Lastingness: The Art of Old Age by Nicholas Delbanco; Grand Central, 261 pages ($24.99). The title, to be sure, couldn't be clunkier. Why not instead some of the words Delbanco finds in the word's entry in the Oxford English Dictionary: Continuance or Duration or Durability or Constancy or Perseverance?
But then there is something inherently clumsy in the prevailing American view of Delbanco's very subject, which is the art of old age.
We live in a post-TV era where Madison Avenue has successfully instituted, over the past half-century-plus, a conviction that to be older is to be marginalized, while, writes Delbanco (whose first novel was published 45 years ago), "America grows older yet stays focused on its young first novels have a better chance of being noticed than a fourth or fifth Still, we join the workforce older; we get married and have children older; we live, the actuaries tell us, longer than ever before."
So here is the novelist/critic writing about a subject that has captured so many, from Aldous Huxley to the great Palestinian/American critic Edward Said. Delbanco's thumbnail portraits in longevity are many and varied: Thomas Hardy, Franz Joseph Haydn, Henri Matisse, Henry Moore, Alice Neel, George Sand, Clara Schumann, Leo Tolstoy and Ralph Vaughan Williams are among those treated briefly.
Of more length and substance are portraits of Pablo Casals, Claude Monet, Georgia O'Keeffe, Franz Liszt, William Butler Yeats, Giuseppe Verdi, Francisco de Goya and Giovanni Lampedusa.
"The older artist" to Delbanco "need not be a monstrous amalgam of ego and need, a drunk or incompetent fool. As most of my portraits suggest, it's possible -- perhaps increasingly so -- to change in fruitful ways with age, to equate maturation and growth." His old teacher John Updike wrote, just before his own death, "who wouldn't want to keep writing forever, and to try to make books that deserve to last?"
-- Jeff Simon