Late Work And Shying Away From Decay And Death

In ‘Late Francis Bacon: Spirit and Substance‘ Colm Tóibín writes:

It would be easy to imagine…that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Tóibín does not make clear why we would imagine that Death in Venice “was written toward the end of [Mann’s] life” but be that as it may, of more interest here is the claim that an artist (of whatever stripe) would find it difficult to entertain “images of desire, decay, and death” in “late or last work.”

Tóibín has found himself making this claim, I suspect, as a way of pushing further the speculative query by Edward Said with which he opens this essay:

In his book On Late Style…Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?”….he also questions the very notion of late serenity:….What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders…the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion…the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime….these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities.

The obvious counterpoint to Tóibín’s claim is implicit in Said’s first query: as artists approach death, they, like other humans, find a new openness to the very idea of death and non-existence and the bodily decay that precedes it. An excellent example of this might be Roger Angell‘s essay ‘This Old Man’ which begins with the following lines:

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

And so it goes on. Angell, of course, is writing an essay on old age; he is not working these images into his sports writing. What about other writers? I will rest content with another example: Phillip Roth, whose late work was replete with such ‘images’; he never  shied away from them. Comments with support or refutation for Tóibín’s claim welcome.

Henry James on the ‘Fatal Cheapness’ of the Historical Novel

Reviewing Colm Tóibín‘s The Master, a ‘novelistic portrait’ of Henry James, Daniel Mendelsohn writes:

”The Master” is not, of course, a novel about just any man, but rather a novel about a figure from the past about whom we know an extraordinarily great deal, through both his own and others’ memoirs, books and letters. As Toibin well knows, ventriloquizing the past is a dangerous affair for a novelist who wants to be taken seriously: just to remind you, he has an indignant Henry tell his supercilious and critical brother (who has suggested he write a novel about the Puritans) that he views ”the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness.” (‘The Passion of Henry James’, New York Times, June 20, 2004)

Tóibín‘s line is originally James’; he really did hold such views about the historical novel, so it is particularly appropriate that the subject of Tóibín‘s historical novel be James.

In Rachel Cohen‘s A Chance Meeting, we learn–in the chapter describing the encounters between Henry James, Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett–that Jewett had sent to, and received praise from, James her collection of short stories The Queens Twin and other Stories. Emboldened by his description of some of the stories there as ‘perfection’, she sent him a copy of her work in progress, The Tory Lover:

Set in Maine and in England during the Revolutionary War, the novel was meant to reclaim a certain historical sense for her town in much the way that she and her sister, Mary, worked to restore their old house and those of their neighbors in a newly preservationist time. [A Chance Meeting, pp. 88]

James’ reaction was sharp and critical, even as he made sure to couch his remarks in the consoling form of being made ‘as a fellow craftsman & a woman of genius & courage’:

The ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness….You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like–the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its absence the whole effect is as nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent….Go back to the country of the Pointed Firs, come back to the present palpable intimate that throbs responsive, & that wants, misses, needs you, and God knows, & that suffers woefully in your absence. [A Chance Meeting, pp. 88]

What makes this criticism of James simultaneously perspicuous and limiting is his concentration on the ‘invention, the  representation of the old consciousness’. These remarks are perspicuous because James rightly focuses on that which is most inaccessible to the novelist, but they are limiting because the difficulty of that task of imaginative recreation is precisely that which intrigues the novelist and engages and involves him. Even the failures of the novelist in these attempts at inhabiting the ‘soul, the sense’ of another might make for a noble endeavor, one visible and pleasurably palpable to the reader.

Colm Tóibín on the ‘Real’ and the ‘Imagined’

Colm Tóibín writes of the intimate relationship between facts and fiction (‘What Is Real Is Imagined’, New York Times, July 14 2012), about how the story-teller’s primary responsibility is to the story, about how the novelist may, in creating fiction, embroider the facts, embellishing and enhancing, for being stuck just with the facts is not a good place to be:

If I had to stick to the facts, the bare truth of things, that would be no use….It would be thin and strange, as yesterday seems thin and strange, or indeed today.

But the facts that the writer dresses up and ‘alters’ should only be those that he knows intimately:

If I tried to write about a lighthouse and used one that I had never seen and did not know, it would show in the sentences. Nothing would work; it would have no resonance for me, or for anyone else.

No man can give that which is not his, I suppose.

So the writer may draw freely and creatively upon the ‘known real,’ while not being too fastidious about offending the living:

I feel that I have only rights, and that my sole responsibility is to the reader, and is to make things work for someone I will never meet. I feel just fine about ignoring or bypassing the rights of people I have known and loved to be rendered faithfully, or to be left in peace, and out of novels. It is odd that the right these people have to be left alone, not transformed, seems so ludicrous.

These are all good observations on the art and ethics of writing fiction.

But Tóibín starts off by trying to make a distinction that should have struck him as untenable:

The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.

Tóibín imagines here the distinction to be a clear one, between the hardness of land and the ‘softness’ of water, between the tangible, graspable solidity of land, and the quicksilver, through-your-fingers elusiveness of water. But the ‘universe of what is clear and visible and known’ is a universe infected with the ‘fictions’ of our theories about it. What is ‘clear and visible and known’ springs sharply into focus because of those fictions. And land? Land is shot through and through with water. Dig a little, you hit water. Pick up a handful of dirt – it’ll have moisture. From these admittedly crude imaginings one can arrive at the recognition that ‘fact’ is suffused with ‘fiction,’ just as the bare, solid, visible land is, that what we imagine solid is all to easily revealed to be  squishy and permeable.

The ‘bare truth of things’ that Tóibín speaks of is visible to us because of the stories we have told ourselves about it.  He knows this, surely. Why else would he say that ‘what is real is imagined’?