How Literature's Greatest Writers Saw Aging

Photo by Hulton Deutsch

Photo by Hulton Deutsch

The onset of middle age, and beyond, often prompts the second-guessing of old decisions. Some feel guilty about relationships pursued (or not pursued), while others wish they had followed an early passion or artistic impulse. In three separate letters, Beckett discusses his remorse about not going to work for the Guinness beer company in Dublin just as his middle-class father had repeatedly suggested. It’s a detail that many unfulfilled workers should ponder: A life as a successful musician, or All-Pro quarterback, or even as a Nobel Prize-winning writer for that matter, does not exempt one from the pangs of occupational regret. You can be brilliant; you can write Waiting for Godot, you can have an apartment in Paris and a house in the French countryside, and still wonder if you’d be happier being a 9-to-5 drone in a Dublin office cubicle.

And if aging feels like an unwanted visitor, it is a visitor who offers seemingly endless opportunities to wistfully compare and contrast the present with the alien landscape of one’s youth: It is the pull of nostalgia, loss, and fascination with time’s passing that creeps in. 

Aging is undoubtedly an intensely personal experience that gives everyone an opportunity to resist and accept its challenges in equal measures. No one can predict how they will feel upon turning the age that is like, in Lowell’s words, “the ceiling of one’s end.” Yet one can hope to possess, for example, the sound, sensible approach of Bishop, who wrote at the age of 56, “I minded being 35 very much, I remember, but haven’t been able to give a damn since—there are too many other things that one can do a little something about, possibly.” Then of course there is the Beckettian approach, which assumes you’ve been fortunate enough to have lived as long as he, and to have cultivated a certain gentlemanly détente with life and death, so that you have the perspective to confidently write, as he did about his wife’s death in 1989, “The end was gentle. The very end. Before the first rest at last.” He was writing about Suzanne Beckett, but once you’ve read and reflected on the man in these letters, it’s easy to suspect it is how he experienced his own last moments, his own gentle end, on a winter day in Paris, and just a few days before Christmas.

- Robert Fay via The Atlantic