At a dinner given in honor of his eighty-fifth birthday, I heard Leonard Woolf say that there were two compensations for old age, First, after seventy you become subjectively better: minor ailments vanish and you feel more tonic. Secondly, after eighty you become objectively better: people who once disliked or ignored you now make a fuss of you simply because you are still there; even Queen Victoria, once hissed by the mob, became vastly popular in old age. That was an optimistic view; for a contrary view, take this typical case history given by a leading geriatrician (Alexander Leaf, Scientific American, September, 1973):
The patient, Mr. X, is eighty-one years old. A resident of the Dunhill Nursing Home, he has had two strokes, the first three years ago and the second a year ago. Since the last stroke he has been bedridden, incontinent and senile. He no longer recognizes members of his own family. For the past two years he has been eating poorly and failing generally. He was brought in last night by ambulance to our Emergency Service, where we found pulmonary congestion from a failing arteriosclerotic heart and pneumonia. Treatment was started with diuretics and digitalis for his congestive heart failure and high doses of penicillin for his pneumonia. This morning his fever is gone and he is breathing quietly.
Especially in the implication that pneumonia is no longer the moribund person’s friend, that is more gruesome than “From Marlborough’s eyes the streams of dotage flow,/And Swift expires, a driveller and a show,” if not as gruesome as some of the things in Kingsley Amis’s new novel. Leonard Woolf avoided such a fate presumably because he was continuously and busily employed, took exercise, was austere over food and drink, and was a gardener. And that’s probably the only way to avoid ending up as a miserable burden to self and others.
V.S. Pritchett is now in his seventies, active, well-loved, and optimistic; and he deals cheerfully with the topic of age in one of his new stories, “The Spree,” which begins:
The old man—but when does old age begin?—the old man turned over in bed and putting out his hand to the crest of his wife’s beautifully white rising hip and comforting bottom, hit the wall with his knuckles and woke up. More than once during the two years since she had died he had done this….
The first sentence is beautiful and there are many like it in the collection. Pritchett is a romantic writer in the simplest sense—he writes about love in its happiest aspects, and especially well about the process of falling in love. No one could fail to find his stories poetic and touching, but I confess that I am not deeply stirred by them. His world is too uncomplicated; in the end almost everyone gets off the hook, even the old man in “The Spree”; every problem seems to vanish. His women are charming objects, but they are…
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