick.”
“Oh,” said Nick.
Across the bay they found the other boat beached. Uncle George was smoking a cigar in the dark. The young Indian pulled the boat way up on the beach. Uncle George gave both the Indians cigars.
They walked up from the beach through a meadow that was soaking wet with dew, following the young Indian who carried a lantern. Then they went into the woods and followed a trail that led to the logging road that ran back into the hills. It was much lighter on the logging road as the timber was cut away on both sides. The young Indian stopped and blew out his lantern and they all walled on along the road.
They came around a bend and a dog came out barking. Ahead were the lights of the shanties where the Indian bark-peelers lived. More dogs rushed out at them. The two Indians sent them back to the shanties. In the shanty nearest the road there was a light in the window. An old woman stood in the doorway holding a lamp.
Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. The men had moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke cut of range of the noise she made. She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty. She lay in the lower bunk, very big under a quilt. Her head was turned to one side. In the upper bunk was her husband. He had cut his foot very badly with an ax three days before. He was smoking a pipe. The room smelled very bad.
Nick’s father ordered some water to be put on the stove, and while it was heating he spoke to Nick.
“This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,” he said.
“I know,” said Nick.
“You don’t know,” said his father. “Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams.”
“I see,” Nick said.
Just then the woman cried out.
“Oh, Daddy, can’t you give her something to make her stop screaming?” asked Nick.
“No. I haven’t any anaesthetic,” his father said. “But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.”
The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall.
The woman in the kitchen motioned to the doctor that the water was hot. Nick’s father went into the kitchen and poured about half of the water out of the big kettle into a basin. Into the water left in the kettle he put several things he unwrapped from a handkerchief.
“Those must boil,” he said, and began to scrub his hands in the basin of hot water with a cake of soap he had brought from the camp. Nick watched his father’s hands scrubbing each other with the soap. While his father washed his hands very carefully and thoroughly, he talked.
“You see, Nick, babies are supposed to be born head first but sometimes they’re not. When they’re not they make a lot of trouble for everybody. Maybe I’ll have to operate on this lady. We’ll know in a little while.”
When he was satisfied with his hands he went in and went to work.
“Pull back that quilt, will you, George?” he said. “I’d rather not touch it.”
Later when he started to operate Uncle George and three Indian men held the woman still. She bit Uncle George on the arm and Uncle George said, “Damn squaw bitch!” and the young Indian who had rowed Uncle George over laughed at him. Nick held the basin for his father. It all took a long time.
His father picked the baby up and slapped it to make it breathe and handed it to the old woman.
“See, it’s a boy, Nick,” he said. “How do you like being an interne?”
Nick said. “All right.” He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing.
“There. That gets it,” said his father and put something into the basin.
Nick didn’t look at it.
“Now,” his father said, “there’s some stitches to put in. You can watch this or not, Nick, just as you like. I’m going to sew up the incision I made.”
Nick did not watch. His curiosity had been gone for a long time.
His father finished and stood up. Uncle George and the three Indian men stood up. Nick put the basin out in the kitchen.
Uncle George looked at his arm. The young Indian smiled reminiscently.
“I’ll put some peroxide on that, George,” the doctor said.
He bent over the Indian woman. She was quiet now and her eyes were closed. She looked very pale. She did not know what had become of the baby or anything.
“I’ll be back in the morning.” the doctor said, standing up.
“The nurse should be here from St. Ignace by noon and she’ll bring everything we need.”
He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game.
“That’s one for the medical journal, George,” he said. “Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”
Uncle George was standing against the wall, looking at his arm.
“Oh, you’re a great man, all right,” he said.
“Ought to have a look at the proud father. They’re usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs,” the doctor said. “I must say he took it all pretty quietly.”
He pulled back the blanket from the Indian’s head. His hand came away wet. He mounted on the edge of the lower bunk with the lamp in one hand and looked in. The Indian lay with his face toward the wall. His throat had been cut from ear to ear. The blood had flowed down into a pool where his body sagged the bunk. His head rested on his left arm. The open razor lay, edge up, in the blankets.
“Take Nick out of the shanty, George,” the doctor said.
There was no need of that. Nick, standing in the door of the kitchen, had a good view of the upper bunk when his father, the lamp in one hand, tipped the Indian’s head back.
It was just beginning to be daylight when they walked along the logging road back toward the lake.
“I’m terribly sorry I brought you along; Nickie,” said his father, all his post-operative exhilaration gone. “It was an awful mess to put you through.”
“Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?” Nick asked.
“No, that was very, very exceptional.”
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
“Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”
“Not very many, Nick.”
“Do many women?”
“Hardly ever.”
“Don’t they ever?”
“Oh, yes. They do sometimes.”
“Where did Uncle George go?”
“He’ll turn up all right.”
“Is dying hard, Daddy?”
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”
They were seated in the boat. Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.
In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing; he felt quite sure that he would never die.