Arts & Events

Book Review: LASTINGNESS: The Art of Old Age
By Nicholas Delbanco
Grand Central Publishing, 2011 (261 pages; $25)

Reviewed by Dorothy Bryant (
Tuesday March 08, 2011 - 10:26:00 PM

At seventy, Nicholas Delbanco has racked up forty years of teaching and two dozen books of fiction and non-fiction. He has served as director of creative writing programs and prestigious literary panels and has himself been awarded several grants and honors. 

In other words, he seems to exemplify the title of his latest book, LASTINGNESS. Don’t be misled by the subtitle, The Art of Old Age. This is not one of those how-to books on the “art” of staying active while getting through the inevitable decrepitude in our move toward death. By “The Art of Old Age,” he means literally the art created (or, in some cases, abandoned) by artists in their later years, how the work changed in subject matter, in vigor, and in rate of productivity. His wide and deep knowledge of art and artists, and, no doubt, his years of teaching and lecturing, enable him to take the reader on a seemingly casual, almost breezy trip through Western art, touching on writers from Shakespeare to Lampadusa, composers from Bach to Liszt, graphic artists from Goya to O’Keefe. 

He barely mentions performance art. Musicians like Casals get a nod simply to remind us of how lucky creative artists—writers, painters, composers—are, compared to performers—singers, musicians, dancers, actors—whose bodies tend to give out at the point where expressive intelligence may be at its height. 

He takes a neutral, even kindly view of the lastingness of one artist and the quick burnout and/or early death of another. “Lady Luck has much to do with this. There’s the luck of robust health or available medical treatment,” which might have kept Mozart and Schubert alive past 30, or the luck which might have helped Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen dodge the bullets that killed them in World War I. Similarly, what if the poet Holderlin and Virginia Woolfe and Vincent Van Gogh could have been treated with anti-depressants without dulling their muses? Beethoven was no burn-out, but would his late work have been different if he could have obtained a good hearing aid? 

Before the 20th century, few artists had the good luck of a healthy old age, like Thomas Hardy, who stopped writing novels in his seventies, went back to his first love, poetry, and managed to write a body of work that pointed the way for the next generation of poets. Would more years have added anything to the youthful bursts of genius of Keats or Mozart? Were the late paintings of long-lived Titian better than the early ones? The verdict is still out—if we have any business reaching a verdict on any of them. 

After denying anyone’s authority in these matters, least of all his, Delbanco comments on how some artists, handed a lemon, as the old saying goes, made lemonade. 

He points out that Monet painted his famous “Waterlilies,” (which you’ve seen reproduced on about a million greeting cards) after his eyes began to fail; outlines of shapes blurred, but colors became bright explosions. He gives us a fuller portrait of Clara Schumann, not just the wife of Robert, but a first-rate composer in her own right, living in a culture determined to crush such inappropriate aspirations in women. (Brahms adored her, but never went to bat for her.) So she supported mad Robert and their seven children by concertizing (for about 60 years), acknowledged as the greatest pianist of the century in Europe, her playing, as one contemporary critic wrote, “characterized by an entire absence of personal display, a keen perception of the composer’s meaning, and an unfailing power of setting it forth in perfectly intelligible form.” 

Delbanco makes no general judgments about longevity, only gives examples to illustrate how impossible it is to make such judgments. Verdi got better and better with age, his final opera “Falstaff,” a masterpiece. Rossini composed only long enough to make his fortune, then quit and lived high on the money for the rest of his life. Yeats wrote his best poems after he got the Nobel prize. Tolstoy spent his last years in crazy attempts to go “holy,” repudiating his great novels and adopting his version of peasant garb. (I’ve often thought his final years resembled a novel by Dostoevsky, whose work he disliked.) 

Toward the end of the book Delbanco tentatively offers some “lessons to be learned” about the way many artists respond to the longer old age that we (of the more industrialized, safer countries) can expect. As a writer who has been at it for fifty years, long past the life span I expected, my experience supports what he says: 

1. “The hunger for applause” diminishes. From other writers and artists I hear echoes of my own feelings: setting up a gallery show is tedious and boring; doing a bookstore reading to promote your book no longer boosts the ego; I’ve given up expecting to learn anything from reviews; as for doing the once-prized interview on TV—worst of all, since the interviewer probably never heard of you or your latest book. 

2. “The process is rewarding no matter the result.” Or, as I say to friends during their or my times of personal tribulations, the work never fails you, the habit of just sitting down every day and struggling through it, like an athlete doing her workout. The work itself puts everything in perspective, takes you back to your center. 

3. Delbanco’s final lesson surprised me; I had thought it was just my own guilty secret. It is his coolness toward the assertion that healthy-minded old people must seek out social opportunities, stay healthy with organized group activities, adapted to their needs: dancing, travel, etc. I’m not anti-social. I like meeting new people and seeing old friends. In small doses: after I’ve taken notes on a possible story, or written a review of a book I liked, or started a rewrite of something I thought was finished, or taken courage and attempt a poem (who, me?) or even the long novel I doubt my memory cells can handle anymore. 

Yes, I confess, and Delbanco confirms—approvingly—artists are less people-centered than work-centered, and, he says, old age is served well by the habit of working. “The old painter, musician and writer have a shared distaste for every interruption. The art of old age is discourteous; it has less time to lose.”