Just like a fine wine, some writ­ers im­prove with age

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Rose­maryGor­ing

Read­ing through pub­lish­ers’ cat­a­logues of what lies in store for read­ers in 2011, I was struck that many of the ones I found most en­tic­ing had one thing in com­mon. Among the of­fer­ings from the finest lit­er­ary writ­ers are a new novel by Ali Smith, a mem­oir of be­reave­ment by Joyce Carol Oates, and an ac­count by An­nie Proulx of build­ing a house. An­other one that prom­ises great things is Sarah Brown’s rem­i­nis­cences of life in Num­ber 10. All, you’ll note, are by women; and all the au­thors are – how to put this po­litely? – let us say, not in the first flush of youth.

As an al­most ex­act con­tem­po­rary of Smith, I men­tion that fact with­out flinch­ing. In fact I’m grow­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate how good it is to ac­cept the glo­ries of mid­dle age rather than tip­toe­ing anx­iously around in that limbo where it’s not quite clear if you have stepped over that in­vis­i­ble line be­tween rel­a­tive youth and un­de­ni­able ma­tu­rity, and still cling pa­thet­i­cally to any com­pli­ment that sug­gests the giver has mis­taken you for some­one five years younger.

With this new-found con­fi­dence in mind, I spent an en­joy­able af­ter­noon last week read­ing a mem­oir by writer and some­time colum­nist Jane Shilling, to be pub­lished later this month, all the while grum­bling out loud – a very aged thing to do – when­ever I dis­agreed with her. Which was of­ten.

Ti­tled The Stranger In The Mir­ror (Chatto & Win­dus, £16.99), this is Shilling’s ac­count of her mid­dle years, and the emo­tional strain of pass­ing from com­par­a­tive youth­ful­ness into that unglam­orous, of­ten mocked, zone of mid-for­ties and be­yond. A strong vein of melan­choly runs through this beau­ti­fully writ­ten, emo­tional work, as well as a great deal of self pity as Shilling mourns the loss of her looks and her op­tions.

For such an in­tel­li­gent woman, in­evitable phys­i­cal changes seem to pre­oc­cupy her dis­pro­por­tion­ally, and yet who can blame her for griev­ing. I doubt there’s a woman over the age of 40 who does not share some of those feel­ings. Where for men mid­dle-age rep­re­sents the zenith of achieve­ment, power and hence at­trac­tive­ness, the op­po­site re­mains true for women, no mat­ter how en­light­ened so­ci­ety thinks it has be­come.

How­ever, al­though it won’t re­move the sting of lost beauty, there is a book com­ing out this spring I would rec­om­mend to Shilling, and to ev­ery­one of a cer­tain age (men in­cluded), that may di­min­ish some of the sor­row of ad­vanc­ing years.

The Se­cret Life Of The Grown-Up Brain, by Bar­bara Strauch, ar­gues that far from dwin­dling with ev­ery pass­ing birth­day, the hu­man brain only reaches its finest hour in mid­dle age, a time frame that, more­over, is gen­er­ously de­fined, since in her ter­mi­nol­ogy it stretches to 69.

In the words of one Amer­i­can re­viewer, “Brains, like cer­tain French cheeses, get bet­ter with age.” Strauch, who is sci­ence edi­tor at The New York Times, has combed through re­cent re­search to dis­cover that mental agility and the abil­ity to process com­pli­cated ma­te­rial swiftly and ef­fec­tively is at its best in the years be­tween the early for­ties and late six­ties. Short-term me­mory may be less re­li­able, and the body on an in­ex­orable down­ward slope, but the mind it­self is in tip-top con­di­tion.

Might this ex­plain why so many of the best books on pub­lish­ers’ lists are from the ranks of the sil­ver-haired? From Ju­lian Barnes to AS By­att, Edna O’Brien to Philip Roth, su­perb fic­tion con­tin­ues to flow from long-serv­ing pens. One used to as­sume that older nov­el­ists con­tin­ued to pull off their old tricks be­cause they had a su­pe­rior wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence to draw on that mer­ci­fully re­duced their lit­er­ary hand­i­cap in the face of younger com­pe­ti­tion. This new re­search, though, might ex­plain why some older writ­ers ac­tu­ally im­prove with age. Not only do they have greater wis­dom to mar­shall, but they also know how most ef­fec­tively to use it. They may not be able to weed the flowerbeds with such ease, but their other plots are in fine fet­tle.

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