Who says old geezers can’t write? Some of them die with the sharpest minds. That’s certainly true of the literary critic Frank Kermode, who has just died at the age of 90.
Reading about his death yesterday, I turned to his essays published in the London Review of Books. You can’t tell his age from his essay on TS Eliot published in May this year. It is the work of an academic writing at the top of his form.
There are other old writers who have not lost their powers.
Let’s begin with the journalists.
The former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, 82, published a memorable autobiography. You can read here excerpts from his Paper Chase. The former Times editor William Rees-Mogg, 82, has not stopped writing either. The former Guardian editor Peter Preston, 72, a mere stripling compared to them, turns out a regular column. And let’s not forget the formidable New York Times columnist William Safire, who continued to write on language until he died at the age of 79 last year.
Novelists, also, can stay in top form to a ripe old age. PG Wodehouse was still working on a novel, Sunset at Blandings, when he died at the age of 93 on 14 February 1975. He was as entertaining as ever in his Bertie Wooster novel, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (published as The Cat-nappers in the US), which came out a year before his death.
I enjoyed reading Ways of Escape, the autobiography of Graham Greene (2 October 1904 – 3 April 1991), which was published in 1980, when he was in his 70s.
VS Naipaul (born on 17 August 1932) was almost 70 when he published Half a Life in 2001 and came out with the sequel, Magic Seeds, in 2004. Bleak and spare as they are, they are still worth reading.
John le Carre (born on 19 October 1931) was 76 when he published A Most Wanted Man two years ago. It’s eminently readable though not in the class of The Honourable Schoolboy or as entertaining as Smiley’s People.
Somerset Maugham (25 January 1874 — 16 December 1965) wrote to a ripe old age before he died at 91. The Razor’s Edge was published in 1944, when he was 70.
John Updike (18 March 1932 – 27 January 2009) published the marvellous The Widows of Eastwick only a year before he died at 76.
Elmore Leonard (born on 11 October 1925) is 84 and continues to write crackling good crime stories.
PD James (born on 3 August 1920) is 90 and published two fine whodunits in the last five years – The Lighthouse, in 2005, and The Private Patient in 2008.
Ruth Rendell (born on 17 February 1930) is still going strong at 80 with several books to her credit in recent years.
Thank God for good old writers, who give us lifelong pleasure.