Francois-Joseph Sandmann: Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène (1820)
My brother Ken, one of various novelists in our extended family, once explained to us his intention to stop writing at the age of 60. After that there was a great risk of letting your senile lack of judgement falsify the true nature of your oeuvre, he claimed. He'll be hitting that mark next year, so it'll be interesting to see if he follows his own advice. My bet is he won't.
Nvertheless, I would have to admit that there's a certain amount to be said for this view. Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), for instance, might have been well advised to hang up his spurs before perpetrating, in his sixties, such disappointing works as The Arrow of Gold (1819) or The Rover (1923). James Joyce (1882-1941) died at the age of 60, having finished his work on Finnegans Wake (1939), so we were spared that late epic about the sea he was allegedly intending to write next. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) stopped writing novels in his fifties and switched to poetry, claiming that he now preferred the conciseness attainable in verse as against the sheer heavy lifting required by novels. Herman Melville (1819-1891) stopped writing prose in his forties, though in that case there was the late flowering of Billy Budd, after nearly thirty years of verse writing.
Sixty might be a bit on the conservative side, but what of eighty? Life expectancies (in the developed world, at any rate) have vastly increased with the advent of modern medications against cholesterol, heart disease and a slew of other silent killers. Perhaps 80 is the new 60?
Over the summer I've been reading some novels - by some of my favourite authors - which nicely illustrate this dilemma. They are:
- Umberto Eco: Numero Zero (2013 / 2015)
- Tom Keneally: Napoleon's Last Island (2015)
- Mario Vargas Llosa: The Discreet Hero (2013 / 2015)
(In the case of Eco and Vargas Llosa, the first date in brackets is the date of original publication, the second the date of publication of the English translation).
Umberto Eco was born in 1932, and died in 2016, at the age of 84. Tom Keneally was born in 1935, and is at present 82. Mario Vargas Llosa was born in 1936, and is now 81. Neither of the latter two show any signs of stopping writing: and writing novels, too. Both have published another one since the title listed above. So what are they like, these late works by an Italian polymath, an Australian jack-of-all-trades, and a Peruvian phenomenon? Surprisingly diverse, to be honest.
Umberto Eco, b. 5 January, 1932-d. 19 February, 2016
I have to admit to being a bit blind to the merits of The Name of the Rose when it first burst upon the world in the early 80s. It seemed laboured and over-constructed. I did enjoy the movie, though.
It wasn't until I read Foucault's Pendulum that Eco's true distinction started to dawn on me. It could not be said to be a particularly well-constructed book, either - and it certainly drove away many of The Name of the Rose fans who expected him to continue in the same vein, like a kind of Brother Cadfael for Intellectuals. But the idea of the book was, I thought, brilliantly clever (and prescient, considering how much it predated Dan Brown and his ilk). I began to see how pointless it was to judge Eco by the standards of other writers: he demanded his own style of reading, as cerebral as he was himself, but with a strong streak of emotional vulnerability hidden away inside somewhere.
The Island of the Day Before is probably my favourite of all of his fictions. Again, it was very clever - but the various intermeshing plots seemed to spin more smoothly than Foucault's Pendulum. He was clearly learning on the job. Baudolino and The Prague Cemetery were less pleasing. While full of rich material, they seemed more predictable and linear than their predecessors.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was an exception to this tendency, however. It's hard not to admire the portrait he paints there of a disintegrating mind - the suspicion that some of it might be autobiographical added particular poignancy to the novel.
Numero Zero has the makings of a brilliant book. The idea of painting a counter-history of post-war Italy based on the conceit that Mussolini did not in fact die, but went on hiding in the Vatican for many decades more, is an excellent (though disconcerting) one, and the portrait Eco provides of the world of petty journalism and jobbing writers that constitutes mid-century Italy's New Grub Street is similarly interesting. It is, nevertheless, a terrible piece of writing.
Why? Because it's too short to hold up the weight of its central conceit - because the conversations sound like lecture fragments, and the characters like stick figures in a powerpoint presentation - because he resorts to the most desperate mystery story cliches to finish off this albatross of a narrative. Because, in short, he lacked the energy and time to complete it, and yet somehow managed to persuade himself that it still merited publication.
It's a sad coda to the life work of a unique and brilliant writer. Should we have been allowed to read it? Curiosity was probably always going to commit it to some kind of publication. I suppose the real problem is that it appeared during his lifetime rather than posthumously. A preface apologising for its brevity and lack of finish would have ensured a much better reception, though, I would have thought.
Umberto Eco: Numero Zero (2015)
- Umberto Eco (1932-2016)
- The Name of the Rose. 1980. Trans. William Weaver. 1983. London: Picador, 1984.
- Reflections on The Name of the Rose. 1983. Trans. William Weaver. 1984. London: Secker & Warburg, 1985.
- Foucault's Pendulum. 1988. Trans. William Weaver. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989.
- The Island of the Day Before. 1994. Trans. William Weaver. 1995. Minerva. London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1996.
- Baudolino. 2000. Trans. William Weaver. 2002. London: Vintage Books, 2003.
- The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. 2004. Trans. Geoffrey Brock. 2005. London: Vintage Books, 2006.
- The Prague Cemetery. 2010. Trans. Richard Dixon. Harvill Secker. London: Random House, 2011.
- Numero Zero. 2015. Trans. Richard Dixon. Harvill Secker. London: Vintage, 2015.
Eva Rinaldi: Thomas Keneally, b. 7 October, 1935 (aged 82)
So, if we take Umberto Eco's last novel as a vote against publishing such late fictions, what of Thomas (now 'Tom') Keneally's next-to-latest tome, Napoleon's Last Island?
I have to admit that, after a somewhat shaky start, I came to love this book. It seemed to me to combine all of Keneally's virtues, and very few of his faults. This despite that fact that the tale of Betsy Balcombe and her relationship with the ex-Emperor is a familiar one. I remember seeing a television play based on the story when I was a teenager, and it's come up for me in a number of other contexts since.
I think the first book I read by Keneally was his wonderful American Civil War epic Confederates. His command of the vernacular and incidental detail seemed to me superior to anything I'd read before about that war, even by bona fide American authors. It was his talent for ventriloquism which first impressed me about him, then.
After that I read desultorily in his work: the books which had been made into films (Schindler's Ark, Gossip from the Forest), and also the ones about Antarctica (The Survivor, A Victim of the Aurora). In all these cases I was struck by how much better they were than they had to be. That sounds a bit paradoxical, but what I mean is that there's a kind of middle style and general competence which many novelists evolve and which drags them through their day-today labours. It sounds terrible, but they don't really pull out the stops unless they absolutely have to.
Keneally was not at all like that. Each new challenge seemed to fill him with gusto. He clearly relished the difficulty of interpreting unlikely characters, and entering strange and alien environments. Reluctant to repeat himself, he remained on the lookout for fresh woods and pastures new.
In the case of Napoleon's Last Island, this has led him to concoct an excellent pastiche of Jane Austen's prose-style and psychological penetration, set in the strange landscape of the tiny mid-Atlantic island of St. Helena. Betsy Balcombe has a good deal in common with Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennett, with the Emperor as a kind of super Darcy, and even a long-suffering older sister to provide her with a foil.
The dramatic nature of the story leads one to expect a kind of costume drama potboiler, but Keneally's interests seem altogether elsewhere: in the oddities of human psychology as shown under stress, and in the paradox of the man of destiny reduced to an atom in the sea of humanity, but still somehow retaining his uncanny charisma and fascination. Like Foucault's Pendulum, Napoleon's Last Island appears to have disappointed a good many admirers of Keneally's Australian epics: but it's an admirably subtle piece of work for all that.
Chalk that up as a vote for keeping up with your craft even as you approach your ninth decade, then. (The list of his works below is only a selection, I should emphasise: the books by him that have ended up in my collection. A full listing would occupy many more pages).
Tom Keneally: Napoleon's Last Island (2015)
- Thomas Keneally (1935- )
- The Fear. 1965. London: Quartet Books, 1973.
- Bring Larks and Heroes. 1967. London: Quartet Books, 1973.
- Three Cheers for the Paraclete. 1968. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
- The Survivor. 1969. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
- The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. 1972. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
- Blood Red, Sister Rose. 1974. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1976.
- Gossip from the Forest. London: Collins, 1975.
- Season in Purgatory. Sydney: Book Club Associates, 1976.
- A Victim of the Aurora. London: Collins, 1977.
- Passenger. London: Collins, 1979.
- Confederates. 1979. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1981.
- The Cut-Rate Kingdom. 1980. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia, 1984.
- Schindler’s Ark. 1982. London: Coronet Books, 1983.
- Searching for Schindler. 2007. A Vintage Book. Sydney: Random House Australia Pty Ltd., 2008.
- The Playmaker. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1987.
- A River Town. Port Melbourne, Victoria: William Heinemann Australia, 1995.
- Napoleon's Last Island. A Vintage Book. Sydney: Random House Australia Pty Ltd., 2015.
- Crimes of the Father. 2016. A Vintage Book. Sydney: Random House Australia Pty Ltd., 2017.
Mario Vargas Llosa, b. 28 March, 1936 (aged 81)
So what of that wondrous, protean genius Mario Vargas Llosa? He's not the best known of the great writers of the Latin American "boom" of the sixties and seventies (it took him until 2010 to win the Nobel Prize his near-contemporary Gabriel García Márquez was awarded as far back as 1982), but he is - to my mind, at least - the best of them.
Year after year, decade after decade, he's produced a dazzling series of works, constantly reinventing himself and experimenting with new style: after the majestic, quasi-Faulknerian gravitas of those first three socio-historical novels The City and the Dogs, The Green House and Conversation in the Cathedral, he post-modernised himself into the prankster of Pantaleon and the Special Service and the autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.
How I pored over his works while working on my Doctoral thesis on European Images of South American in the late 1980s! The book I was writing about, The War of the End of the World seemed to combine the virtues of both his late and his early style: the trickster in bed with the sociologist at last.
It wasn't for a long long time that he attained similar heights, however. He stood (unsuccessfully) for President of Peru in the late 80s, and his work seemed to suffer somewhat from the increasingly public nature of his life. His politics, too, had gone far to the right to the point that he was hardly on speaking terms with many of his former literary comrades in arms.
None of the books he wrote during these years was unreadable or unchallenging in its way (even the quasi-soft porn of In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto), but it wasn't really until his dictator-novel (almost the classic Latin American subgenre) The Feast of the Goat appeared in 2001 that he really amazed the world again.
The Way to Paradise and The Dream of the Celt are both good ficto-biographies in their own right, but they hardly seemed up to the standard of his earlier work. The Discreet Hero is not among his masterworks, either, but it's a fascinating read for the fans (in particular).
Those of you who've read Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter will recall how the latter's scripts start to fold in on themselves, with characters appearing in the wrong contexts and contaminating the plotlines with unexpected interventions. So many of Vargas Llosa's own old characters - Lituma, Don Rigoberto, the 'Stepmother' herself - turn up in this novel that one has, at times, the odd feeling that the whole thing is set in Vargas-Llosa-land rather than any kind of recognisable Peru.
His obsession with the provincial Peru of the 1950s, its constant recurrence in its work, is supplanted here by an rather more 'contemporary' Lima and Piura. The characters all seem to live in the past, however: his past, Vargas Llosa's, rather more than their own.
The novel is neatly plotted and full of unexpected treats - though perhaps more for readers familiar with his work than any newcomers. The playfulness may seem a little forced at times, the virtuosity a bit tired, but there's no doubt that Vargas Llosa at his worst (and this book is a long way from his worst - The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, say) is still superior to most other novelists at their best.
Would he, too, be wise to give up this strange compulsion to dream on paper and call the end-result art? I don't think so, no. The Feast of the Goat came after such a long dry spell that most critics had already written him off. I'm not expecting anything as good as that to come up again, but then, the essence of the unexpected is that you don't expect it. Who can say what the future holds for Mario Vargas Llosa? I hope not something as sad as Numero Zero, but it may well contain something as luminous and strange as Napoleon's Last Island.
Let's just say that as long as he's writing, I'll be reading (and buying). To hell with nay-sayers and agists! One can write a bad book at any age - and (I firmly believe) go on to redeem it with a good one. And always in the wings shimmers the alluring prospect of a Billy Budd, that late, redemptive masterpiece that comes out of left field - albeit often posthumously - to astonish the world ...
Mario Vargas Llosa: The Discreet Hero (2015)
- Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa (1936- )
- Vargas Llosa, Mario. The Cubs and Other Stories. 1965 & 1967. Trans. Gregory Kolovakos & Ronald Christ. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1979.
- The Time of the Hero. 1962. Trans. Lysander Kemp. 1966. Picador. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1986.
- The Green House. 1965. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. 1968. Picador. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1986.
- Conversation in the Cathedral. 1969. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. 1975. London: Faber, 1993.
- Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. 1973. Trans. Gregory Kolovakos & Ronald Christ. 1978. London: Faber, 1987.
- Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. 1977. Trans. Helen R. Lane. 1982. Picador. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1984.
- The War of the End of the World. 1981. Trans. Helen R. Lane. 1984. London: Faber, 1986.
- The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. 1984. Trans. Alfred MacAdam. 1986. London: Faber, 1987.
- Who Killed Palomino Molero? 1986. Trans. Alfred MacAdam. 1987. London: Faber, 1989.
- The Storyteller. 1987. Trans. Helen Lane. 1989. London: Faber, 1990.
- In Praise of the Stepmother. 1988. Trans. Helen Lane. 1990. London: Faber, 1992.
- Death in the Andes. 1993. Trans. Edith Grossman. 1996. London: Faber, 1997.
- The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. 1997. Trans. Edith Grossman. 1998. London: Faber, 1999.
- The Feast of the Goat. 2001. Trans. Edith Grossman. 2002. London: Faber, 2003.
- The Way to Paradise. 2003. Trans. Natasha Wimmer. London: Faber, 2003.
- The Bad Girl: A Novel. 2006. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
- The Dream of the Celt. 2010. Trans. Edith Grossman. London: Faber, 2012.
- The Discreet Hero. 2013. Trans. Edith Grossman. London: Faber, 2015.
- The Neighbourhood. 2016. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.