Vollendungsroman, Again and “Olive, Again”

A while back, I wrote about the Vollendungsroman, a term for a novel about the “winding down” of life. It is the counterpoint to the Bildungsroman, a “coming-of-age” story about young people approaching adulthood. There are thousands and thousands of the latter, and as young people, we lapped them up – trying to figure out what life was about, what we were supposed to think, to do. They came in all varieties – from Little Women to Catcher in the Rye. We read them all and we read them for at least two reasons: 1) because we wanted to know how to live our lives, and 2) they made us realize that we were not alone in our human predicament. As we age, those two needs have not gone away.

It is important to me to think consciously about what old age means, how it should be considered, lived. Many of us did not consciously grow into adulthood – we did it messily and often badly; there were repercussions because our dayspring was mishandled. We made the mistakes of youth and sometimes we kept making them even as we left youth behind us. Marriage, parenthood, middle-age often found us too busy to be conscious of anything – our lists were short-term, by psychic necessity. Some of us did plan financially for retirement, but not, perhaps, in any other way. And now we are old. Yes, we are. Call it what you will. I have time now to age consciously. And I look to literature to help me. Philosophy, science, and psychology are good too, but literature about old age allows me peer into the possibilities rather then the probabilities and the logic of it all. And particularly to see how people grapple with their pasts.

For the Bildungsroman is about the life of our origins, of what we were born into – and usually about the process of breaking away. But the novel of old age, the Vollendungsroman, is often about reconciling with our own pasts – the mistakes, the errors, the patterns, that we made along the way. This may include some debris from our family of origin, of course – that business is never over. But mainly it is about the life we have lived, the children we have engendered, the people we have loved, the people we have hurt. Some of it is to be valued, some left behind, some used as a lesson.

I just finished Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful new book Olive, Again. Definitely an example of the Vollendungsroman. The novel reminds me a little of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but set in the world of the elderly. Olive is the central character, but there is also a wide range of people, of family stories. In Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, the writer/character says of another writer: “And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” And this is what Elizabeth Strout does – she writes about the human condition and lets us know that 1) we are not alone, 2) it is never easy, and 3) there can be great dignity in it. And Strout knows that aging with dignity is not about acting as young as possible. In the words of one of Strout’s characters, “our job – maybe even our duty – is to bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.”
Amen to that: with as much grace as we can.

Olive is old when the book begins and very old by the end. We watch her get used to widowhood, struggle with an imperfect relationship with her son and his family, and slide into a second marriage and second widowhood. She finishes in a kind of assisted living center where she is typing on an electric typewriter (her choice and supplied by her son) because her computer and its printer had made her “so frustrated she shook.” (Yes.) Olive is typing up memories, trying to make sense out of the past. In the last chapter, we find Olive marveling at the new buds on a rosebush and contemplating her own impending death; in this juxtaposition “the sense of wonder and trepidation returned to her.” She sits down and writes these two sentences:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.

Yes. Not many of us can be that truthful. But we can read about people who are (Olive is often truthful to the point of offensiveness), and consider what it is we really think, what we believe, and how we should act on those beliefs.

Elsewhere, I have provided some lists of readings on old age, including novels, essays, poetry. Today’s story, “Last Things,” is about one woman’s approach to getting old. As might be obvious, I try to figure out how to age not only by reading, but also by writing. In any case, enjoy.

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