Variations on a theme: Books about old people
Even though there aren't many senior citizens in contemporary lit, there are still a handful of amazing books about them-and a couple of them aren't even cranks! Here's a list of our favorites.
Mon Dec 22 2008
In his latest book, How to Live, Henry Alford gathers knowledge from an often-overlooked demographic: old people. Their wealth of experience, the theory goes, makes them not just interesting but wise. This idea goes back to our oldest stories: Nestor, the elder warrior in Homer’s Odyssey, is known for his sage advice. But if old people are smart, not many modern writers are looking to them for inspiration. There just aren’t that many senior citizens in contemporary lit, and when one does show up, he’s often a young, lusty dude stuck in a geezer’s body (see Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal). Still, there are a handful of amazing books about seniors—and a couple of them aren’t even cranks! Here’s a list of our favorites.
Old Masters: A Comedy, by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Ewald Osers
Two old friends meet at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, in front of Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man. Reger, a musicologist, proceeds to rant about Austria’s public restrooms, spoken-word performances, ex-associates and so on. Though it’s as bilious as any Bernhard novel, Old Masters occasionally radiates a hard-won appreciation for art (the titular painters), and an intense bout of mournful appreciation for a lost wife.
Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym
Even the younger characters in this British novelist’s work tend to act beyond their years, but Quartet in Autumn is the real geriatric deal, capturing four office friends, two of whom are approaching retirement. With gentle yet undeniable wit, this book (like most by Pym) takes a mundane situation and makes it shimmer with thoughts about friendship, awkwardness and the different ways that people age.
Great Granny Webster, by Caroline Blackwood
In this novella about a young woman who goes to live with her great-grandmother, Blackwood offers a sizzling portrait of a Scottish paragon of humorlessness and self-imposed discomfort, qualities that only seem to intensify with age.
Coming of Age, by Studs Terkel
Here, the master of the oral history talks with 69 Americans over the age of 70 (some famous, some not). In the process, Terkel captures the major experiences, hardships and accomplishments of 20th-century America, and just in time—how quickly we forget.
Man in the Holocene, by Max Frisch, translated by Geoffrey Skelton
An arty and strange portrait of an elder’s attitude—and of a brain on the fritz. First published stateside in The New Yorker in 1980, Swiss author Frisch’s late-career novella follows an old widower named Geiser as he slouches toward oblivion in his Alpine home. To ward off his advancing forgetfulness, he clips entries out of math books and encyclopedias, tacking them to so much of the wall that he has to take down a painting of his deceased wife.
Assisted Loving, by Bob Morris
In this droll and sometimes touching memoir, a gay writer helps his Republican widower dad look for love—and learns a thing or two about romance in the process.
Henry Alford hangs out with geezers—and loves it.