Women have long complained that the aging process is unfair to them whereas even the homeliest boy can expect to have the adjective "distinguished" applied to his appearance later in life. The feminine compensation for this trick of cruel nature is that men may get better looking as they get older, but they also get maudlin, verbose, and cranky. Claire Armistead considers the literary genre of the mid-life crisis in the Guardian and concludes "it does seem to be an exclusively male genre. Perhaps this is because 42-year-old women tend to be too busy grappling with ageing parents or troubled teenagers to indulge in thoughts of their own mortality. Or perhaps there's an emerging female equivalent - the memoir mourning the loss of fertility, like Hilary Mantel's haunting Giving Up the Ghost."
Armistead examples two recent Brit memoirs about trudging through the calendar and repudiating the foolish assumptions of youth: Nick Cohen's What's Left? and Andrew Anthony's The Fallout. They're odd, if telling, choices due to their ultra-specific commonality. Both books were authored by columnists for the Observer, the more heterodox sister publication of the Guardian, and both chronicle a disillusionment with the modern left.
Cohen uses his own experiences a red diaper baby to foreground a serious anatomy of vogue ideology. He charts the degradation of progressivism, particularly in the UK, beginning with the advent of postmodernism (Foucault saying the mullahs of Iran had a "different regime of truth" than the West, etc.), following through to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and terminating in the dark underbelly the New World Order, where Islamists are to be excused and fascist dictators coddled ("We Are All Hezbollah," etc.). Though What's Left? reads like a personal confession in parts, it's also a work of scholarship.
Anthony's The Fall-Out hews closer to the tradition of the goodbye-to-all-that political memoir (Whittaker Chambers without the Christian conversion). He describes his early Marxist schooling, his love of pet revolutionary causes like the Sandinistas, his knee-jerk anti-Americanism, and then recounts his break with this line of thinking after 9/11 while remembering to pour plenty of ironic scorn on the old comrades who continue to hold it.
True, Cohen and Anthony prompted some condescending remarks from their critics (hell hath no fury like lefties betrayed) as to why they chose now to write their polemics. Weren't both a little grayer and softer around the middle than they used to be? Reviewing The Fall-Out in –- where else? - the Guardian, Decca Aitkenhead asked, "Does it have something to do with a midlife panic over masculinity and mortality? These are, after all, men of a certain age, and they did seem to find Bush's shock and awe disproportionately exciting."
Maybe, but would the same pop-psychological diagnosis have been made of Susan Sontag after she delivered her 1982 speech at Town Hall denouncing Warsaw Pact communism as "fascism with a human face"? (The horrified fellow travelers who denounced her then could match in shrillness what Cohen and Anthony's enemies have said about them now.)
Armistead is interested in the complaints of the fortysomething male –- only they're the complaints of Coleridge and Wordsworth after they swapped the revolution for stately conservatism, not those of Updike and Roth after they swapped getting laid for reminiscing about getting laid.
She also cites Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Shakespeare for their lyric takes on reaching the middle of other sorts of journeys. But the most culturally resonant elegy on dotage remains Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium," written when the poet was in his early 60's. Though he was well beyond the point of a midlife crisis, his poem furnished the phrases "no country for old men" and "dying animal." The first recently titled a Cormac McCarthy novel about a psychopathic serial killer (a creature typically afflicted with a surplus of testosterone) being hunted by a retirement-ready sheriff. The second titled a minor Roth novella about David Kepesh, now a superannuated professor of desire who takes up with a much younger Cuban girl and, in one deeply disturbing and unerotic scene, laps off her leg the very essence of discarded life.
Though if you still prefer growing old with the blokes less worried about Viagra and enlarged prostates, there's Martin Amis's gorgeous memoir Experience, which focuses on his relationship with his father (I gave it to mine on his 60th birthday). And Philip Larkin, favorite poet of Amis fils et pere, dabbled in his glum brand of nostalgia in "High Windows," which he composed when he was in his 50's:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives-
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.