Old Characters, New Problems – Book Reviews

I  recently read a number of new and old books which feature older characters, and so would like to pass on some observations and recommendations.

I was excited about Anthony Doerr’s new book, as I had loved (and learned much from) his last novel, All the Light We Cannot See.  Cloud Cuckoo Land is a very different kind of book, and the main character is Zeno, an old man who thinks that life has passed him by until he connects with five young people whom the kind librarian sends his way.  Doerr writes about the endurance of story, as we follow an old Greek text through the centuries, until – encouraged by his young friends – Zeno turns it into a play, the performance of which is interrupted by an ecoterrorist attack.  In flashbacks, we follow the life of the manuscript, of Zeno, and the immature and misguided terrorist.  In flash forwards, we see Doerr contemplate what may be the fate of books, people, and the planet. It is all wonderful, but Zeno is the best of all, working on his Greek with the help of the library computers and exciting his young friends with the things he is still enthusiastic about.

In Richard Osman’s mystery, it is the old people who put the world to rights with their wisdom and experience and lack of self-importance (most particularly the latter).  The fact that they are continually underestimated and unnoticed works to their advantage.  The Man Who Died Twice is the second in Richard Osman’s series about this group of elderly sleuths; it is devastatingly funny and real.  His senior-living residents have all the challenges of old age: recovering after falls, bladder control, going into nursing homes, facing death.  One of the group has a husband at home in the early stages of dementia.  But the oldsters egg each other on, comfort each other, and care about the world that they know they will be leaving soon.  A really enchanting read – but please start with The Thursday Murder Club,  the first in this series.  I hope there will be many more.

Old age and climate change also are topics of concern in The Emissary by Yoko Tawada. This dystopian novel takes place in a secluded Japan after an undefined period of war and climate change.  The younger generations are growing weaker and weaker from pollution, radiation, who knows what else. (In the UK, the title of the book was Last Children of Tokyo.)  It is the old who are forced to be strong, to push the wheelchairs, provide food, take charge.  Our hero here is 108-year-old Yoshiro, who is taking care of his weak (but wise) great-grandson Mumei.  Retirement is unheard of – then there would be nobody to do the work.  The extremely old do what they need to do, but they still age, ache, falter:

Stumbling as he took his shoes off, Yoshiro rested a hand on the wooden pillar to steady himself, feeling the grain of the wood under his fingers.  The years are recorded in rings inside the trunk of a tree, but how was time recorded in his own body?  Time didn’t spread out gradually, ring after ring, nor was it lined up neatly in a row; could it just be a disorderly pile, like the inside of a drawer no one ever bother to straighten?

Yoko Tawada is a wonderful writer (The Emissary won the National Book award for a work in translation), and the novel has much to say about what we have done to the world around us and the possible consequences for future generations.  It is a book to read slowly and ponder.  It will scare you, but it will also give you faith in the ability of the old to persevere, to face the challenges that are presented to them.

I also re-read Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey  recently.  Surely you have read (or were forced to read) it many years ago.  If so, you probably did not fully appreciate the old characters –  the most memorable being the Marquesa de Montemayor.  The book purports to be based on the work of Brother Juniper, who is convinced that the death of five people when the old bridge collapses cannot be a random act.   In trying to make sense of their lives, he tries to make sense of all lives.  If you have never read it or cannot remember it, pick it up again some time and try to decide whether Brother Juniper comes to the right conclusion.

I cannot leave any discussion of recent books without recommending Richard Powers’ new novel Bewilderment.  For the most part, the characters are not old; the main character is a young boy.  But it is about memory and loss, climate change and mass extinctions, love and mourning.  It is about the promises and dangers of technology and what happens when we can’t bear what we are doing to the world.  And it is a good read.  If technology could put you in communication with a loved one you had lost, would you be interested?  This is a book that challenges us to think about the meaning of relationships – between people, between people and animals, between people and technology, between people and the earth. 

All of it is fine reading as we head into the colder, indoor months.  Enjoy.  There is a certain amount of divination in all these books, but if you want to read about bibliomancy (the process of divination through the use of books), try  my short story, “By the Book.”

Are We Taking the Wrong Message from King Lear?

I had just finished working on two piano duets with a good friend, when I asked her what else she was practicing.  She and I belong to a small group who meet periodically to play for each other and encourage each other in our endeavors at the piano.  Until I retired, and even for a period afterwards, I took piano lessons.  Our meetings and the preparation for them fulfills the same need with less pressure, more support, and less expense. 

In any case, after a discussion of which pieces we were each working on, I told my friend that I was torn in my old age between playing pieces easily within my limited capabilities or challenging myself.  At this particular time I was challenging myself with a Chopin waltz which required so much repetition and concentration that I was not really enjoying the music. 

It was the phrase, “in my old age,” that provoked an immediate reaction.  This kind of statement to any of my (older) friends usually starts with the kind and sincere words, “But you’re not old!”  I remonstrated that 70 is old, that I remember how my mother and grandmother seemed to me when they were 70, and – in any case – my body, which was at that time aching in various places (including my wrist from playing too much piano), was there to remind me.  As are my young grandchildren, who are great tellers of truth.  “Nana, why do you have those little things under your eyes?”  My children and grandchildren never challenge my description of myself as old.

 Once we were past the preliminary quibble over terminology, we then debated the value of challenging ourselves as we get older, and the discussion continued when our piano group met a week later.  The topic has been much on my mind. 

Among other things it has made me revisit King Lear.  Is it possible we all took the wrong message from Shakespeare’s great play?  Generally, people remember that Lear retired too soon, gave his money away without guarantees, and left himself to the mercy of his merciless daughters – at least the two daughters who inherited.  “Hang on to it all as long as you can” is the commonly received message.  Hang on to your power, your money, your ability to do what you always did.   But maybe that is not the message.  Maybe the message is that in the interests of retaining power, Lear spurned the love of Cordelia, his youngest and most honest offspring.  And he insisted on a retinue of hundreds of knights even in his retirement.  Lear wanted it both ways – to be relieved of responsibility but to retain control. 

I have written elsewhere of how we are increasingly governed by the very old. No one wants to give up power.  No one wants to admit that they might be too old.  Our President is old, the Speaker is elderly, politicians are increasingly staying on into their eighties and nineties.  In my lifetime we have gone from inaugurating our youngest President (Kennedy) to our oldest (Biden).  The baby boom generation is not giving up easily.  For a generation that didn’t trust anyone over thirty, they seem to be having a hard time assessing their own capabilities.  Is this a good thing?  The Fool admonishes Lear, “Thou shouldst  not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”  Maybe Lear cannot be wise when he is so concerned with exerting the control and power that he always did.

I can’t help but thinking about Greta Thunberg and her assessment that the older generation has failed the young, has made a mess of things.  She also reminds me of FDR’s comment that “War is young men dying and old men talking.”

Lear learns.  In the end he just wants to retire somewhere quiet with Cordelia and contemplate the world.  But it is too late; he has already made a mess of things (leading to the demise of both).

What does all this have to do with difficult piano pieces?  Good question.  But I guess that it made me think about what happens when we will not acknowledge our own limitations.  At the end of our discussion, my piano group agreed that some middle ground was probably the answer – sometimes challenge ourselves, sometimes give ourselves a break. 

This can mean different things.  Play difficult pieces slower.  Play them very slowly.  Slowing down can be an art form in itself. And tolerate playing less than perfectly.  Slowing down and tolerating a less than perfect performance are, in general, good exercises for people of any age; for the elderly, they are the limitations within which we can enjoy this last part of life.  Don’t look for the media to agree with me though; all things are possible according to Madison Avenue and the self-help experts.

For more on Lear, you could look at my short story, “Lear at Great Books” or my earlier post, “Ripeness and Readiness.”