The Long Life by Helen Small

Youth and Old Age – Antonio Ciccone (1960)

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.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

Limitations of Translation in Death in Venice

Again, Helen Smalls The Long Life illuminates an aspect that was inaccessible during my two readings of Death in Venice. Mann, like Goethe, requires German for a full appreciation.

In David Luke’s English translation, ‘ageing’ (alternd) is consistently rendered as an adjective: ‘the ageing Aschenbach’, ‘the ageing artist’, ‘the ageing lover’. The German original has ‘der alternde Künstler’, but in the other instances it is an adjectival noun. Not ‘the ageing Aschenbach’ or ‘the ageing lover’; just ‘dem Alternden’, ‘der Alternde’, ‘the Ageing’ (English can only render it adjectival lay as ‘the ageing one’). The effect is bleakly reifying, depersonalising, while at the same time suggesting another ‘ironic citation’ of Aschenbach’s manner-humiliated but looking to shore up his dignity. English, requiring a name or identity, loses the German language’s compaction of concept and individual, neutrality and involvement, and runs the risk of hardening irony into parody.

Aschenbach’s Culpability in Death in Venice

It is the abandonment of dialogue that does most damage to the Socratic model. Tadzio may be receiving an education in desire, but his responsiveness is always potentially a projection of Aschenbach’s wishes. Up until the point where cholera is known to be spreading through the city the lover’s silence is merely feeble (and a condition of proximity to the boy), but his failure to inform Tadzio’s mother of the danger of remaining in Venice makes him culpable. Fear of Tadzio’s removal from the scene overrules a basic moral obligation and feeds into the death-dealing strain in Aschenbach’s desire: that pulse of satisfaction when he sees the boy’s ‘brittle teeth’ and surmises that ‘he’ll probably not live to grow old’. The implication that a short life-expectancy for Tadzio establishes a kind of parity with Aschenbach’s own age, or that, if Aschenbach cannot have him, perhaps no one else shall-none of this is redeemed by any compensatory suggestions that Tadzio will never suffer as Aschenbach suffers.

This excerpt from Helen Small’s The Long Life, recorded as I’m not certain that I fully appreciated Aschenbach’s perfidy, and his culpability in Tadzio and his mother’s fate. I appreciate Death in Venice all the greater.