by JOHN UPDIKE
Writers and artists confronting the end.
Last words, recorded and treasured in the days when the deathbed was in the home, have fallen from fashion, perhaps because most people spend thei final hours in the hospital, too drugged to make any sense. And only the night nurse hears them talk. Yet, at least for this aging reader, works written late i a writer’s life retain a fascination. They exist, as do last words, where life edges into death, and perhaps have something uncanny to tell us. In 1995, th critic, teacher, and journalist Edward W. Said, best known for his pro-Palestinian advocacy, taught at Columbia a popular course called “Last Works/Lat Style.” Until his untimely death, of leukemia, in 2003, he was working on a collection of essays and lectures relevant to the topic; this assemblage, edite and introduced by Michael Wood with the coöperation of Said’s widow, has now been published by Pantheon under the title “On Late Style: Music an Literature Against the Grain” ($25). Said’s central idea, set forth in the first chapter, comes from the German philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-69), wh wrote extensively, with an agitated profundity, on Beethoven’s late works. Adorno found in the disharmonies and disjunctions of these works a refusal o bourgeois order, an “idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal.” In his own not easily understandable words, possibly clearer in the original German
Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which—alone—it glows into life. He [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis. As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.
In Beethoven’s case, the catastrophe was fruitful; Adorno credited his late style with presaging the innovations of Schoenberg, whose “advanced music has no recourse but to insist on its own ossification without concession to that would-be humanitarianism which it sees through.” Adorno writes from within a sardonically modern, anti-bourgeois mind-set that welcomes dissociation, catastrophe, and affronts to harmony and humanitarianism. Thus art, at least modern art, makes itself new. Adorno decreed, “The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves.”
The artists Said cites in “On Late Style” are predominantly composers and, in a chapter centered on Glenn Gould, performers. Said, an accomplished pianist and, among his other activities, music critic for The Nation, had an insatiable appetite for musical performances and, though he disclaims a musicologist’s competence, an extensive and technical grasp of music. Beethoven, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Bach: among learned discussions of all these only a few writers are considered at any length, and they—the Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the French criminal Jean Genet, the Greek Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy—are valued for their “against the grain” qualities of eccentricity and intransigence. A different list of literary performers would be needed for an inventory of late works that answer, perhaps, to what another literature professor, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, has termed the “senile sublime.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her book “Touching Feeling” (2003), uses the phrase to describe
various more or less intelligible performances by old brilliant people, whether artists, scientists, or intellectuals, where the bare outlines of a creative idiom seem finally to emerge from what had been the obscuring puppy fat of personableness, timeliness, or sometimes even of coherent sense.
A sacrifice of, or impatience with, “coherent sense,” as well as the requisite irascibility and what Said calls “highlighting and dramatizing . . . irreconcilabilities,” can certainly be ascribed to the shimmering late works of Shakespeare, an artistic titan on Beethoven’s scale. Lateness came early to both, both dead in their fifties.
After the composition of Shakespeare’s last tragedies—the opulent, spacious “Antony and Cleopatra” (1606-1607), the cold, rhetorically contorted “Coriolanus” (1607-08), and the rough-hewn, one-note “Timon of Athens” (1607-08)—there is a slackening, as if something had snapped. “Timon o Athens,” apparently unfinished and unproduced, has been thought by some speculative scholars to mark a personal crisis for the writer; no less measured source than the Encyclopædia Britannica perceived “a clear gulf” between it and the four plays that follow. These plays—“Pericles” (1607-08), “Cymbeline” (1609-1610), “The Winter’s Tale” (1610-11), and “The Tempest” (1611)—are commonly grouped together and called romances. Their for is a crowd-pleasing one, still in wide use: the audience, after witnessing many travails and perils, arrives at a happy, if implausible, ending—storms, terrors and confusions give way to recognitions, reunions, forgiveness, and reconciliation. But a silvery chill blows through these romances, a deliberate and, a times, brazen use of stage artifice
Changes had overtaken Shakespeare’s physical theatre. After a decade of performing at the Globe—a London amphitheatre patterned on the inn courtyards where plays used to be staged, with little more scenery than what language could paint on air—Shakespeare’s company succeeded in taking over the Blackfriars theatre and, in 1609, began winter performances there, out of the weather, with more elaborate effects. Spectacle—which Aristotle’s “Poetics” ranked, with Song, as the least of tragedy’s necessary parts, behind Plot, Character, Diction, and Thought—grew in importance under James I. The Stuart court was more open to Continental divertissements than Elizabeth’s had been; masques, performed by masked dancers who invited the audience to join in, enlisted such high talents as Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones.
Shakespeare’s dramas became parades of wonders. “Pericles” brings the medieval poet John Gower onto the stage to shepherd, in quaint tetrameters, its mythological hero back and forth across the Mediterranean. “Cymbeline,” whose plot was memorably characterized by Dr. Johnson as “unresisting imbecility” marked by “the impossibility of the events in any system of life,” caps its absurdities with the rhyming apparition of the hero’s dead parents and brothers, and the descent of Jupiter “in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle.” “The Winter’s Tale” subjects its protagonist, King Leontes of Sicilia, to an insane fit of jealousy at the beginning, and at the end has a statue of his wife, for sixteen years thought dead, dramatically come to life. Shakespeare, who was, after the early death of his son, Hamnet, the father of two daughters, inflicts upon his young romantic heroines, with their pretty names Marina, Perdita, and Innogen, no ordeal that they do not come shining through. As Stephen Orgel observes in his introduction to the Pelican “Pericles,” “Death is acknowledged to be real” in a late tragedy like “Antony and Cleopatra” but is “denied in Pericles, as it is, though to a lesser extent, in Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.”
Yet the last of these, “The Tempest,” is one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces: the strained contrivances and righted wrongs of the previous romances—“Plot has always been the curse of serious drama,” George Bernard Shaw said, discussing “Cymbeline”—fall simply into place, with the contriver in plain view, his motives and magical means established at the start. Prospero, the unjustly deposed Duke of Milan and self-taught sorcerer, spins the plot before our eyes, beginning with the tempest that lands the cast of characters on his private island. The hero and the contriver merge into an omnipotent artificer. In the fourth act, having provided a suitor for his cloistered daughter, Miranda, he stages a masque, starring Iris, Juno, and Ceres, for Miranda and her swain, Prince Ferdinand. When an unpleasantness left over from earthy reality, the rebellion of his slave Caliban, disturbs the performers, so that “to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish,” Prospero reassures his audience of two:
These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Tradition regards this stately valediction, this folding up of the sorcerer’s equipment, as not only Prospero’s but Shakespeare’s. The pun on “globe” is cemented in the First Folio printing, which capitalizes the noun. In Prospero’s self-descriptions, the word “art” reverberates. The romancer is a necromancer: “Graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth / By my so potent art.” His command is absolute; even sluggish, recalcitrant Caliban, the surly colonized lone native of the island, grumbles, “I must obey. His art is of such pow’r.” Prospero reminds Ariel, “It was mine art . . . that made gape the pine and let thee out.” Ariel is beckoned by “Come with a thought!” and materializes saying, “Thy thoughts I cleave to.” Only a writer with his quill poised over blank paper has thoughts leap into such instant effectuation. Prospero promises, “Deeper than did ever plummet sound, / I’ll drown my book.”
Why would Shakespeare say his farewell in a play written before he was fifty? He did not, we must make an effort to remember, have posterity’s view of himself. The hectic rough-and-tumble of the Elizabethan theatre, like the television-script mills of today, did not promise high status or literary immortality. He arrived in London in the fifteen-eighties, it is thought, and found employment as an actor; within a few years, the player branched out to become a playwright. By 1592, he was already successful enough to attract bitter words from the rival dramatist Robert Greene, who famously wrote, in “Greenes Groatsworth of Witte”:
There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you . . . in his owne conceit the only Shakes-scene in a countrey.
In the next two decades, Shakespeare wrote nearly two plays every year, besides composing the two long and popular narrative poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” which were evidently the only publications of his that he ever troubled to proofread. His sonnets were pirated and printed in a jumbled fashion. His duties as playwright and player are deplored as “public means” in Sonnet 111, a lament at Fortune, the “guilty goddess” who did not “better for my life provide / Than public means which public manners breeds” so that “my nature is subdued / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”
Dirty work, in other words, though lucrative. For some time, he had been making preparations for a gentleman’s retirement from London to his native Stratford, completing his father’s application for a coat of arms in 1596 and, the following year, acquiring New Place, one of the largest houses in the town. “The Tempest” ends with Prospero claiming his right to “retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave.” To the playwright’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, nearly a century later, early retirement seemed natural enough:
The latter part of his life was spent, as all Men of good Sense will wish theirs may be, in Ease, Retirement, and the Conversation of his Friends. He had the good Fortune to gather an Estate equal to his Occasion and, in that, to his Wish.
True, he was not quite done with London. In 1612, identified as “of Stratford-upon-Avon,” he testified in a civil case involving some former London landlords of his. In 1613, he bought his first London real estate, the gatehouse of the former Blackfriars monastery, near the theatre. Yet evidence suggests that he did not get much use out of this pied-à-terre; in 1616, a tenant occupied it. Presumably, Shakespeare returned to collaborate with John Fletcher on three known plays: the lost “Cardenio,” based upon a story in “Don Quixote” and performed twice at court; “All Is True,” or “Henry VIII,” a patriotic pageant centering on Cardinal Wolsey’s fall and the future Queen Elizabeth’s birth; and “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” another surreal romance. “Henry VIII” involved a masque in which cannons were fired, and on June 29, 1613, a stray piece of ignited wadding landed on the Globe’s thatch and burned down the theatre. It was rebuilt within the year, but Shakespeare was no longer a part owner; there is no mention in his will of his theatre shares.
The end of “the great Globe” seems to have ended Shakespeare’s connection with the stage, three years short of his death. The causes of his death have been much speculated upon; syphilis and alcoholism are mentioned. The vicar of Stratford, around 1662, recorded in his diary that “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson, had a merie meeting, and itt seems drank too hard.” Park Honan’s biography argues for a case of springtime typhoid fever caught from the fetid stream that ran past New Place into the Avon. Our impression remains that “The Tempest” foretells Shakespeare’s end: it is a lovingly composed late work, the roughness of its predecessor romances smoothed, their dissonances resolved in—as Said says in connection with the final compositions of Richard Strauss—a “recapitulatory and even backward-looking and abstracted quality.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s terminal illness came to pass in the clear light of nineteenth-century graphomania, but the two hundred and fifty years of advance in medical science since Shakespeare’s death leave the American romancer’s diagnosis similarly vague. In early 1864, Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, wrote i alarm to his old friend Horatio Bridge
I have felt the wildest anxiety about him because he is a person who has been immaculately well all his life, and this illness has seemed to me an awful dream which could not be true. But he has wasted away very much and the suns in his eyes are collapsed, and he has no spirits, no appetite, and very little sleep.
Hawthorne had returned with his family to America in 1860, after seven years abroad—four as U.S. consul in Liverpool and three more as a sojourner in Italy and England—in outward good health, though within a year Sophia was confiding to his publisher, William Ticknor, of Ticknor & Fields, that her husband was “low in tone and spirits. . . . He has lost the zest for life.”
Settled in a spacious Concord house, the Wayside, with renovations that included a third-floor “tower room” to serve as a study, Hawthorne began to write the successor to “The Marble Faun” (1860), which had been, despite mixed reviews, a considerable commercial success. He began by picking up a tale, “The Ancestral Footprint,” that he had begun and abandoned in 1858; it was based upon an anecdote he had heard at an English dinner party, of an indelible bloody footprint left on a flagstone at the bottom of a staircase in a Lancashire mansion. He attempted to merge this ominous detail with a vision of an American trying to claim an English inheritance; as James R. Mellow puts it in his biography of the writer, “They were, in fact, one theme—and a recurrent one in Hawthorne’s fiction. A lost estate and an ancient crime—Eden and the Fall.” Hawthornian though the materials were, he could not make the story go. He wrote in his journal:
There seem to be things that I can almost get hold of, and think about; but when I am just on the point of seizing them, they start away, like slippery things.
He changed the title from “The Ancestral Footprint” to “Etherege” and then to “Grimshawe”; he shifted the action to a gloomy burial ground in Salem; he filled his margins with, as Edwin Haviland Miller puts it in another biography, “corrections, interpolations, exclamations of frustration, and unanswerable questions as to plot, characterization, and motivation.” Always a stern self-critic, Hawthorne scribbled such cries of despair as “All this amounts to just nothing. I don’t advance a step,” and “I have not the least notion how to get on. . . . I never was in such a sad predicament before.” Prompted by a story Thoreau told him, of a previous resident of the Wayside who had determined to live forever, he took up the theme of a magic elixir, which had already figured in his short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.” He placed his new romance in Concord, took as his hero a half-Indian seminary student undergoing a crisis of faith, and named him Septimius Felton, then Septimius Norton. Septimius, in an encounter that has strong homoerotic and narcissistic overtones, kills a British soldier and finds on his body the formula for eternal life. Hawthorne, wearily climbing the steep stairs to his tower room day after day, accumulated two manuscripts, amounting to almost five hundred pages in the Centenary Edition of his works, and supplied three different endings for his hero—death by hanging, escape to the sea, and a successful career in the Continental Army—but finally gave up.
By 1863, the novelist presented a weakened appearance. “He looks gray and grand, with something very pathetic about him,” Longfellow recorded in his journal. The Civil War was taking a toll; Hawthorne had always distrusted philanthropists, enthusiasts, and great causes, and his continued loyalty to his old Bowdoin classmate Franklin Pierce, the antebellum President actively expressing anti-Lincoln views to New Hampshire audiences, put him at odds with his abolitionist neighbors and in-laws—Emerson and Sophia’s sister Elizabeth Peabody being especially militant. His block in regard to fiction did not keep him, however, from reshaping his English journals into articles for The Atlantic Monthly; they were collected in 1863 into a book of British impressions, “Our Old Home.” Though dismissed by Hawthorne himself as “not a good nor a weighty book,” and freighted with a stubbornly, gallantly retained dedication to the unpopular Pierce, “Our Old Home” sold well enough to whet Ticknor & Fields’s appetite for more Hawthorne.
In December, he showed Fields the first chapter of his final reworking of the elixir theme, now titled “The Dolliver Romance.” In it, his imagination was back on the edge of the burial ground, and had conjured up a likable protagonist, a very elderly guardian of a three-year-old great-granddaughter. Dr. Dolliver needs to live on for her benefit, not from any selfishness of his own; he wears—emblematic adornments characteristic of Hawthorne—an ancient dressing grown of many patches and, to shelter his tiny ward from the unnatural, elixir-fed gleam in his eyes, green spectacles. Fields pronounced the chapter “very fine” and, on the cover of the January, 1864, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, advertised Hawthorne’s forthcoming serialized novel. On February 25th, the author wrote Fields a long and rather manic, self-mocking letter about “the abortive Romance,” stating:
I shall never finish it. . . . I cannot finish it unless a great change comes over me; and if I make too great an effort to do so, it will be my death; not that I should care much for that, if I could fight the battle through and win it, thus ending a life of much smoulder and scanty fire in a blaze of glory.
The smouldering ceased twelve weeks later, when the author died in his sleep, not quite sixty years of age, on a trip north into New Hampshire with Pierce, who had hoped to revive his loyal old friend’s body and spirits with a change of air.
Like one of his blighted, poisoned, or irremediably stained characters, Hawthorne wasted away, while personal demons balked his creative powers. Sophia, rarely at a loss for a phrase, wrote, “It seems to me that more and more delicate melodies are struck out from his mind at every revolution of the earth-ball, so that it gets to be a swan-song almost.” As he stated in the preface to his first novel, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850), he had early determined to build his fiction on the “territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” This moonlit in-between ground supported many provocative and poetic short stories but really only one novel, the first; the rest, though rarely less than beautifully written, and shot through with shrewd rays of observation, are webs full of gaps that the author was unable or disinclined to fill in. His journals show a sharp-eyed, amused realist, but his imagination, which ripened in the unnatural solitude of his young manhood in Salem, set itself feats of balance on the edge of the unreal that, as the real shadows closed in, he was unable to sustain.
Longfellow, in his memorial poem “Hawthorne,” wrote of his friend’s “wand of magic power,” as if he had been Prospero; but the summoned spirits in the end did not come. Shakespeare in his late romances had the coarse “public means” of stagecraft to solidify his death-denying fictions; Hawthorne, solitary in his Concord tower, had only secluded intuitions, and these darkened and dissolved. The writer depended upon a touch of spookiness, but the man did not believe in spooks. Death was real. As he put aside his second extended attempt to carry “The Ancestral Footprint” to completion, Hawthorne wrote of his protagonist:
Some strange, vast, sombre, mysterious truth, which he seemed to have searched for long, appeared to be on the point of being revealed to him; a sense of something to come; something to happen that had been waiting long, long to happen; an opening of doors, a drawing away of veils, a lifting of heavy, magnificent curtains, whose dark folds hung before a spectacle of awe;—it was like the verge of the grave.
Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” also published posthumously, in a state of suspended revision, has fared better with posterity than Hawthorne’ unfinished romances. This tale, less than novella-length, is the most studied and admired of Melville’s works except for “Moby-Dick”—a globall ambitious novel greatly enriched by Melville’s acquaintance with Hawthorne and his elated discovery of the older writer’s dark, symbol-laden short stories Melville near the outset of “Billy Budd” invokes Hawthorne’s name but in the next paragraph assures the reader that his story is “no romance.” Far fro evading death, he steers his narrative straight toward the hero’s hanging. His frequent allusions to classical and Biblical myth, his learned excursions int British naval history decorate but do not divert the tale; like Faulkner at his most surging, he seems confident that the underlying story is simple an predetermined enough to survive any digression
The setting is Melville’s métier, shipboard, solid and rolling underfoot. There are three essential characters, each with a tragic flaw: gloriously handsome Billy, with his stutter; staunch and sterling Captain Edward Vere, with “a queer streak of the pedantic running through him”; and master-at-arms John Claggart, with an unhealthily sallow complexion and a depraved antipathy to the sunny “moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.” As in Hawthorne, there are themes of surrogate paternity and “natural” aristocracy and “elemental evil,” but Melville’s arise within a firmly circumstantial setting—a sailing warship recalled in avid detail from within an age of steam—and a specific historical moment, the year 1797, when the ideas of the French Revolution had sparked the Great Mutiny and a harsh renewal of discipline within the British Navy. At one point in his revisions, Melville deleted the paragraphs explaining this historical context; indeed, his stark story, told in many short segments, feels whittled down, as opposed to Hawthorne’s desperately shifting accretion of “slippery things.”
Melville’s sentences, a little arthritic and desiccated decades after the headlong prose of his prime, and marked, the manuscript (at Harvard) reveals, by many hesitations and revisions, may sometimes grope, but his plot, the Christlike martyrdom of his “fated boy,” moves unflinchingly. Such a fated directness, driven by the yarning, reminiscing authorial voice, can be felt in other late works, such as Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murad,” which, too, was published posthumously. “My vigor sensibly declines,” Melville wrote in late 1889 to a Canadian admirer. “What little of it is left I husband for certain matters yet incomplete, and which, indeed, may never be completed.” Melville was seventy at the time, and “Billy Budd” was almost certainly one of the matters; he had retired from the U.S. customs service in New York at the age of sixty-eight, and was seventy-two when he died. Not long before, Julian Hawthorne, Hawthorne’s son, had visited Melville in his near-total obscurity, and found, in Julian’s words, a “melancholy and pale wraith,” fidgety and nervous, whose “words were vague and indeterminate.” Yet this same man, initially undertaking to write a headnote to one of his poems—poetry had been, after the failure of three successive novels, his only literary exercise for more than thirty years—found vigor enough to crowd onto a naval incident from 1797 most of what he felt about male beauty, human justice, cosmic injustice, and the Christ myth.
Death, one would think, naturally haunts late works; yet perhaps it does not. A negation defies objectification; disappearance has no appearance. Adorno wrote, “Death is imposed on created beings, not on works of art, and thus it has appeared in art only in a refracted mode, as allegory.” What does haunt late works is the author’s previous works: he is burdensomely conscious that he has been cast, unlike his ingénue self, as an author who writes in a certain way, with the inexorable consistency of his own handwriting. “I am tired of my own thoughts and fancies and my own mode of expressing them,” Hawthorne wrote not many months before he died. Turning this way and that in his last creative torment, he kept meeting, with a shudder, his pet modes of imagining, chimeras on the fault line between the imaginary and the actual. Melville, no stranger to self-centered overcomplication, in old age found his way back to an earnest simplicity. Successful late works, shed of “obscuring puppy fat,” tend to have a translucent thinness.
In the twentieth century, James Joyce, asked what he planned to write after the seventeen years’ labor of “Finnegans Wake,” responded, “I think I’ll writ something very simple and very short.” His actual last work, carried forward in the French village of Saint-Gérand-le-Puy with the help of Paul Léon, wa the list of more than a thousand misprints in “Finnegans Wake”—a significant task, given the unique letter-by-letter difficulty of the text and Joyce’s near-blindness. A few weeks after escaping from Vichy France, he died in Zurich, early in 1941, following an operation for a perforated duodenal ulcer, at th age of fifty-eight. His last great work, whose punning title has Finnegan waking at his wake, could be said to deny the reality of an individual’s death, los as it is amid the great cycles of history and the tireless babble of humanity
Onetwo moremens more. So. Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes.
Few authors get to produce works as late in life as another expatriate Irishman, George Bernard Shaw. His last book brought together, with prefaces, the four-act play “Buoyant Billions,” six playlets titled “Farfetched Fables,” and the puppet play, mostly in blank verse, called “Shakes Versus Shav”; they were written when the author was, respectively, ninety-two, ninety-three, and ninety-four years old. We approach work by such an ancient with uneasiness, but the opening preface reassures us that we are secure in the hands of a masterly comedian, an irrepressible truthteller, his faculties intact:
At such an age I should apologize for perpetrating another play or presuming to pontificate in any fashion. I can hardly walk through my garden without a tumble or two; and it seems out of all reason to believe that a man who cannot do a simple thing like that can practice the craft of Shakespear. . . . Well, I grant all this; yet I cannot hold my tongue nor my pen. As long as I live I must write.
Writing, he cheerfully informs us, is no work at all. It is simply a matter of taking dictation: “When I take my pen or sit down to my typewriter, I am as much a medium as Browning’s Mr. Sludge or Dunglas Home, or as Job or John of Patmos. When I write a play I do not foresee nor intend a page of it from one end to the other: the play writes itself.”
The claim is perhaps cagily ingenuous, by a writer often accused of being too cerebral and cool-hearted. With Shaw, whose fame didn’t set in until his forties and whose “Saint Joan,” which in effect won him the Nobel Prize, was written in his sixty-eighth year, we have late works that display little loss of muscle, because his muscles were always concentrated in his head—his mischievous quick eyes, his agile tongue. He and Goethe and Victor Hugo show Americans what they have few native examples to learn from: writing can be a healthy, life-giving activity, sustainable—in Shaw’s case with the help of teetotalism, vegetarianism, and bicycling—through a generous mortal span. His imminent death had no terrors for him—rather, the reverse. In the brief but pithy preface to “Buoyant Billions,” Shaw writes of spiritualists, “They believe in personal immortality as far as any mortal can believe in an unimaginable horror.” No such horror need apply for belief to this buoyant spirit. His “Farfetched Fables” grapple blithely with the atomic bomb and its threat of global annihilation, and his antic puppet play quotes Prospero’s “great Globe itself” speech and caps it with the saucy lines
Immortal William dead and turned to clay
May stop a hole to keep the wind away.
Graham Greene, blessed with a longer life than his suicidal impulses, his hazardous travels, and his pessimistic novels would have presaged, saw his books shrink in size, from the respectable bulk of the best-selling “The Honorary Consul” (1973) and “The Human Factor” (1978) to such quirky bagatelles as “Doctor Fischer of Geneva; or, The Bomb Party” (1980), “Monsignor Quixote” (1982), “J’Accuse—The Dark Side of Nice” (1982), “Getting to Know the General” (1984), and “The Captain and the Enemy” (1988). Greene’s last book, edited and introduced by him but ushered into publication by Yvonne Cloetta, his mistress, in obedience to his deathbed request, is “A World of My Own: A Dream Diary” (1992), a selection of the dreams he habitually recorded in the last twenty-five years of his life. The dreams of this somewhat sinister writer show his subconscious to have been, on the whole, a salubrious and well-illumined site, full of books, public personalities, and cheerful candor. The last dream finds Greene writing a verse on his own death “for a competition in a magazine called Time and Tide (“My breath is folded up / like sheets in lavender. / The end for me / Arrives like nursery tea”), and the first reverts to an Edwardian childhood as he sees a train that “consisted of pretty carriages” and boards the next one:
I was much struck by the kindness and jollity of the passengers, who welcomed me and made room for me in a very packed carriage. They all wore strange clothes—Edwardian or Victorian—and I was fascinated by the stations we passed. On one wide platform children were playing with scarlet balloons; another station was built like a ruined Greek temple; at one point the track narrowed and the train went through a kind of tunnel made with mattresses.
I had never in my life felt such a sensation of happiness.
Publishing his dreams was for Greene a way of reëntering a past that had become permeable and as fascinatingly fantastic as a dream. Remembrance, always an element in the manipulated data of fiction, is often finally fruitful in purer form, when living presences that once crowded and threatened the rebellious imagination have been rendered by the passage of time mistily distant and legally impotent. Not only Melville turned to the past; the familiar American careers of Hemingway and Faulkner end with reminiscence—of the innocent Paris of Hemingway’s young manhood and artistic apprenticeship in “A Moveable Feast,” and of Yoknapatawpha County and Memphis as experienced by an eleven-year-old boy in Faulkner’s “The Reivers: A Reminiscence.”
The past in one sense recedes but in another gains in interest as the writer ages and the stage of the present empties of decisive action. Henry James at the outset of the twentieth century brought to a triumphant climax his sustained practice of fiction with three stately novels that are marvels of prolonged design and elaborate sensibility—“The Wings of the Dove” (1902), “The Ambassadors” (1903), and “The Golden Bowl” (1904). He then, always an industrious critic and essayist, quite turned from the disguises and shifts of fiction. He went back to America for the first time in twenty-one years and wrote of what he saw and what he remembered in “The American Scene” (1906). He revisited his creative, European past in the eighteen autobiographical prefaces to the twenty-four volumes of the New York edition of his selected works (1907-09). And he wrote two volumes of autobiography, “A Small Boy and Others” (1911) and “Notes of a Son and Brother” (1914).
However, in 1909 his stagestruck side, still smarting from the hooted failure of his play “Guy Domville,” in 1895, was appealed to by a request from the Duke of York’s Theatre that he contribute a play to a London repertory season organized by J. M. Barrie and the American producer Charles Frohman. He responded, intensely, by writing a play in the last weeks of 1909, called “The Outcry,” based upon a newsworthy incident wherein a public protest prevented the American plutocrat Henry Clay Frick from buying a Holbein portrait from the Duke of Norfolk. In May of 1910, the death of Edward VII closed London’s theatres, and James, who had not been well himself, responded to this latest theatrical frustration by turning the unproduced “Outcry” into a novel, using the play’s dialogue little changed and nestling it in prose that closely resembles stage directions; the characters, announced by butlers, busily enter and exit. Reading it, one has a clear vision of a proscenium stage as it entertains quarrels and clinches in brisk succession. A jaunty curiosity not two hundred pages long, “The Outcry” is seldom pondered by contemporary Jamesians but at the time was something of a success, outselling “The Golden Bowl.” In its high-spoken mood of romp and rampant intellectuality, not to say the feminism forthrightly embodied by its conquering heroines, it resembles a play by Shaw, who was also invited to contribute to the doomed repertory season.
The cumbersome though finely painted charabanc of the late James style is pulled swaying along by a frisky pony of a plot, farcical and romantic, designed for stage-lit action. This most expatiatory and archly loquacious of novelists is obliged to hold the reins tight. The patter of his incongruous verbal felicities is invigorating; the style itself participates in the comedy. We feel on our faces—we, the reader and the sixty-seven-year-old author—the breeze of the senile sublime, a creativity liberated from its usual, anxiety-producing ambitions. The playful labor of this translation of drama into narrative was undertaken, Jean Strouse tells us in her introduction to the newest reprint of “The Outcry,” in the wake of “an acute depressive breakdown” brought on by the tepid reception of the New York edition, to which James had devoted heroic editorial effort, introducing and at times drastically revising his life’s work.
Iris Murdoch’s descent into the forgetfulness and incoherence of Alzheimer’s disease was vividly described in the memoirs “Iris” and “Elegy for Iris,” by her husband, John Bayley. The motion picture, starring Judi Dench, based on the memoirs shows the formerly prolific, consummately intelligent novelist pitifully struggling with the manuscript of the novel that was her last, “Jackson’s Dilemma” (1995). The novel was well enough received by critics: the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle Review called it “the kind of poetical feast that Shakespeare provided in The Tempest. . . . She has never written more lucidly or more lyrically”; Harold Bloom in the Times Book Review said it demonstrated “Murdoch’s particular mastery.” I read “Jackson’s Dilemma” fearing that the author—who didn’t remember writing the book by the time she received finished copies from the publisher—had embarrassed herself, but the novel is not a steep falling off. It has wispy, stylized, and casually irrational elements, but so do her major works. The protagonist of “The Sea, the Sea” (1978) is miraculously rescued from a maelstrom by his cousin, an adept in yogic levitation; in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” (1983), a flying saucer sends out a ray that blinds the novel’s hero. The membrane between our chaotic inner lives and external material reality is permeable in Murdoch—she writes of the U.F.O. incident, “The inner is the outer, the outer is the inner: an old story, but who really understands it?” An early novel like “The Flight from the Enchanter” (1956) presents no fewer puzzles and implausibilities than the last. The most prominent weakness of “Jackson’s Dilemma,” for me, lies with the eponymous Jackson; one of Murdoch’s many spoiled priests, wistful for faith but not secure in it, he has no clear role (or dilemma) among the restless and self-indulgent English élite as they impulsively, wastefully shuttle from country home to London and back. We end in Jackson’s head: “Is it all a dream, yes, perhaps a dream. . . . Death, its closeness. . . . Was I in prison once? I cannot remember. At the end of what is necessary, I have come to a place where there is no road.” Perhaps presumptuously, we imagine ourselves admitted to the mind of the author, as she feels her grip on the real world loosening. But her creative artistry lasted up to the verge of what Hawthorne called “a drawing away of veils, a lifting of heavy, magnificent curtains.”
Hawthorne’s inability to carry forward and complete “The Ancestral Footprint” was, in Adorno’s term, a “catastrophe” for him personally. His struggle to find the key—the handle—demonstrate what a precarious feat it is to write a novel, organizing a host of inventions and polished details into a singl movement toward resolution. Like sex, it is either easy or impossible. His failing physical health, his daughter Una’s worsening mental health, hi ambivalent and unfashionable feelings about the Civil War, the confinements of his happy marriage—he had his excuses, but there are always excuses no to do the job. He had no trouble, even as his block worsened, turning his English journals into lively, sharp-eyed, realistic essays, while, in false loyalty perhaps, to the attic-dwelling night-walker he had been in his youth, he tried to pen fiction by waning moonlight
He drank excessively, it was rumored, and Henry Green—an aristocrat of a non-Puritan sort—certainly did. There is a kind of gallantry, a Rimbaudesque flamboyance, in Green’s premature embrace of silence; he produced the novel intended (he hinted) to be his last, “Concluding” (1948), when he was forty-three. He then let his creative instincts be seduced, by midlife affairs with younger women, into two more novels, “Nothing” (1950) and “Doting” (1952), both dialogue-dominated, and written with an impeccable economy, but their translucence feels clouded by an air of corruption and defeat, especially “Doting,” with its madly bibulous ending.
A geriatric ebb of energy is bound to affect late works, not necessarily to their detriment. A “Billy Budd” produced in Melville’s thirties might have been as full of bumptious bombast as “Mardi.” The later work’s style, pedestrian and legalistic at intervals, at others slips into a metaphoric vein as primally strange as imagery in Hawthorne and “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Of the demonic Claggart:
But upon any abrupt unforeseen encounter a red light would flash forth from his eye like a spark from an anvil in a dusk smithy. That quick, fierce light was a strange one, darted from orbs which in repose were of a color nearest approaching a deeper violet, the softest of shades.
Outer becomes inner; the images take on a heated life of their own, freed from reality. “Late style,” Said wrote in paraphrase of Adorno, “is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favor of reality.” How real is death to those who still live? When the Shavian torrent dwindled to a trickle, it still twinkled; in his preface to “Buoyant Billions” Shaw tells us that death is real, but in such a sprightly fashion that we do not believe it. Art comes, it may be, from the death-denying portion of the psyche, deeper than reason’s reach. Repeatedly, Shakespeare’s sonnets defy time:
Yet do thy worst, old Time; despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
The last four plays that can be assigned to Shakespeare’s exclusive authorship, the romances, deny death the last word, though deaths occur: in “Cymbeline,” the odious Cloten dies; in “The Winter’s Tale” the staunch Antigonus, with the famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear,” on the unreal seacoast of Bohemia. In all of them, the climactic events defy plausibility with wonderful returns from the dead or the lost. “The Tempest,” like Beethoven’s late compositions, refuses, in Adorno’s phrase, to “reconcile in a single image what is not reconciled.” Said wrote, “What I find valuable in Adorno is this notion of tension, of highlighting and dramatizing what I call irreconcilabilities.” “The Tempest” affirms Prospero’s death wish and retirement, and also Miranda’s wonder, her naïve eagerness to live and to love. She has not yet come to the end of what is necessary. Father and daughter, far from irreconcilable, are onstage together.
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