Top 10 books about old men

From King Lear to Père Goriot, Monet’s biographer chooses some of the best portrayals of men who hold our attention at an age when most writers are no longer interested

Are history and literature no country for old men? The demographics of literary heroes can be a bit depressing for anyone over a certain age. It’s easy to find books about school days, comings of age, first kisses, great expectations, artists as young men, the faults in our stars. The middle-aged, especially middle-aged men in full crisis mode, likewise get their share of attention: thank you Richard Ford, Martin Amis, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen, John Updike and several thousand others. But what about older people, those in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who don’t want merely to be plot devices in rocking-chairs, encumbered with memories and regrets, reminiscing about what happened many decades earlier when their lives were actually interesting?

As I researched and wrote Mad Enchantment, my biography of the last dozen years in the long life of Claude Monet, I was struck by the painter’s vigour, fortitude, ambition and (if I can declare some personal interest) sheer narrative traction. Monet in those years, his 70s and 80s, was very much an old man in a hurry, emerging from self-imposed retirement on the eve of the first world war to create some of the most daringly experimental pigmentary effects he had ever attempted. He offers proof that an eightysomething can propel a narrative without an author having to resort to wistful recollections of a vanished prime. So what other older men appear in literature on their own terms, holding our attention with all their wisdom, folly and singularity? Here, in random order, are some of my favourites.

1. The Knot of Vipers (Le Nœud de vipères) by François Mauriac (1932)
Mauriac’s novel takes the form of a written confession by a wonderfully malevolent and calculating narrator, a miserly barrister whose final ambition, following a lifetime of avarice and hatred, is to disinherit his equally greedy children. Yet, as his plotting unfolds, this appalling paterfamilias slowly uncoils the knot of vipers in his heart and reveals his life to be one of haunting tragedy, deep pathos, and even a redeeming love. Not everyone will appreciate the whiff of incense at the end – Mauriac certainly had his share of detractors, including those on the Catholic right – but the journey is absolutely mesmerising.

2. Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler (1997)
Here we have another gruesome protagonist propelled through the pages by a search for revenge. In response to the impending autobiography of a former friend, TV producer Barney Panofsky, in an act of self-exculpation, tries to piece together his life story. Both his life and the autobiography are, as he admits with diverting frankness, a shambles, encompassing a trio of wives, various cuckoldings and a possible murder. His attempts are marred by the fact that he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, a diagnosis that results in an compellingly unreliable narrator. Wonderful, spleen-venting satire from a great literary curmudgeon.

3. Inferno, Canto 26 by Dante (circa 1314)
Ulysses may get only 52 lines of text, but he sets the canto alight. Dante manages to chronicle an epic voyage in this short passage, describing an aged Ulysses and his equally elderly seafaring companions leaving behind the comforts of home (Penelope apparently did all that waiting around for nothing) and daring to sail beyond the boundaries of the known world. Spoiler alert: this “foolish flight” ends badly, but the episode features some of the most affecting passages in the entire Divine Comedy. Ulysses is in hell, thanks to a certain trick with a wooden horse, but there’s no doubting Dante’s sympathy with and admiration for the old boy.

4. On Old Age by Cicero (44 BCE)
Through his mouthpiece, Marcus Cato, Cicero talks about the techniques and benefits of ageing. Along the way, we get pleasing vignettes of many indefatigable ancients: Isocrates, who was still penning books in his 90s, and a certain Gorgias of Leontini, who lived to be 107 “without ever relaxing his diligence or giving up work”. He also tells the marvellous story of the aged Sophocles neglecting his household affairs so he can keep writing his plays. Hauled before the courts by his children, who want him declared mentally unfit to manage his property, Sophocles offers the ultimate riposte: he reads the judges his latest play, Oedipus at Colonus, then demands to know if it sounds like the work of a man of unsound mind. Case dismissed.

5. Lettres à une Amie, 1923-29 by Georges Clémenceau (1960)
Clémenceau met Marguerite Baldensperger when he was 81 and she was the 40-year-old married wife of a Sorbonne professor grieving for her dead daughter. “We must recapture our zest for life,” he told her. “We must fight. I shall help you. Put your hand in mine. I’ll help you to live and you will help me to die.” But he was by no means ready to die. The two of them conducted a secretive (and platonic) liaison. He wrote almost 700 letters to her in the last six years of his life, chronicling a flourishing old age: gadding about the countryside in his Rolls-Royce, entertaining dignitaries at his seaside bungalow, and coaxing Claude Monet to finish his water lily paintings. A zest for life indeed.

A portrait of Gregorio Fuentes in 2001 Fuentes was captain, cook and friend to Ernest Hemingway. Many say he was the inspiration for the protagonist in The Old Man and the Sea.
A portrait of Gregorio Fuentes in 2001. Fuentes was captain, cook and friend to Ernest Hemingway and many say he was the inspiration for the protagonist in The Old Man and the Sea. Photograph: Jose Goitia/AP

6. King Lear by William Shakespeare (circa 1606)
The inevitable template for all stories of aged fathers dealing with selfish children, from Balzac and Mauriac to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991). Recent speculation puts Lear’s difficulties down to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. But his problems didn’t begin with age, and his senility – such as it might be – is hardly his defining trait (and, tellingly, it’s not deployed by either Kurosawa or Smiley). As Goneril and Regan pointedly note, their father was always a bit bonkers at the best of times and old age has only exacerbated “the imperfections of long-engrafted condition”.

7. Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (1835)
Goriot is fond and foolish like Lear, but endlessly patient and loving. He impoverishes himself to help out his two greedy, frivolous daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, who almost make Goneril and Regan look like paragons of filial gratitude. Balzac lays it on thick in the deathbed and funeral scenes, giving us (like Mauriac) a bleak view of a money- and status-obsessed society tragically adrift from its familial moorings.

8. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
The poet John Shade is not exactly old: he has died, we learn from the “Foreword”, a few weeks past his 61st birthday. But his 999-line poem is an eloquent and moving meditation on death, loss, age (including the logistics of shaving a dewlap) and the afterlife. The fantastical and famously baffling commentary – with its obsessions with political machinations in faraway Zembla – tends to make readers overlook the dastardly brilliance of the Shade/Nabokov poem. Here’s Shade on 40 years of marriage: “Four hundred thousand times/The tall clock with the hoarse Westminster chimes/Has marked our common hour. How many more/Free calendars shall grace the kitchen door?”

9. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” How can we not cheer on Santiago, the luckless fisherman, 84 days without a catch, who on day 85 hooks the huge marlin far off the coast of Cuba? Hemingway was only in his early 50s when he wrote the novel, but it’s tempting to read his own plight – poor health, writer’s block, a spate of vicious reviews – in to that of the struggling Santiago. Luckily, The Old Man and the Sea turned out to be Hemingway’s literary marlin. He then landed the Pulitzer and, in 1954, the Nobel prize.

10. Old Filth by Jane Gardam (2004)
The first in a wonderful trilogy (with The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends) about the courteous but astringent Sir Edward Feathers. Gardam gives a pitch-perfect portrait of this long-time expat, retired QC, and bravely grieving widower whose shoes “shone like conkers”. His white-knuckle motorway odyssey to Teesside in his Mercedes in the wake of his wife’s death is a hilarious, poignant and impeccably unsentimental portrait of discombobulation, loss and unbowing determination.


Ross King

The GuardianTramp

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