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.

The Poetry of Old Age

On the topic of aging, I most trust poets who are old. Some poets –like Frost and Yeats – wrote poetry throughout a long life. Some turned to poetry in their old age. Thomas Hardy published his first volume of poetry at age fifty-eight and apparently wrote nothing but poetry for the next thirty years. I think poetry lends itself to the old mind, both in the writing and the reading. Good spirits must be distilled.

There are various types of poetry about old age. There is serious poetry and silly poetry. There are elegies for what has been and odes to the joys of senescence. There are genres and tropes. There have been more than a few poems about glimpsing one’s own aging façade in the bathroom mirror – one thinks of Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass” or Robert Graves’ “The Face in the Mirror.” There are poems of return to places of one’s youth and reminiscences of lost loves. (Yeats is good at this.) Poignant poems capture the difficulties and loneliness of old age. There are no more affecting lines than the end of Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” Other poems are filled with the realization that life is going to go on without us, as in Housman’s “Tell Me Not Here.

Then there are the losses – which some poets see as a mixed blessing. There is the loss of memory. In “The Winter Palace,” Larkin writes that “Some people know more as they get older, /I give all that the cold shoulder.” There is the loss of those we love, as in  Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” And the prospect of our own death, which for some is fearsome (mostly for the younger ones – Dylan Thomas was only thirty-three when he wrote “Do Not Gentle”), for others is welcome (Stevie Smith’s magnificent “Black March” or Auden’s “A Lullaby”). For some the final event is imagined – we hear and see the deathbed scene in Dickinson’s “I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died.”

As I read poetry or novels, I note the age of the poet/author at the time of composition. This is easier in older volumes wherein the date of birth of the author appear on the back of the title page in the Library of Congress information (why did they stop?), but there is always Wikipedia. I find it particularly interesting to read works of poets at about my own age. The human experience is not entirely singular; there are correspondences. And differences.

I read poetry about old age to learn about myself. Poets can put into language what I often cannot. If I cannot speak it, if I cannot even think it coherently, I cannot truly comprehend it. E.M. Forster asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Flannery O’Connor said, ““I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I read poetry about old age to give me words for what I am feeling. To give me courage. And sometimes for comfort.

I have attached a list in progress of some poems about aging that are worth looking at. In addition, as I have noted before, there is a wonderful collection by Harold Bloom entitled: Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems. There is also The Art of Growing Older by Wayne Boothe which gathers poems and other literature about aging into categories. Part of my daily reading for years has been in the Poem A Day books – there are three volumes. The original volume was compiled as a project for The Natural Death Centre in Great Britain, and many of the poems address old age, loss, and death. Many of them also express and bring joy. I will add to my list of old age poems as more come to mind or are discovered; I encourage readers to send me their own favorites. In this business of being on the downside of life’s parabola, we all need comfort, companionship, and a marked-up map.

So what is my favorite poem about aging? I am tempted to cite Frost’s two-liner, written in his eighties:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.

But no. My choice (at least for today) is from A. E. Housman’s volume Last Poems. Housman published only two volumes of poetry in his lifetime – one at age thirty-seven (A Shropshire Lad) and Last Poems at age sixty-three. I own a first U.S. edition of the latter, and it is a treasured possession. On page 60 is the following poem:

XXXV
When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.

Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here’s the fair,
But where’s the lost young man?

– To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long ’tis like to be.

Notes on Faust

I just came back from visiting my mother in Memory Care. A few days spending time with patients in various stages of health and dementia has gotten me thinking about Faust again – about the Faust legend in general terms and what kind of Faustian bargain we might have made and be making for the miracles of life extension.

Spengler called Faust the fundamental myth of Western Civilization and this myth has been tackled by great authors from Marlowe to Goethe to Mann to Bulgakov. In case you have forgotten, Faust is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge, power, wealth. Faust supposedly traces back to an historical figure in early 16th century in Germany, and was kept alive because it struck a deep chord in those who heard it or read it – in farcical plays, in fireside tales, or in early chapbooks.

“Not enough Fausts are written. Everyone should write one,” said Ludwig von Arnim in the early 19th century. In fact, we all write one with our lives. For what are we willing to sell our souls? I, in fact, wrote a “Faust” novel a few years back (the prologue to A Kind of Joy or An Essay with Characters is here), and the exercise forced me to think about this question and how other authors have dealt with it. Marlowe’s Faust asked for magic, Mann’s wants to create great musical compositions, and Goethe’s wants never to be bored. The Faust I created was a woman, and she wants the opposite of what Goethe’s Faust wanted – my fictional Faye wants contentment, peace. For that she is willing to sell her soul. But that is a story, a thought experiment.

If the Faust legend is the central myth of Western culture, of the Enlightenment, then what has our culture bargained for? Like Goethe’s hero, we surely don’t want to be bored; one might wonder what we have sold our attention for. And we don’t want to die. In most of the Faust stories, the protagonist gets twenty-four years before the soul must be handed over. But twenty-first century people do not want to die at all, and has continually increased life spans until our bodies often last much longer than our minds. Science may solve this problem, but don’t count on it. And thus we keep building “Memory Care” facilities to house our bodies, and we keep uploading our pictures and memories to the cloud to ensure that they are not lost forever. I don’t have an answer. Science has done wonders in eradicating disease (think of polio vaccine!), disability (think of cataract surgery!), and the debilitations of old age (think of hip replacement!). It has also made many deadly diseases into simply chronic ones (think of insulin!). But it has not yet enabled our minds to function as long and well as our bodies do.

In the end, most fictional Fausts learn their lesson. Sometimes they lose their lives and souls (Marlowe) and sometimes they recant and the author rescues them at the last moment (Goethe). It doesn’t really matter. The important point is to consider what we sacrifice in life for what we receive. It is easier to think about the rewards and not the payment, but there is that unavoidable moment when payment comes due (Goethe notwithstanding). My mother has lived far longer than her parents or grandparents, but finds herself in a mental state that they never had to experience. Our planet has afforded most of us in the West lives of comfort and plenty, but now our seas are rising and our summers are stifling. Faustian bargains are traditionally with the Devil, but perhaps we could think of the Devil as representing our more impulsive nature, of the tendency to favor immediate gratification over the long-term good. In any case, it is an interesting problem to think about.

Faust might be an especially good legend to contemplate in our old age. In Goethe’s version, it is the old mythological couple, Baucis and Philemon, who stand up to the land-developing, greedy Faust. They refuse to sell out and move from the remote bungalow and thus anger Faust: “Their stubbornness, their opposition/ Ruins my finest acquisition.” Needless to say, they lose (and die), but they will forever stand on the moral ground. In the remoteness of old age – past the time of ambition and acquisition – maybe we can see the ramifications of the Faust myth more clearly  than our children. It is worth thinking about. What did you sell your soul for? What would you sell your soul for?