Tag Archives: aging

Your Ticket is No Longer Valid by Romain Gary

In this respect we are rather backward in France; a certain lack of persistence and determination causes us to lose out in the race for pleasure. It’s different in the United States. There people band together, organize group therapy sessions, make pornographic films, found institutes and clinics, all dedicated to combatting the decline of the erection. America is the last true phallocracy. By comparison, we French are a sorry lot of quitters.”

When Emma announced a Romain Gary Month, this was the perfect excuse to read an author I’d been meaning to discover for years. The big question became which title to pick first, and after reading a synopsis of Your Ticket is No Longer Valid, all the other possibilities faded into the background.

This is the story of Jacques Rainier, a one-time resistance fighter and a wealthy businessman man facing his 60th birthday. When the book opens Rainier’s business is in jeopardy, but this is overshadowed by his worries about his flagging virility. The questions of erections, masculinity, and sexual potency are vital since his lover is 37 years younger. This novel was written pre-Viagra. Romain Gary would probably have had great fun adding Viagra to this novel if he’d had the chance.

your ticket is no longer validParts of the book are pure brilliance as Gary mercilessly explores this painfully embarrassing arena of male sexuality. How many times will Rainier be able to have sex with his Brazilian lover, Laura? Will he be able to sustain his erections? Will Laura be able to orgasm? All of these questions relentlessly plague Rainier, and so he finds himself somewhat reluctantly seeking help and advice from the medical profession. The advice he gets isn’t exactly what he wants to hear.

“Any trouble with urinating?”

“Not so far.”

“Do you get up in the middle of the night?’

“When I can’t sleep, yes, sometimes.”

“To pass water, I mean?”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Is it a powerful stream?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“When you pass water, is the stream strong, quick, in an arc, or does it come dripping feebly from the urethra in a thin thread, with interruptions, and does it require an effort to bring it back?”

“I hadn’t noticed. I seem to piss without any complications. I shall of course try to be more observant in future, but…”

Do you stain your shorts?”

I stared at him with my mouth open.

The novel opens with Rainier discussing and then meeting Jim Daley, “the heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the United States.” Daley, “larger than life” and according to a past casual sex encounter “there was no stopping him, he kept it up all night long,” is a bit of a bête noir for Rainier. Even at almost seventy, Daley still had a reputation as an “international playboy,”  but then gradually his “trophies” moved from women to “the realm of high finance.” Daley, firmly in his seventies, former lady killer, has now become somewhat pathetic. He claims to be the same age as Rainier and complains, rather distastefully that he’s “noticed” that women’s vaginas “suffered from the same internal deformity.” Finally, Daley admits, with no small amount of chagrin, that it’s not a universal vagina problem as much as his own shrinking erections. It’s a difficult meeting as Rainier has applied for a loan from Daley’s bank, and here’s Daley, at least 15 years older, pretending to be the same age and waiting for Rainier to exchange stories of his sexual failure.

There’s painful honesty here from a man who is facing old age while partnered with a young woman young enough to be his daughter (or even if we stretch it a bit, his granddaughter). He worries about their sex life, but there are also life stage issues which coalesce like ghosts around the bedroom. There are many clichés around these sorts of relationships, and I’m sure we’ve all known people in situations like Rainier. Do we envy them, laugh at them or feel a little sympathy? Would Laura even consider a man like Rainier if he weren’t stinking rich? Having a lover almost 40 years younger certainly puts an enormous amount of pressure on Rainier who admits that “it was only with Laura that I could see myself truly in decline.” As the book continues, Rainier’s worries grow to dark obsessions.

I had always assumed that aging was an orderly affair. There would be, it seemed to me, signs of incipient change, progressive seasons that would give one time to think, make one’s arrangements and manufacture one’s “wisdom.” Ideally, you simply came one day to regard your body with tolerant detachment, and turned to more appropriate interests–cruises, bridge, antiques.

While the novel is on one level merciless in its examination of the flagging male performance, the novel is still pure male fantasy of a 23 year-old beautiful woman deeply in love with a man almost 40 years her senior who is just so wonderful that she loves him for himself–age and $$$ are not part of the equation.  In spite of its vicious realities, the book still rests on that old tired Pygmalion Complex of the older man who offers experience and economic security in exchange for a parking spot next to a beautiful, nubile young woman who is a living, breathing male fantasy. Perhaps part of my reaction comes from knowing a couple of men, Rainier’s age, but not as wealthy, who’ve jettisoned off into relationships with women three or four decades younger. It hasn’t been pretty.

For this reader, by far the best parts of the novel were the scenes at doctors’ offices–especially the doctor Rainier terms “a fanatical defender of the prostate.” Here’s Rainier consulting the doctor about groin pain he’s experiencing.

“Yes, I see, well then, my friend, take it from me, when a woman says to you: ‘Not yet, not yet’ or ‘Wait for me,’ remember, don’t let her get away with it.”

“Get away with it?”

“Defend yourself. Let go, ejaculate. Our organs are designed to function normally, naturally, not to show off in performances–acrobatic, artistic, whatever you like. You should let yourself go, take your pleasure with a good conscience, and that’s that. Surely you know that there are castrating types, women who think the penis is some kind of automatic mechanism that you can use at will. You’ll never find a woman worrying about your prostate. Most of them haven’t the slightest idea what it’s all about. At your age, you should take it easy, set your own pace, don’t worry about your partner.”

The novel is at its best when Rainier is forced to acknowledge his insecurities and the realities of the less-than-smooth sex life of a 60-year-old man with flagging libido. Unfortunately, the novel reverses from its boldness and ultimately rests on clichés, and for this cynical reader, the novel just didn’t go far enough….

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Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal

A strong interest in Czech cinema led to curiosity about Czech literature. Paul Leppin’s Blaugast, written in the 1930s and Hermann Ungar’s dark story The Maimed, published in 1923, both have strong elements of fin-de-siècle decadence and moral decline. Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, an author I’d had in my sights for some time, presents an entirely different view of Czech society through his wonderful novel, Harlequin’s Millions. This delightful tale is set in a retirement home, formerly Count Spork’s castle, set on a hilltop overlooking the town where our nameless narrator once lived. She and her husband, Francin sell their home and become residents joining Francin’s bed-ridden, older brother, Uncle Pepin, who already lives there.  While the narrator is familiar with the castle, it’s an entirely different experience to take up residence.

I had been in the castle at least ten times or more, but then I was a guest, scared of everything and easily panicked. Today I stood here as a person who is going to be living here for a long time, until something happens to me, suddenly someone will come to me, whisper sweet nothings and make me all kinds of promises and then set me free, in a landscape that knows no limits, no bounds.

The retirement home consists of the mostly-invisible staff and an assortment of pensioners; the lucky ones wander the perimeter of the once-grand estate or sit and play cards while the bed-ridden residents remain immobile. Residents are not allowed to leave the castle without permission, so the retirement home is a jail of sorts. Many of the sights, smells and sounds within the home are unpleasant, but these realities of the mortal condition are set against the surreal atmosphere within the retirement home. All day long the strains of Harlequin’s Millions is piped though speakers scattered throughout the castle and its surrounding park:

The string orchestra curls gently around the old tree trunks and Harlequin’s Millions climbs like old ivy into the crowns and trickles down along the leaves, the corridors of the home are filled with a pleasant phosphorescent gas, with the scent of cheap perfume, so that no one is really aware of the music, only when there’s a power failure and Harlequin’s Millions is suddenly cut off, stops short, the way everything stops as if by magic in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, all the pensioners glance up, they look up at the speakers and the sudden loss of the music feels to them like when the lights go out and everyone longs to hear it again, because without it the air in the castle and along the paths in the park is unbreathable.

Our narrator, a witness for life inside the castle, begins wandering the grounds, taking a forbidden path, and discovers the decaying, mostly ignored splendor of the Count’s former home. Inside the castle, tucked away in forgotten corners are “white statues of nude young women, Greek goddesses perhaps, caught unawares by a male gaze and defending themselves, in terror, with raised arms.” The ceiling is “decorated with frescos of naked, dancing women and men,” while other frescos depict a wedding scene between two beautiful young people and a lustful naked faun “abducting a nymph.” In the days of its early splendor, the castle seems to be designed with youth and beauty in mind, and yet now it’s the last residence of the elderly and infirm. It seems that the decaying, neglected castle reflects the condition of its residents:

the gutters and drainpipes were full of holes, some had even been torn from the wall, at such moments the castle somehow resembled all those old people, who cleared their throats and then nearly choked in fits of coughing.

Left to her own devices, our toothless narrator finds that memories of her past flood back–her early married life, a failed business venture and the shock of the communist takeover. Many stories unfold through the three “witnesses to old times,” Vaclav and Karel and Otokar, elderly men who appear repeatedly throughout the story and tell the narrator fantastic tales from the past, acting as chroniclers of a long-forgotten history of the town and its residents.

harlequins millionsThere’s a fairy tale quality to this book which is enhanced by its castle setting and the narrator’s solitary walks when she discovers secret places in the forgotten corners of the castle. But if this is a fairy tale, it’s an inverted fairy tale. The tale isn’t told by a beautiful young princess imprisoned in a tower, waiting to be freed by a lover, but by an old woman who is facing the end of her life. At first it seems difficult to peg the story to a specific time frame, but the references to communism ground the story.

Harlequin’s Millions is a wonderful book. As we follow our narrator and make discoveries through her eyes, in spite of its subject matter, this is ultimately a book which reinforces the delight and joy of life. There are too many wonderful episodes to recount, but for this reader, two episodes must be mentioned. Sunday is visiting day, and some pensioners gather in spite of the rain and “peer all the way down to the bottom of the road and sooner or later a car always came driving up the hill toward the gate, and the pensioners would hurry back to the vestibule, settle themselves into an armchair and put on their best smile.” But the pensioners wait for visitors in vain while those who have visitors begrudge the time taken from their card games.

Those same pensioners who had run outside so impatiently to await the arrival of their beloved family were the ones whom hardly anyone ever came to see. More likely, someone would come whom no one had expected, or had even had time to expect, this was often the case with the five little groups of pensioners who sat and played cards all day, and when the nurses came to tell them that their relatives had arrived, that they had visitors, they had to quickly finish up their game of Mariás and then, sulking, they left the card table and went downstairs to the reception hall, if it was a nice day they took their relatives to a bench ion the park or the courtyard and still sulking, told them to have a seat, and then the relatives, when they saw that they hadn’t been expected the way one expects to be expected, actually felt better, they were glad to see that their father or father-in-law was much too busy with other things, they were glad that the pensioner was making their visit easier that he was still a person who didn’t sit around waiting for members of his family to rescue him, to brighten up his Sunday, but who without even bothering to hide his impatience kept looking at his watch, continually pushing back his sleeve to keep an eye on the time, which passed inexorably, while upstairs his friends sat waiting for him to return so they could resume their game of Mariás, that eternally moveable feast, that perennial Sunday that was always marked in red on the calendar, because playing cards is much more fun than telling all those pointless stories that had been told and retold in the family while there was still time.

That quote gives a sense of Hrabal’s style, and the long, beautifully constructed run-on sentences that create a rhythm to the tale in which time is of the upmost importance.

For this reader, the novel’s best segment occurs when the retirement home’s regular doctor leaves for his annual trip to Marienbad. His replacement, “young Doctor Houloubek,” a man who condones smoking and drinking of hard liquour, enthusiastically and misguidedly organizes an afternoon of classical music. Gone are the soothing strains of Harlequin’s Millions, and instead the pensioners are aroused by Afternoon of a Faun & Brahms’ violin concerto opus seventy-seven–a musical interlude that causes a comical near-riot.

The narrator records her observations about human nature while noting that this is “the first time” she’s ever “been able to take a good look at what is going on around me.” She notes the predictably to certain patterns of behaviour, and how visitors complain about petty things–having to queue for food, or order a cake days before they needed it as “by Saturday there wouldn’t be so much as a cream puff left on the bakery shelves.” The visitors also have a tendency to tell their elderly relatives how lucky they are to live in this retirement home, and when the pensioners try to explain the realities of life inside the castle and the difficulties of old age, the relatives immediately change the subject or become distracted in order not to listen.

While there is a great deal of gentle humour in the narrator’s memories and observations, there’s a serious side to the tale. She relates how the brewery, once managed by Francin, is nationalized under Communist rule. The narrator and her husband are rejected by the brewery workers as management in a government in which class is supposed to be leveled. The narrator notes that “all the old women in the castle, whom I’d driven to exasperation a quarter of a century ago with my dresses and my figure,” are now “thrilled”  to see that the narrator is just another old woman like them. While Communism acts as a social leveler for brewery workers, the narrator understands that Time is the true leveler that trumps all other considerations of beauty, wealth, possessions, status, & health. Utterly delightful, and told with a charming sense of mischief, Harlequin’s Millions is highly recommended.

Review copy. Translated by Stacey Knecht

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Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

“She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her memory, to be replaced by this diminished present. If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.”

Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed Stewart O’Nan’s novel, The Odds. I particularly liked the insights into the power politics of the damaged marriage plagued with debt and infidelities, and although the novel wasn’t perfect (I didn’t like the ending), I knew that this was an author I’d ‘discovered’ and one I’d return to soon. So that brings me to Emily Alone (recommended by commenter Pris as her favourite Stewart O’Nan), a wonderful novel I picked up without realising that it is a sequel to Wish You Were Here. After finishing the novel, I hope there’s a third–a follow-up to Emily Alone as I want to read more about this character’s life.

This is the story of a woman who lives alone with an elderly Springer Spaniel for companionship, and of course, the woman in question is Emily–an elderly widow whose two children, daughter Margaret and son Kenneth live in other states, stay in touch mainly by the telephone, and return for the occasional holiday visit. Neither relationship is satisfying and each is fraught with its own difficulties. Emily’s life is still centered around her children, so she’s inevitably left feeling disappointed by the interactions.  Margaret, divorced & the single mother of two, is involved with a series of men and is continually wrestling with various financial problems that require bailout.

Too often she acted as if Emily’s calls were an inconvenience, as if she were keeping her from urgent business. As a teenager she’d been distant and secretive, then for years as an alcoholic, hiding her sickness from everyone. Emily expected her to change after rehab, for the two of them to admit their mistakes and become closer, yet she still held Emily off, mistrustful, as if her own mother’s interest in her life was suspect.

Kenneth is a good, devoted son, but his time and energy is mostly given to his wife, Lisa’s, side of the family. Emily and Lisa have no relationship to speak of, “they’d never gotten along,” and “over the years their mutual dislike had calcified, their relationship fixed and incomplete.” Subtle battlelines are drawn between Lisa and Emily and slights continue. This year, for example, Lisa invites Emily to join her family at the Cape for Thanksgiving “belatedly, knowing she wouldn’t have time to make arrangements.”

The story follows a period of less than a year in Emily’s life–from Thanksgiving to the following summer, and while not a great deal happens, the minutiae of life is recorded, and we get the sense of just who Emily is, her routine, and her disappointments. While Emily is a wonderfully drawn character, she is not without her faults, but more of that later.

The novel begins with Emily on a November Tuesday waiting for her sister-in-law Arlene to arrive. This is the day of their weekly outing to Eat’n Park armed with a coupon for the “two-for-one breakfast buffet.” The weekly trip is one of the highlights of Emily’s routine–even though she dreads Arlene’s driving.

It wasn’t far–a few miles through East Liberty and Point Breeze and Regent Square on broad streets they knew like old friends-but the trip was a test of Emily’s nerves. Arlene’s eyes weren’t the best, and her attention to the outside world was directly affected by whatever conversation they were engaged in. When she concentrated on a thought, she drove more slowly, making them the object of honking, and once, recently, from a middle-aged woman who looked surprisingly like Emily’s daughter Margaret, the finger.

Emily’s husband, Henry, used to do all the driving, and for several years after his death she negotiated a familiar geographical “triangle” composed of trips to the supermarket, the library and the bank. Now the car sits unused and “decommissioned”  in the garage, yet one more piece of evidence of the different sort of life she led. Emily’s life changes, however, when she’s forced by circumstance to begin driving again.

Over the course of the novel, the holiday season comes and goes, children and grandchildren swoop in to visit, and neighbourhood houses are sold. Also over this time period, a few of the elderly people in Emily’s circle die, and she’s left with memories of the relationships she had and the full, rich life she and her husband led in the once-vibrant neighbourhood. The days of energetic family barbeques and parties and over. Now when Emily meets up with old acquaintances, there’s  a running tally kept of those who still survive:

The talk turned to falls, a favorite topic, and timely, with winter coming on, ice their mortal enemy. Jean Daly had slipped in her kitchen and broken her hip and now her children were trying to move her to a home. The horror with which Lorraine delivered the story annoyed Emily. It was the ultimate cautionary tale, the moral being Don’t fall, as if they were made of glass. In a sense they were-their fragility was irrefutable, medically proven-and yet Emily detested the inevitable rundown of accidents and tragedies, the more fortunate clucking their tongues and counting their blessings, all the while knowing it was just a matter of time. She didn’t need to be reminded that she was a single misstep from disaster, especially here, without Henry, surrounded by the survivors of their earlier life.

Some of Emily’s memories focus on her best friend, Louise who died a few years before, and other memories recall her life with Henry. In one scene she’s listening to a record and remembering a trip she made with Henry to Britain and a day spent at Coventry cathedral.

Beneath the murky opening theme, church bells tolled, and she pictured the cathedral, the bare yews reaching over the chancel, the spire rising into the sky. Somewhere downstairs there were albums filled with Henry’s pictures of that day, and the next, when it had rained and the pub Louise had recommended was closed. As the horns and then the chorus entered, Emily looked up from her Land’s End catalog, squinting, as if trying to remember something elusive, but the music was just music now, recorded voices and tympani booming from the stereo. There was nothing she wanted to buy. The models all seemed too pleased with themselves, as if they’d discovered an easier way of life. She flipped through the pages, wondering when Margaret would call, if at all. 

Emily is not without her faults. She has a tendency to fuss, and it doesn’t take a great deal to upset the calm order of her world. In one scene, for example, she frets over a team of gardeners sent to prepare a house that’s up for sale. She notes the coffee cups brought by the workers and “wondered how many of the cups would find their way into her bushes.”  She frets over a number painted on the pavement outside of her house. She canvases the neighbourhood looking for other similar marks and then spends hours on the telephone with the city suspecting that a “public works project” is planned. Anticipating “a chaos she was powerless to stop, ” she becomes fixated on the number, obsessively checking on it as though “it might magically disappear.”

Although Emily’s routine may seem dull, she has a rich inner life (reads Thomas Hardy) and attends an art show and the annual flower show which heralds in spring:

They came every year, like pilgrims. Women of a certain age, her mother called them, a polite way of saying old bags. For months they’d been saving the date, the invitation to members stuck to the fridge, pinned to the kitchen bulletin board. This was the real beginning of spring, the gathering of the tribe. survivors, believers, they flocked from across the city, made the trek in to gritty Oakland from the tony suburbs, curling around the Gothic rocket ship of the Cathedral of Learning, back past the library and Flagstaff Hill to the edge of Schenley Park. There might be snow on the golf course, the trees bare, but inside the peaked glass palace of Phipps Conservatory, the world was in bloom.

Emily’s memories are her constant companions, and there are times when the past seems more vivid than the present. This of course raises one of the novel’s central questions: what do you make of life when the best of it seems to be over?

That was how time passed-waiting through everything else to do the things you wanted. How little fell into that category now; easter, her garden, Chautauqua. She thought there would be more to live for.

Ultimately Emily, Alone is an optimistic novel. Adversity gets Emily out of her rut and behind the wheel of a brand new Subaru, and surprised at her own extravagance, she hopes she’s not “like one of those middle-aged men who buys a Porsche.” With gentle humour, Stewart O’Nan details the inner life of this elderly woman, a woman who has sustained a substantial number of losses, and yet manages to find joy and hope in daily life.

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The Old Romantic by Louise Dean

Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Louise Dean’s novel, Becoming Strangers, and then this year I was fortunate indeed to get my hands on a review copy of Dean’s latest, The Old Romantic. It’s reviewed at Mostly Fiction, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but here’s a brief outline:

The novel begins with a reunion-from-hell for the long-estranged Goodyew family. Barrister Nick has spent years avoiding his parents, and part of that avoidance is manifested in his attempts to reinvent himself. He used to be called Gary, and when he dropped the name and attended university, he left his working class roots behind. Or so he thought.

The reunion takes place at Xmas with Nick and his girlfriend, upwardly mobile spa owner Astrid, picking up Nick’s grumpy old dad, Ken and his second wife, June for Xmas dinner at the home of Nick’s younger brother Dave. Within just a couple of pages, we see a tangled mess of relationships and the sort of nasty remarks that are only ever directed towards family members. The rest of the novel follows the relationships between the Goodyew family as various events occur.

If you’ve ever wondered why you bother with your relatives, then chances are you will enjoy the book. It’s lively and very, very bitterly funny in its exploration of family politics.  Nick’s dad Ken is arguably the star of the show, and as the book continues there are many hilarious scenes which made me laugh out loud. One of the best scenes takes place at a swanky restaurant at dinner attended by Astrid’s parents, the snobbish Linda and Malcolm, Nick and Astrid, and Nick’s dad Ken. This is an important meal, Ken is the unexpected guest, and Astrid’s parents receive no advance warning. Ken (who reminds me a great deal of Albert Steptoe) dominates:

Ken slapped the closed menu down onto the table. ‘All too dear,’ he said, tight-lipped and final.

Nick’s professional experience in dealing with difficult people in challenging circumstances persuaded him to coax the old boy.

‘It’s actually very reasonable, Dad. A nice, elegant menu, not too pretentious. If you tot it up, it works out quite a good deal if each of us takes the prix fixe.’

But he wasn’t speaking Ken’s language. ‘Too dear.’ Ken reiterated.

‘There’s liver and bacon, Dad, on at fifteen. You like liver and bacon, don’t you? That’s right up your street.’

‘Do me a favour! Fifteen nicker for a bit of offal. They sin you coming, sunshine.’ Ken made a bid of the other couple’s opinion. ‘What d’you think, Malcolm? Dear, innit?’

Nick leant back in his chair, putting his mouth close to his father’s ear, to escape the audible range of their table.

‘Just fucking order something, all right?’

Ken closed his eyes.

A bit later, Ken makes his menu choice:

Ken cleared his throat. ‘I’ll have the tamada soup.’

‘The…what’s that? I can’t see it on the menu….’ said Linda, with murderous eloquence.

‘There’s always a tamada soup on the menu.’

Malcolm tried to look wry and debonair, both old-fashioned and modern, with one side of his face doing the 1950s and the other lost in space.

‘Tomato soup.’ Astrid came to the rescue. ‘As in Heinz.’

‘That’s the job,’ said Ken.

‘He doesn’t get out much,’ said Nick to the waitress.

‘And tap water, please,’ said Ken. ‘From the tap, please, miss. Yes. Thank you. And I’ll have some bread with my soup, ta. I don’t drink much, do you Linda? Don’t feel the need.’

So two winners in a row from Dean. 

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The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone by Tennessee Williams

I saw that author Charles Lambert included The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone in his ‘best books set in Italylist, and when I noticed that it was, in fact, a novel, and not a play (as I’d thought for some reason), I decided to read it. I’ve seen both film versions of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, and liked the story very much indeed. I’ve also read Tennessee William’s memoirs and found them great fun. I don’t have a ‘best books set in Italy’ list, so The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone will, instead, slot into my Women Who Go Wild in Italy category. If you think along the lines of women getting off the plane in Italy and starting to tear their clothes off, then you’ll be on the right track or at least in sync with my sick and twisted thoughts.

Mrs Stone, Karen, is an aging actress, and while she doesn’t exactly start tearing her clothes off when she arrives in Rome, she does get herself into a great deal of trouble through her efforts to stave off the nagging fact that she’s aging. Karen and her husband were travelling after she announced her retirement from the stage, and she lands in Rome following his sudden death. Karen’s husband worshipped her, protected her and required very little in return. Karen isn’t aging well, and when I say that, I should add that she looks marvellous–one of those expensively, well-oiled and well-maintained machines. She started to put on a little weight but managed to shed it, and for a woman in her 50s she looks wonderful. Mentally, however, Karen isn’t doing so well; she cannot adapt to the fact she’s aging. Rome is a refuge for Mrs Stone as she thinks that here she can avoid the judgments of the theatre crowd:

In Mrs. Stone there was a certain grandeur which had replaced her former beauty. The knowledge that her beauty was lost had come upon her recently and it was still occasionally forgotten. It could be forgotten, sometimes, in the silk-filtered dusk of her bedroom where the mirrors disclosed an image in cunningly soft focus. It could be forgotten sometimes in the company of Italians who had never seen her as other than she now was and who have, moreover, the gift of a merciful kind of dissemblance. But Mrs. Stone had instinctively avoided contact with women she had known in America, whose eyes, if not their tongues, were inclined to uncomfortable candour.

As the novel continues, it’s revealed that Karen’s retirement came after her rather embarrassing performance as Juliet. No amount of makeup could cover the fact that she was an aging woman–not a nubile, dewy virgin. And now she’s in Rome alone. No money worries, true, but she’s lonely and terrified by aging. If you know the story, you know that Karen starts keeping a gigolo who is managed by a predatory Italian Contessa. It’s a curious and self-destructive decision. After all, Karen isn’t much interested in sex, and she fully realises that her boy-toy Paolo is an expensive little con-artist.

The novel’s great irony is that while Karen pampers a petulant, beautiful gigolo in order to convince herself that she’s still a pulsating, desirable woman, in the final judgment, this act only endorses her desperation. A woman of her age, wealthy, still attractive and with a fabulous past could most certainly acquire a respectable male escort (and by respectable, I mean he wouldn’t have to be paid to do it), and she could very possibly acquire a husband. So what is Karen Stone playing at? Why does she stoop to paying a snotty little gigolo who can’t even be nice in public? She doesn’t see herself as a laughing stock, but rather she imagines that Paolo’s beauty reflects back on her. Perhaps part of the answer can be found in Karen’s past. She’s used to acting opposite beautiful young men, and considered them only a threat when their performances overshadowed hers. Does she see Paolo as the next best thing to a young, ambitious actor? In her relationship with Paolo, is Karen simply trying to recreate an acting role with the comfort zone of a young, good-looking actor as a foil?

She had been twice as long in the world as Paolo and had known in her profession a fair quantity of young men with languid graces and a measure of beauty who only looked at mirrors. They had not interested her in the past, but she had known them. She had liked them to play opposite her on stage for they had little resistance. It was like sticking your finger into a puff of meringue to take their measure, and yet they did well enough as supporting players. They felt and provoked no excitement. You knew what they were going to do and could obliterate them with a gesture. It was rather fun doing it. Sometimes it was nice to catch hold of their moist young palms in the wings and say, Don’t be nervous! Every play has to open and some have to close …

Their dressing rooms smelled nice, their bodies not giving off the musk of the male, or not enough of it to be detectable through the talcum or pine cologne. She had felt for them the sort of affection that is based on knowing you have the power to destroy and which is the warmer for being mixed with contempt.

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone is a terribly sad story of a woman whose acting talent was predicated on her looks; she did not build for a future without beauty. When we first meet Karen, she’s fallen swiftly from the pinnacle of her success, but after that it’s a rapid, lurid downhill slide. While all relationships contain some element of power, perhaps in the best relationships there is some balance achieved without dominance. In Karen’s relationship with Paolo, she should in theory have the power since she controls the money. There are many scenes which detail Paolo’s little ploys for money and presents, and while Karen initially may hold the cards, she accedes all control to Paolo when she begins demanding love.

Anyway, this was a great read–no dull characters and marvellous descriptions throughout. Frustrated female passion seems to be the author’s speciality, and here instead of the raging nymphomania of  Blanche DuBois, in Karen we see equally complex sexual behaviour. Tennessee Williams shows that Karen Stone is not the only middle-aged female character with difficulties adjusting to aging. Paolo has quite a history with a range of women–including the lonely married variety. But one of my favourite characters here (and there are several to choose from)  is Karen’s acquaintance, Mrs Bishop–a woman who can’t adjust her notions of femininity to fit her own body:

Meg Bishop was a woman journalist who had written a series of books under the basic title of Meg Sees, all dealing with cataclysmic events in the modern world and ranging historically from the civil war in Spain to the present guerilla fighting in Greece. Ten years of association with brass hats and political bigwigs had effaced any lingering traits of effeminacy in her voice and manner. Unfortunately she did not choose to wear the tailored clothes that would be congruous with her booming, incisive voice and her alert, military bearing. The queenly mink coat that she wore, the pearls and the taffeta dinner gown underneath, gave her a rather shockingly transvestite appearance, almost as though the burly commander of a gunboat had presented himself in the disguise of a wealthy clubwoman.

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The Man of Fifty by Goethe

It’s not accurate to say I don’t care for Goethe, but it is accurate for me to admit that I haven’t bothered to read him in the past. For one thing, I am not a fan of German Romanticism, and then again there’s the ubiquitous Faust plot–a story that’s so pervasive it’s easy to imagine that you know it even if you haven’t read it.

This brings me to my copy of The Man of Fifty, published by Hesperus Press and bought simply because I liked the sound of the plot.

The Man of Fifty begins with a middle-aged major arriving at his sister’s estate. The major is there to arrange the transfer of property between family members and to finalize marriage plans between his son and his niece. The major is on the brink of retirement and in his imagination, he has the rest of his life planned out. His son’s marriage to his cousin, the daughter of a baroness, ensures that the family fortune will remain intact, and the seal of success is set for the next generation.  It’s a plan that seems to work for everyone, so the major is stunned when his sister tells him that her daughter Hilarie no longer wants to marry her cousin. Instead Hilarie has fallen in love with her uncle.

Well at this point, I had to stop and take stock of the situation. I’d heard of cousins marrying, but an uncle and his niece? That takes some time to absorb, so I took a breather before carrying on with the rest of the tale.

Hilarie does indeed claim to be in love with her uncle, a man she favours over her young, handsome cousin. After all, the girl hasn’t seen much of her cousin, but on the other hand she’s seen her uncle frequently. As a reader, it’s fairly easy to discern that Hilarie is infatuated, but in his turn the major is flattered. At first he’s stunned but then the idea grows on him and it also appeals to his vanity. Suddenly he finds himself less pleased with his appearance and worrying about ageing:

“Previously he had been perfectly happy with both his person and his servant; now, standing before the mirror, he did not like what he saw. He was no longer able to ignore the grey hairs, and even a few wrinkles suddenly seemed to have appeared, He brushed and powdered more than usual, but in the end he had to leave things as they were. Even the cleanliness of his clothes was no longer satisfactory, as he suddenly noticed lint on his coat and dust on his boots.”

Of course, this is a toxic situation, but the major runs with the idea of marriage to the girl intended for his son. Goethe asks: “Who would not have been seduced by this idea in the presence of such a beautiful young woman?”

The next day, a guest, an old friend comes to dine. He’s a remarkably well-preserved man, an actor who admits that some of his secrets to his seemingly youthful appearance can be found in his cosmetics bag. The actor upbraids the major for allowing his appearance to slip:

“For example, it is irresponsible,” he continued, “that your temples are already grey, that here and there your wrinkles are beginning to join up and that the crown of your head is threatening to grow bald.”

The actor then leaves the bag and his valet behind so that the major can have a makeover. The major, after all, wants to minimize his age now that he’s decided to court and marry his young niece.

Of course there’s a problem. What of the major’s son? How will he react to the news that his father has swiped his bride? The major rides off to break the news to his son only to discover that his son is in love with a beautiful older widow….

A Man of Fifty really is a delight–and this is due mostly to the silly behaviour of the novella’s main character. Reading the tale brought many other stories to mind–and these ranged from the unsuitable, bewitched lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the panting, lustful stupidity of many 20th century fictional males. But what’s so interesting here is that no one’s behaviour ever gets out of control. Just as the family property is sensibly transferred without the gnashing of teeth, there are no duels, no fights, and no wills are destroyed. Instead everyone acts perfectly civilized even as they fall in and out of love as easily as changing a suit of clothes.

Since this is a story about vanity, ego and ageing, more details of the major’s foibles would have been delightful–although I must admit that the sentence dropped about his tooth was sheer bliss. The novella is essentially gently comic, and we can all chuckle knowingly at the major’s foolishness as he switches from dreaming of ways to spend his peaceful retirement and rapidly adjusts to new images of himself as a hot commodity. But at the same time, the major is a sympathetic character. It’s fairly easy to identify with the major’s shifting emotions and sudden worry about ageing and growing old–especially with some particularly poignant passages written by Goethe who was also around his 50th year:

“At the threshold where he now found himself, he suddenly realised with great force that the years, which at first bring one beautiful gift after another, gradually begin to take them back. A missed vacation to the baths, a summer passed without enjoyment, an absence of the usual mobility, all this caused him to notice certain physical discomforts to which he took great offence and showed more impatience than was reasonable.

Just as for women it is deeply distressing when their formerly undisputed beauty is first called into question, so for men of a certain age, even if they still retain all their vigour, the faintest feeling of insufficient energy is extremely discomforting, indeed frightening.”

The foreword, written by A.S. Byatt discusses similar romantic issues (May-December relationships) in Goethe’s own life, and I always appreciate a bit of bio especially if it puts the story in context. The excellent introduction, written by translator Andrew Piper states:

“The slim volume of The Man of Fifty is the perfect counterweight to the ponderous bulk of the collected work perched imperiously on any library’s or scholar’s bookshelves.”

Piper argues that The Man of Fifty should have a “corrective effect” on our assumptions about Goethe, and he’s right; this slim novella certainly caused me to rethink Goethe. Now I can’t write this author off so easily,  and so I bought a copy of The Elective Affinities.

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