Wednesday, September 06, 2017

`Years of Reaping as One Has Sown'

“Nobody’s years, after the age of fifty, are exactly formative; they cannot help being, one way or another, years of reaping as one has sown. That is no great claim to make, and in one’s eighth decade it may be hard to remember when one ever did anything sensible. This is partly a trick of memory, partly no more than facing the sober truth.”

The one exception might be the late-bloomer, the slow to wake to the world, the one-time under-achiever who overcompensates. Sterne published the first volumes of Tristram Shandy when he was forty-six, and the last ten years later. Svevo gave us Zeno’s Conscience at age sixty-two, and Lampedusa waited until he was dead to bring out The Leopard. “Formative”? Some of us never stop forming, if not necessarily improving. Can’t we go on sowing while simultaneously reaping? Such talk makes me suspect my own motives. Marveling at the accomplishments of older writers recalls Dr. Johnson’s retort to Boswell: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Prejudice aside, should we laugh? I do. We give the Rimbauds of the world the ooh-and-ah treatment. Why not do the same for Nabokov, who published Ada the year he turned seventy?

The salutary passage at the top is from C.H. Sisson’s On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography, published by Carcanet in 1989, the year he turned seventy-five. His example is instructive. Sisson entered the Civil Service in 1936 and, after enlisting in the army and serving in India, resumed working in Whitehall in 1945. He rose to the rank of Under Secretary in the Ministry of Labour and retired in 1972. He was fifty-eight. He published his breakthrough volume, In the Trojan Ditch, two years later, and most of his published work, poetry and prose, dates from after 1974. He seems to have accumulated much experience and learning (sowing) during the first period of his life, and spent the balance drawing upon it (reaping).

I turn sixty-five next month with no thoughts of retirement. My youngest son was born when I was fifty, and three years later I started Anecdotal Evidence. If youth is wasted on the young (it was for me), as Shaw suggested, perhaps age is wasted on the aging.

1 comment:

  1. And Nabokov published the extraordinary Transparent Things three years after Ada. Also Beckett was 76 when he published Ill Seen Ill Said. Oh and Theodor Fontane was well into his 70s when he wrote Effi Briest. Hope for us all, eh?