D. J. Enright, literary critic, novelist, poet, with a reticence comparable to Stevie Smith, is not literally insufferable. His reluctantly autobiographical commonplace books have dressed my bedside for some years, and with good temper and a mood for his lightly worn erudition, they offer diversion from insomnious thought-spreading. Mood is all important; on another occasion he’ll bring out my deep-shrouded Ajax, desirous to purge myself of his insufferable pride, his manner of finding yet another oblique way of emphasising his scholarship. Such is the nature of insomnia.
In Injury Time he tells the story of when fellow literary critic Frank Kermode moved house a few years before his death:
“[Kermode] had boxes of books, inscribed first editions and valuable manuscripts, ready for the removal men. The three workmen to whom he showed the boxes were Cambridge dustmen called in to make a special waste clearance. Thirty boxes had been consigned to the dustcart before the mistake was realised. The dustmen declined to climb into the cart, which contained a mechanical crusher.”
James Wood, literary critic, also often insufferable, tells the same story, adding that Kermode “was left with only his cheapest paperbacks, and his collection of literary theory.”
This came to mind recently as I accidentally gave away a book I learnt a few days later was very valuable. As its value was only pecuniary I was able to recover my equanimity remarkably quickly.
Plato thought 50 an appropriate age to begin the study of philosophy. The Long Life is Helen Small’s pre-emptive (she admits to 42 at the time of writing her book) appraisal of old age in Western philosophy and literature.
Each of the chapters begins from a philosophical perspective – Platonic epistemology, Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, narrative theories of lives, rational arguments about life-planning and distributive justice, Parfit’s ‘Reductionist View’ of persons, one (far from standard) account of metaphysics, and recent arguments through a consideration of literary texts (Death in Venice, King Lear, Le Père Goriot, The Old Curiosity Shop, Endgame, poems by Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith, more recent novels by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Drabble, Michael Ignatieff).
Taking Beauvoir’s La Vieillese (1970) as her starting point, Helen Small, a professor of English Literature, attempts to “show what might be required if we are to become more seriously philosophical about old age”. Small’s close-reading of both philosophical and literary texts is frequently enlightening. Some chapters work better than others; her analysis, in particular, of Adorno’s late lectures on metaphysics, read against Dickens and Beckett, is vividly brilliant. The comparative reading of Parfit and Balzac yielded less. Her parallel reading of Coetzee and Roth is a remarkable work of literary criticism. It is an erudite and rewarding book.