Neck trouble, philosophy and defiance: A literary guide to middle age

Our middle years have had a makeover thanks to some excellent recent literature

Anne O'Neill: I was 50 on my last birthday. Photograph: Ciara O'Donnell

Anne O'Neill: I was 50 on my last birthday. Photograph: Ciara O'Donnell

 

Last summer I had my 50th birthday. Fifty, which Victor Hugo called the youth of old age and is, according to George Orwell, the age at which everyone has the face they deserve.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60 about mortality rang in my ears as I watched the waves break on Barrow beach, reminding me that “our minutes hasten to their end” and that the cruel hand of time “doth transfix the flourish set on youth/ And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow”. Parallels which for me, a needle-phobic, will never be erased or smoothed by the paralysis of botulinum toxin but will deepen with passing years.

Like Wilde said, “to get back to my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early or be respectable”. Maudlin with nostalgia and wine I danced the night and the heartache away to Bryan Ferry in Trinity College. The lights, the soft rain and the haunting songs conspired to transport me back to 1988, albeit for a brief, whimsical hour. In Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow he writes that “as the 50th birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick.” John Banville wrote in Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir that Seán Mac Réamoinn told him he was like the census, “broken down by age, sex and religion”.

Middle age with its perceived vicissitudes has got a makeover in recent years with some excellent books by Rachel Cusk, Jane Shilling and Deborah Levy which redefine life in the sixth decade. As ever, the poets and writers offer consolation to the reader hitting a landmark birthday and can helpfully prod us on to the next decade, propelled by the Beckettian mantra: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron in New York in 1998. File photograph: Librado Romero/The New York Times
Nora Ephron in New York in 1998. Photograph: Librado Romero/New York Times

This stylish essay collection by the sassy Ephron hits the right note of self-deprecation and charming prose. The title essay confronts the topic of the ageing neck, the feature that most reliably betrays a woman’s age. “You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.” Ephron is gifted with observation which triggers instant recognition in the reader. A standout is the essay I Hate My Purse, which will resonate with any woman who has a large leather bag for carrying around essentials but instead is filled “with a morass of Tic Tacs, solitary Advils, lipsticks without tops, Chap Sticks of unknown vintage . . . and an unprotected toothbrush that looks like it has been used to polish silver”.

The Stranger in the Mirror by Jane Shilling

Shilling begins her memoir by stating that as a woman approaching middle age she can no longer find “her own experience as a woman reflected in the culture”. At all the other stages of her life, through her teens and onwards, she saw female contemporaries smiling back at her from the pages of fashion magazines; radio and television featured stories about women her age; bookshops offered the female experience in myriad narrative forms. Shilling writes that “at the onset of middle age, all of a sudden, there was apparently no one like me at all. Like the children of Hamelin led away into the mountain cavern, we had all vanished.”

The book’s jacket features a photograph of the author naked, echoing a pose once famously adopted by Simone de Beauvoir. It shows her defiance to going quietly into the invisibility cloak of middle age. In this quirky memoir, Shilling shares her beautifully expressed thoughts on love and ageing, writes about the accumulated small losses of middle age, discusses the novels of Colette, Joanna Trollope and Anthony Trollope, and explores Madame Bovary and the uninspiring clothing range in M&S. Shilling writes this memoir with candour and vows, as Montaigne put it, to “tell the truth, as much as I dare – and as I grow older I dare a little more”.

Shilling feels gripped by the whirling sense of being swept into a liminal state, that of middle age, and craves a fictional prototype to give her a lead, “someone to make the process seem coherent, shapely, resonant, rather than confused and disorderly”. Joan Didion stated that we need stories in order to live. This memoir will make you ruminate about life’s midpoint and recognise in Shilling’s reflections glimpses of your own truths, which could make you view the stranger in the mirror in a slightly different way.

Outline, Transit and Kudos by Rachel Cusk

Author Rachel Cusk. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Author Rachel Cusk. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Rachel Cusk has always written about the female experience in her fiction. I initially happened across her novel Saving Agnes in 1993 and was immediately hooked on her depiction of life as a young woman negotiating temping life and stultified by post-college ennui. Savage criticism followed the publication of Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, which was a truthful account of the collapse of her marriage, written with her characteristic wry humour. Some critics took issue with the fact that someone would plough the minutiae of their own life and betray confidences and relationships for art’s sake. Cusk has stated that she entered a period of creative death after such criticism and decided to craft a new form of autobiography.

In Outline, published in 2014, Cusk found a new sort of protagonist. She distanced herself from the story, which is narrated by Faye, who is a woman like Rachel (middle-aged, a writer, a mother, recently divorced), and thus entered the autofiction avant-garde of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti. The novels in what became the Outline trilogy are about a marriage ending and a woman “trying to find a different way of living in the world”.

Faye mainly transcribes her encounters with other people and is less a descriptive novelist than a recording device or a processing machine. The reader feels like an eavesdropper on strangers’ stories told with casual philosophy. Allowing these stories to wash over you has the effect of seeing the beauty in the ordinary, the pearls in the quotidian, the wisdom in ageing.

Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya

Setiya, an academic philosopher, felt at 41 afflicted by “a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear”, all emotional components of the midlife crisis. He suggests that Dante might have had one at the age of 35. (“Midway on life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost.”) The term “midlife crisis” was coined by a psychologist named Elliott Jaques in 1965 and the stereotypical salve of “fast cars and wild affairs” is a highway to nowhere, according to Setiya.

This personal and introspective book, a humorous mix of self-help and intellectual inquiry, aims to show that philosophy holds the answers, with its reflective ways of dissolving the negative emotions and showing a path through the tangled undergrowth of ennui. In these pages Setiya instructs on the philosophical consolations of mortality, finding answers in John Stuart Mill – “those only are happy . . . who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness” – and Buddhism, which teaches him to live “in the halo of the present”.

Not For Me a Youngman’s Death by Roger McGough

Roger McGough
Roger McGough

In Roger McGough’s poetry collection, As Far As I Know, the poet, who is now in his 80s, grapples with ageing as he gazes back on the old terrain of youth. In his early 20s he wrote a poem called Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death, when living fast and dying young a la James Dean was his youthful refrain. In that poem, published in 1967 by Penguin Modern Poets, McGough wishes for a cinematic, dramatic death, where he’s shot to pieces by gangsters or chopped up by a jealous lover, or at the age of 73 is “mown down at dawn/ by a bright red sports car/ on my way home/ from an allnight party”. He wanted to avoid at all costs a peaceful passing, “a free from sin tiptoe in/ candle wax and waning death/ not a curtains drawn by angels borne/ ‘what a nice way to go’ death”.

Carol Ann Duffy invited him to revisit this poem through the lens of old age and he wrote Not For Me a Youngman’s Death. This reworking and reimagining of his youthful poem has resulted in a much more zen affair where the poet, having enjoyed a long, fruitful life, has no desire for a big bang exit. The irony in his latter-day poem is pointed.

“My nights are rarely unruly. My days
of allnight parties are over, well and truly.
No mistresses no red sports cars
no shady deals no gangland bars
no drugs no fags no rock n’ roll
Time alone has taken its toll”

His youthful devil-may-care attitude and longing to go out like a rock star have been replaced by a wish to go gently into the dark night without the drama of “a car crash, whiplash/ John Doe, DOA at A&E kind of death”. McGough’s worldview has been tempered by time; the poet has made an accommodation with the ageing process and writes:

“I used to
scintillate
now I sin
till ten
past three”

Why French Women Feel Young at 50 … and how you can too by Mylène Desclaux

This is the latest tome from our Gallic sisters, who have form when it comes to preaching to women of other nationalities on how to upfrench their lives; to dress with Parisian chic; to eat in a manner that will transform your figure into that of a svelte assistant editor of Vogue, and to rear children using an invisible civilising force that creates toddlers who don’t do tantrums.

As a Francophile I’m a rabid consumer of these books, so my attention was immediately piqued by this title from Mylène Desclaux, who started this book as a blog on her 50th birthday as she reeled from a relationship breakup and an empty nest. She began a journey of reinvention and self-discovery, emboldened by her therapist’s advice that “age is an abstraction”.

She advises as a cardinal rule to never mention your age and that there is no advantage in broadcasting this number. I have already flagrantly broken this rule and le chat is very definitely out of the age bag. She advises against wearing reading glasses as they are very ageing and that when confronting a restaurant menu with myopic horror to just order one of the specials of the day. Her chapters have humorous titles like “How to find a 50-year-old man at 50” and the book is a treasure trove of positive advice on life, love, sex and spirituality, with more than a soupçon of playful irony.

Ultimately this book has advice that might be more pertinent to a woman living on the Boulevard St-Michel who sips her coffee in Les Deux Magots and mightn’t translate as well to those of us Liffey-, Lee- or Shannonsiders who don’t take our coffee in the haunts of Camus and de Beauvoir.

View Desclaux as that elegant Frenchwoman who you meet poolside on holidays and bond with over a glass or two of rosé, a little bit Carla Bruni with just a hint of Juliette Binoche. There are moments of profundity: “Sometimes when I’m lost in my bad dreams, I’m on the edge of the chasm, my arms let go, the rope snaps and I wobble. I find myself begging the gods, telling them how much I want to stay at the top, alive, loving, loved, magnetised, aware of each moment.”

I enjoyed the fun and acerbic tone of the book, which definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously and certainly blasted away the ennui of hitting the half-century. The laugh-out-loud moments fulfil the Shakepearean mantra: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”

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