The Art of Old Age
Grand Central: 275 pp., $24.99
Nicholas Delbanco sits on a swivel chair in his second-floor writer's study, his back to the desk, knees bent slightly as he props his feet on the edge of a couch. He exudes energy and warmth, his conversation vibrantly self-aware. Elsewhere in the house his wife, Elena, is packing for a flight they'll be taking in a few hours to visit her father on Martha's Vineyard, so Delbanco says he can only talk for an hour or so. He has places to go, things to do.
Delbanco, whose prodigious writing has won him many honors, including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, turns 70 next year. The father-in-law he's off to visit, the cellist Bernard Greenhouse, a founder of the Beaux Arts Trio, passed his 90th birthday five years ago. Both men still create, though Greenhouse plays mostly for himself these days.
That relationship between aging and vital creativity has been consuming Delbanco for the last few years, resulting in his new book, "Lastingness: The Art of Old Age," a mix of rumination and personal exploration of what it is to grow old while remaining creatively vital.
"For obvious reasons, the subject of incremental old age and continued productivity is of incremental interest to me," Delbanco says with a wry smile. "My father died at 98. He was not a major painter, but he painted every day of his life. It's what kept him happily alive. My father-in-law … loses 20 to 30 years when he picks up the cello. So I've been watching old men, as it were, from a very close vantage and realizing that with luck I'll be one at some foreseeable future time and just wondering about what it will be like to keep at work."
What is lastingness? It's certainly a word that's off the beaten track; it seems to belong only to the literary world even though, as Delbanco says in his book, that quality of endurance, or durability, applies to the world at large. Our culture today, he points out, is less welcoming to the old than to the young. Not only do "first novels have a better chance of being noticed than a fourth or fifth," but supermodels, starlets, athletes and that neighbor of yours who just had a tummy tuck all battle "the harsh tyranny of time."
Within the arts, however, the word refers to creating at a high artistic level deep into the arc of life. Think Shakespeare, Giuseppe Verdi and Georgia O'Keefe. For a writer, the challenge is to find a way to stay relevant while remaining true to the artistic impulse. The book "Lastingness," then, is Delbanco's search for answers by turning to the careers of great artists who managed to achieve that — not only in literature but also art and music, artists who maintained a tremendous output of brilliant work late into life.
Delbanco himself has a prodigious creative history. "Lastingness" is his 25th book. His first novel, "The Martlet's Tale," came in 1966 when he was 23, and its critical reception launched him on a career that has included lengthy teaching stints at Vermont's Bennington College and the University of Michigan.
But past achievements, his book suggests, matter little. Creativity in the present is the ever-pressing issue for aging artists in a youth-centric culture — especially as medical advances keep artists alive and producing much longer than a century ago.
"Centenarians will be routine pretty soon, we're told, nonagenarians are no longer extraordinary, and octogenarians are running for the Senate," Delbanco says, adding that retirement is not the usual goal of the artist. "Self-definition has a lot to do with it. People are in a lifelong habit of approaching an easel, or a desk, or a cello, and they don't put it down that easily."
For his book, Delbanco picked age 70 as his cutoff. He surveys the lives of a few dozen artists who, for the most part, maintained high levels of creativity in their later years. People like the composer Verdi, who was legendarily long-lived and productive, and Pablo Picasso, who achieved more in his late years alone than most artists do over a full career.
Francisco Goya was another, though in his case encroaching isolation due to deafness and the external stimulus of war seemed to catalyze him to greatness as his works turned from light to dark. "What had been exuberance became misanthropy," Delbanco writes. "What once was cause for celebration was cause for grief."
Delbanco started out seeking a conclusion and in the end came up with nothing more significant than "it has to be deduced on a case by case basis." Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth remains out of reach even for those who could, in an artistic sense, create it. His focus is the wellspring of that creativity, and how it correlates to age. Early in the book, he addresses the pivot point of most artists' lives that eventually, for better or worse, defines them. It is the fulcrum between before and after — before marking the time when the artist was great, and after when the teeter began tottering.
The list of writers, for example, who should have sheathed the pen at an earlier age is gruesomely long. Delbanco includes Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald on that list, and he says he is contemplating a prequel — a book that would focus on artists who flamed out young. Still, what interests him more are those writers who create at a high level of quality over the span of a lifetime — the marathoners, not the sprinters. The legendary television producer Norman Lear, who had a house near Delbanco's when he was living in Vermont, is a marathoner.
"Every year he would come into our house — our kids were little — and he would say, 'Francesca, Andrea, see how much I've grown!'" Delbanco says. "He has a sense of lastingness."
Martelle, an Irvine-based writer and critic, is the author of the forthcoming "The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times