Monday, February 27, 2012

Going like sixty

In Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s narrator is worried about her older brother. As they both sink more deeply into their “morbid middle years,” he has begun to have serious health problems. Denise scans the newspaper obituaries, and if the person is under the age of sixty, she checks for the cause of death. She keeps a list:

     47, ovarian cancer
     53, heart failure
     58, complications from pneumonia
     54, breast cancer
     46, self-inflicted gunshot
     59, pancreatic cancer
     38, motorcycle accident
     48, breast cancer
     58, overdose (“yet to be determined,” “toxicology report,” and “bottles of various prescription medications”)
     35, drowning
     46, died in a fall
     57, sudden heart attack
     50, heart attack suspected
     42, heart and kidney failure
     45, car accident
     59, complications from a brain hemorrhage
     49, killed himself by hanging
     59, lung cancer
     40, sudden cardiac failure
     50, ovarian cancer
Today I am sixty. The cause of my death, when it comes at last, will no longer be of interest to anyone. With four children under the age of ten at home, I don’t always feel sixty (and rarely act like it). I sure wish Churchill were speaking for me when he said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” I’m afraid, though, that sixty is the beginning the end—especially for someone who has been living with the whispers of Stage IV metastatic cancer in my ear.

Is it cancer or old age that is limiting my physical mobility? I can still run, although I must look like a state prisoner in ankle chains, hobbling away from the dogs. I can’t throw a forward pass more than twenty yards any longer, because I can’t drive off my back leg. I can’t get out of a car without rotating my entire torso to the left and hoisting myself as if I were climbing up the side of a ship. For an ex-athlete like me, these limitations are nearly a loss of identity. Saul Bellow says somewhere that the heart never stops yearning after pretty girls, even when a man is in his seventies. (And if anyone should know. . . .) That’s not really true for me, but playing catch with my sons or hurrying to make it across the street on yellow is an invitation to disappointment.

You’d think that being a one-book author at sixty would bother me more. After all, when the hell is my second going to be finished? Especially since cancer is not going to leave me very much longer to finish it. And then there are all those things that I will not have a chance to tell my children—about boys and girls, about first dates, about poetry and science, about college and the life of the mind, about the beauty of their mother. Maybe I should get started on writing them down.

But the surprise of turning sixty is a quiet sense of contentment, even when you are living with a terminal disease. Ambition is not diminished, but perhaps it becomes a little more realistic. Even if you intend to undertake a grand project, you know that it will be accomplished a small task at a time. If you are a writer, that means putting one sentence doggedly after another. Looking back over thirty years of a largely unsuccessful literary life, I see that’s what I have been doing all along. There is no reason to change now, even if I could.

What I am grateful for, though, is to be free of any wish for youth. At sixty, you can’t get away with pretending to be young. (Not even with four kids under the age of ten at home!) Sixty is the turning point. I don’t care what anyone says. Sixty is not the new forty. Although I may refuse to call myself a “senior,” I know that sixty is the onset of old age. Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror? It is neither. It is a chance to imagine some satisfying conclusion, and perhaps even to achieve it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Every “best” list is now a “personal inventory”

Yesterday Terry Teachout conducted a “purely personal inventory” of the ten American novels he “most wished” he had written, and this morning Patrick Kurp countered with his own list of ten. If you removed the alien and seditious titles from my own three-year-old list of the fifty best English-language novels published since the Victorians — a list originally compiled for students who kept pestering me for recommended readings — you’d be left with this roster of ten:

( 1) Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
( 2) Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
( 3) Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
( 4) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
( 5) Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
( 6) Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
( 7) Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
( 8) Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)
( 9) William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)
(10) Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

As one of Kurp’s commentators said, this is a “nifty parlor game.” But it also, I think, points to something serious.

“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with,” Hugh Kenner wrote years ago. But no one believes that any more. It’s telling, don’t you think, that Teachout, Kurp, and I agree on just one writer — Cather — without even agreeing on which of her novels ought to be first read. I have tried to update Kenner’s apothegm (“There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with, although no one will ever agree on what they are”), but even this innocuous paradox is enough, in today’s English departments, to get me housed with the reactionaries, the racists, or worse.

All that’s left are parlor games, offered (as Teachout says he offered his) “apropos of absolutely nothing.” If literature is no longer a part of every civilized American’s cultural inheritance, you can thank your English teachers, who gladly coughed up their authority over it.