Nicholas Delbanco's "Lastingness: the Art of Old Age"

By Reeve Lindbergh
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 25, 2011; 10:59 AM


The Art of Old Age

By Nicholas Delbanco

Grand Central

261 pp. $24.99

Nicholas Delbanco's new book examines creative achievement in old age, though the author acknowledges that our culture concerns itself primarily with the young. We seem, nonetheless, ambivalent about age, expecting our leaders to evince a certain maturity. Delbanco, a distinguished literary figure since the mid-1960s, studies the later accomplishments of artists, writers and musicians over the centuries, from William Shakespeare to John Updike, from Claude Monet to Georgia O'Keeffe, from Franz Liszt to Eubie Blake. He does not confine himself to those whose best work was done toward the end of their lives, though he includes examples of such people, among them Monet, Yeats, Verdi, Goya and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (author of "The Leopard"). Nor does he focus exclusively on the truly old: Shakespeare, who wrote about old age with remarkable perception yet did not live to see it, also captures his attention.

Delbanco is primarily engaged in discovering how creativity continues into old age. He looks at geniuses of every art, from every era, scrupulously including both men and women while noting with regret that "the great bulk of recognized artists in our culture's history were men." The research is meticulous; the writer's observations are beautifully presented and deeply informed. His opinions are often delightful, if occasionally merciless. Of Thomas Hardy, he writes, "few authors have published so much that is splendid adjacent to so much that's bad"; of Hoelderlin's late verses, "This sort of easy rhyming and Hallmark-like simplicity is far removed from his previous work."

Delbanco has the clear-eyed courage to look at the final chapters of the creative lives of others and to admit that he is anticipating the final years of his own career. He writes in his introduction, "What interests me is lastingness: how it may be attained. For obvious reasons, this has become a personal matter; I published my first novel in 1966 and very much hope to continue." Setting aside debilitating illness or physical collapse, he wonders why some artists' work seems to diminish in quality or to fade into mere repetitiveness or self-parody. Other people continue to produce good work to the end, adjusting to the challenges of age as necessary. Cellist Pablo Casals left the physical rigors of concert performance behind him for the most part, turning to the somewhat less demanding tasks of composing and conducting yet remaining fully active within the world of his art until his death at the age of 97. Monet "took advantage of what might have seemed a deficit . . . he incorporated loss into artistic gain." Because of his increasing blindness and infirmity, in late life Monet remained at home in Giverny. There he painted his glorious last project, the series of water-lily paintings known as the Nympheas, which many critics believe to be his finest work.

O'Keeffe, who continued to paint into her 90s before she, too, lost her eyesight, is considered an iconic artist of the American Southwest, known for "brilliant light, the signature paintings of crosses and skulls, of cliffs and clouds and half-closed doors." Interestingly, Delbanco finds O'Keeffe's later years as an artist troubling. "Although both fame and solitude increased during her life's long closing act, the painter came - or so I think - to substitute gesture for substance, to reject and not remain available to change." It is not enough simply to endure and to be recognized. The artist must avoid rigidity, must stay fresh and open to possibility, if he or she is to achieve "lastingness."

Painter Alice Neel "remained unflinching, gimlet-eyed" in old age, and before she died "she trained her gaze - in one of her last portraits - on her own old naked body." Aurore Dupin, known to us as George Sand, enjoyed tobacco, wrote late into the night, and was hard at work on a novel and a collection of stories for children at the time of her death at 72. Giuseppe Verdi's opera "Falstaff" premiered in the composer's 80th year, and throughout his long life (he died at 87, in 1901) Verdi "was constantly productive, even if - in later years - he took his careful time."

Delbanco identifies a quality he calls "adaptive energy" in the old artists who continue to work, undaunted, to the last possible moment. He also credits them with originality, consistency and impatience, as "the old painter, musician, and writer have a shared distaste for every interruption." Passion is at work here, not only in the stories of a fascinating multitude of artists, but in the force and flow of the book itself. Readers of "Lastingness" will be eager for whatever comes next.

Reeve Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, including "Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures."

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