Good old writers

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.

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The Widows of Eastwick

The Widows of Eastwick is a reminder of the extraordinary talent of John Updike. He died last month of cancer at the age of 76. This is his last book, published last year. But this doesn’t read like the work of an old man. It has all the zest for life and interest in sex only the young are expected to have.

Updike demythologizes old age. The heroines of this novel are getting on in years, but they are still active, lively and one of them still has a sex life. So did the two others until they were recently widowed.

Yes, The Widows of Eastwick is a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. I haven’t read that novel or seen the film. But this book recaptures the past through the women’s reminiscences.

The three women meet up thirty years after leaving Eastwick. They had remarried and lost their partners. Now they meet as widows. Alexandra, who is the central character, visits Egypt with Jane. And then Sukie joins them on a tour of China.

Then they revisit Eastwick with fatal consequences. There are other widows in the town who have not forgiven them their affairs with their late husbands. And they themselves feel guilty for the death of Jenny. The young woman married by their lover, Darryl Van Horne, who died of ovarian cancer after they had wished her dead through black magic.

A gay actor and his black magic

Now Jenny’s brother, Christopher, a gay, middle-aged actor, wants to settle scores with them. And he knows some deadly tricks, too, which he had learnt from Darryl.

Jane begins to get electric shocks after he comes to town, summoned by one of the local widows.

She suspects he is trying to kill her, but her friends don’t believe her until her pain grows worse, when she visits the doctor. Her friends then try to heal her through white magic, but in the middle of the ritual Jane passes out, spitting blood. She is rushed to hospital but can’t be saved. 

Sukie confronts Christopher and accuses him of killing her friend, and he does not deny it. He tells her Alexandra will be his next victim.

The seduction

Coolly, Sukie invites him to tea wanting to find out what he had learnt from Darryl. They end up dancing to In the Mood before a plainly disapproving Alexandra, who takes an instant dislike to their guest.

It all seems wildly improbable, but Updike knows how far to stretch credibility. There is nothing mysterious about the death of Jane, according to the doctors, who conclude she died of aneurysm of the aorta. The witches themselves are not sure of their powers. And there is a reckless streak in Sukie, which makes it perfectly natural for her to invite her friend’s supposed killer to tea.

It proves a clever move, for she ends up seducing him. Their sexual caper, which Alexandra discovers only much later, proves life-saving.

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Writing on sex and death at 91

Diana Athill is 91 years old and won the 2008 Costa prize for biography for her memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, where she talks about her love affairs, her work as a book editor, and what it means to be growing old. She helped Andre Deutsch – who was briefly her lover — establish his publishing house and edited writers such as VS Naipaul, John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys.

It was she who said when Naipaul left Andre Deutsch after she criticised his novel, Guerrillas: "It was as though the sun came out. I didn't have to like Vidia any more."

Click on this link for a YouTube video of an extraordinary interview she gave to the BBC on sex, old age and death. There she says:

When I was young, no one wanted to talk about death at all. Everyone was in full reaction against Victorian morbidity. And no one went to funerals… I hadn’t seen a dead body until I was 17… But it has completely changed now. It is as though a taboo has been removed. I suppose it’s because, with all getting old, everyone is suddenly thinking,‘It could be me next.’ I have found that, once this book was written, it became to my astonishment one book I have written that has really sold like hotcakes.

Is there a secret to successful ageing?

I would say it is a matter of pure luck. If your health holds out, there is no reason why it should be horrid…

I had a better time since I was 80.

Why?

Because in a way things matter much less. You don’t mind what people think about you. You are not embarrassed so easily… And when anything particularly good happens, it comes like a super treat because you weren’t expecting it. This book doing well has been for me an enormous treat from beginning to end. Still is. Look at me here (smiling)…

People ask quite a lot about when did sex stop being interesting. That rather obsesses people. Because when you are still a sexual being, the thought of stopping being a sexual being is quite painful. But of course, when it happens, if you stop wanting something, you don’t want it any more, so if it’s not there, you don’t mind.

Sex, Andre Deutsch and Philip Roth

She had sex in her 60s but “it was done with” by the way she was 70, she says in another BBC interview, available on audio.

There she talks about her relationship with Andre Deutsch.  She found it annoying that he used to stay up at night reading The Times newspaper. He was extremely self-centred, she says. But they continued working together.

She also talks about how Philip Roth was dropped by Andre Deutsch for poor sales. Roth went on to write his biggest bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint.