For me, getting old without books is unthinkable. Macular degeneration? I’ll listen to books on tape. If my hearing goes, I’ll learn Braille.
That said, with new books I’m a hard sell. No magic realism, no experiments with time and space for me, thank you. Nice lady on the screen, I’m real tough on fluff and crap. And bad writing? Forget it. If time’s running out, I don’t want to waste it. I still have War and Peace, Ulysses, and all of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past to get through: that’s a lot of pages. Not to mention Dante’s Inferno. (Well, maybe I’ll let that one go.)
On the other hand, I’m also extremely loyal. When a writer hooks me, I’m his or hers till death do us part, even through the rougher spots. One such writer, still very much alive, is Louis Begley — to whom I pledged my troth in 1991 after I read his first book, Wartime Lies. (To me perhaps his best. Read it yourself if you haven’t. 174 exceptional pages. )
I bring him up here because in between books, he can occasionally be found on the Opinion Pages of The New York Times — writing a piece with “Age” or “Old” in its title. This is not surprising; he’s pushing 81.
I save those pieces. Print them out and put them in a folder marked “Getting Old.” (A habit left over from life in the law.) And now — what a coincidence! — they can come out of the folder and go online.
I’m just a babbler about aging. He’s a master. Bet he’ll make you cry.
Old Love by Louis Begley
[Published August 11, 2012 in The New York Times Sunday Review: The Opinion Pages]
Years ago, when I was a callow 39, I had lunch with a college friend whose intellectual authority over me was considerable; we lunched together often, at least once a month. On that particular occasion I put to him a question that embarrassed me: what if one is deeply in love with a young woman — which was my case — and with age her beauty fades. Will her attraction fatally diminish? Might it be replaced by a sort of repulsion? For instance, when her skin withers and wrinkles, will I still want to kiss the crook of her arms, those arms that I so admire, and, if gallantry pushed me to do so, will I have to avert my eyes?
My friend knew of my fastidiousness and passion for feminine beauty. His usual mode of expression involved elaborate metaphors that snaked around whatever subject was under discussion. This time, however, he got right to the point: “Both you and she,” he said, “will change. You will change in tandem. You won’t see her with the eyes of a young man, but instead with those of someone who is 75 or 80. The eyes of an old man. Your only worry should be that she may throw you out first!”
My friend was right, except that the skin of the Lady in Question, which I believe I still see with the eyes of youth, has remained as beautiful and as capable of moving me as ever.
A secret I have kept until now, however, is my suspicion that sometimes when I look at her today I substitute the image from a photograph taken almost 40 years ago in the garden of a villa on a Greek island, and that when she sees me she performs a similar operation. (By the way, I believe that the Lady in Question is keeping me; she has decided against sending me away.) And I love the Lady in Question as strongly as when we decided to join our lives. The difference is that I am convinced that I love her better: more tenderly and less selfishly. In the not-so-small group of persons I love — children and grandchildren — she comes first.
The love for the Lady in Question, I am honored to report, continues to include sex, which gives us no less joy and pleasure than our embraces in our long ago salad days, and matters to us just as much. Of course, I foresee — and I am certain that she does, too — a time in the future when we will be content and grateful for being able simply to hold each other in our arms.
The new element in our relationship, if I look only at myself, is having been purged of most of my selfishness and egocentricity. She had no need for such cleansing. I no longer ask myself whether everything has been arranged as I would wish it to be. I have a new goal: making sure that the wishes of the Lady in Question have been fulfilled, that I have done all I can to make her laugh or smile. My study is to be attentive, to please and to praise.
Because my lunchtime friend had put me in my place with so much energy, I didn’t ask him the other question that troubled me at the time. If I was in fact as aloof and lacking in warmth as certain young women toward whom I had indeed cooled would claim, and not simply shy, which was my assessment, would not old age turn me into a monster of indifference, detached from everything that didn’t affect my creature comforts?
I needn’t have worried. The opposite has happened: I have turned into a sort of holy fool, moved quite literally to tears by the kindness of strangers, the happiness of couples, the beauty in June of the garden I share with the Lady in Question, the good looks of our grandchildren, the intelligence and refined manners of my cat, and the nest tucked into the trumpet vine that climbs the wall of one of our outbuildings in which four newly hatched gray catbirds are learning to spread their wings.
It could not be otherwise. Only a real fool reaches my age without finding that his every third thought is of the grave. Bare ruined choirs, the twilight that black night takes away, ashes of my youth: even in June, when boughs that shake against the cold seem inconceivably distant, those premonitory images, reminders that my time with the Lady in Question has a term, refuse to leave me.
Couplets that end Shakespeare’s sonnets often give lie to the old saw that they are throwaway rhyming lines written solely to satisfy the requirements of the form. The couplet that concludes Sonnet LXXIII is a case in point and sums up my feelings, both ecstatic and sad, about the “handiwork of time”: This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.