Tag: age

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Party in Miami Beach” (1976)

Miami Beach. (Janie Coffey)

Miami Beach. (Janie Coffey)

The story starts off worrisomely as another one of those meandering character sketches, the writer-protagonist meeting an unusual, eccentric so and so, the eccentric’s monologue going on and on and on, with a few philosophical asides along the way, a few reflections denoting the writer’s detachment, a touch of discomfort, bemusement or distaste on his part, and then scene. Singer developed the formula to excess. Gets old fast. The eccentric in this case is a rich old man in Miami Beach, Max Flederbush. The story has all the trappings of the Singer formula, but it comes alive, ironically, as Flederbush describes the funereal atmosphere of his aged and dying set, dying in a sea of luxuries. There’s a lot here that echoes William Trevor’s “The General’s Day,” a story taking on  greater significance the more stories I read. “If man is formed in God’s image, I don’t envy God.” “It’s scary to think the human species will last so long.” Getting old is torture. It is an invitation to cynicism.

Forverts, February and March 1976

Maxwell, “A Final Report” (1963)

william maxwell

It seems preposterous to be reading the American short story and not include William Maxwell, who in his younger years had that Matthew Broderick-Ferris Bueller look. Error corrected. “A Final Report” is an inventory of a life remembered at the more intimate margins of a probate report. The narrator is remembering. The life remembered is that of Pear M. Donald, who never married, who was a neighbor of the narrator’s family, and who became Aunt Donald and the narrator’s mother best friend until the two women had a mysterious falling out. The story is a look back from her old age: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” a line right out of Trevor’s “The General’s Day.” There are memories of the narrator’s childhood from the time she carried him on a pillow when he was sickly, but mostly it’s an account of her decline, her cats, her house, in the elegiac prose of terminal loneliness: “she must have subsisted on air and old memories and fear–the fear of something happening to her cats.” The story ends on what could have been a dry account of the financial settlement of her estate. It isn’t. Each dollar sign is the cremated remains of a long possession, and these final lines: “It would have been a pleasure to go through Aunty Donald’s things, up to a point, and after that probably nauseating. This is the past unillumined by memory or love. The sediment of days, what covered Troy and finally would have covered her if my brother hadn’t come and taken her away.”

Emma Cline, “Son of Friedman” (2019)

emma cline son of friedman

102 Elm Street, Wyandotte, Michigan.

After hazy and rambling “Los Angeles,” I wanted to give Emma Cline a second look. “Son of Friedman” is more sharply told, but remains all shimmers and throw-away insights. There’s too much knowingness, too much judgment contaminating the eye, keeping it from being more penetrating. No Flaubertian detachment in Cline. She’s at the table, hovering, like an intrusive waiter not content to just set the table. The first part of the story is in a restaurant where George Friedman is waiting for William. The intrusions are especially pronounced when Cline weasles judgy thoughts into her characters–you’re never really sure whose thoughts they are–by immunizing them with question marks: “How old was she? Twenty?” “Had he been an editor?” William is a successful producer. George no longer is, and hadn’t been much of one. Both are older, but William’s managed to keep it going, if unimaginatively so: his latest project is a buddy movie. George is barely hanging on. “He was seventy-one, with a fake knee and a hip due for replacement.” George has a son, Benji, William’s godson, in and out of rehab but now showing his first attempt at a movie at a dingy moviehouse nearby, to which he’s invited father and godfather. Over their meal George tries to push a project on William but is gently rebuffed, the same way that William rebuffed two groupies who’d tried to have their selfie taken with him. George has sunk that low. They go to see Benji’s movie. “The theatre was one of those single-screen places any schmuck with a camera could rent out and show his movie for a weekend. You could probably show your vacation photos.” Has the New Yorker always used theatre as opposed to theater or is that one of Cline’s conceits? It’s a dreadful movie, but the scene is for Benji to show his greater affection and respect for William than for his father: another stab at the old man, who Benji refers to “last but not least” as “my old man.” The Red Sea-parted distance between father and son is sharply described: “Benji was visibly grooving on the sound of his own voice, on being the focus of an audience. George could remember that feeling, acutely, though you were never supposed to make it clear you liked it, and certainly not as clear as Benji was making it, peacocking back and forth, lassoing the mike cord in one hand.” But these stories about the movie business are like stories about the writing business, almost always more interesting to those who’ve lived or worked them than to their audience. Cline is telling us how much she knows the business. But the business itself is not that interesting. It’s one of the least interesting, most common, dullest, shallowest businesses around, an illusion of the illusive aim. So the story’s one strength, that guttered relationship between father and son, in whose murky liquid is reflected the relationship between George and William, is lost to Cline’s performance trills.

The New Yorker, July 1, 2019

William Trevor, “The General’s Day” (1967)

william trevor the general's day

Old Man Walks alone in Sommières, France, 2018. (x1klima)

Not a story for Veterans Day. Bad-tempered astrologically tilted General Suffolk, “a leader and a strategist in two great wars,” takes 10 minutes to prepare his breakfast, 10 to consume it, and a day to repeat a ritual of public humiliation and drunkenness he can’t bring himself to end, because it’s not in him to kill himself. “[H]e was to the last a rake, and for this humanity a popular figure. He had cared for women, for money, for alcohol of every sort; but in the end he had found himself with none of these commodities.” He’s 78. He wants this latest of country Saturdays to go his way. He’s looking to pick up a “stout matron” at the Brown Cafe. Mrs. Hinch, his maid, his “fat old bitch,” sends him on his way with wry humor so she can indulge in what’s left of his luxuries. For the general, it’s a string of rejections, starting with young Basil, whose mother is producing babies at a suspiciously faithless clip, like the mother in Carver’s “Father,” or the “buzz off” from a man the general tries to help back on his feet after he falls in front of him. He discovers that those who reject him with excuses are just lying. They just don;t want to be with him.  “[S]ome people are like that: so addicted to the lie that to avoid one, when the truth is in order, seems almost a sin.” He has gins with Mrs. Hope-Kingley the divorced widow. He goes too far when his hand wanders. She leaves him. He tries his opening line–his astrological what sign are you–on a man on the bus who also rejects him. “I do not like to offend people. I do not like to be a nuisance. You should have stopped me, sir,” he tells him. It’s always too late. He too lies to the bartender, pretending that he’s been off to see “The Guns of Navarone.” He doesn’t want to let on that he’s been jilted all day. He tries to have drinks with Frobisher a second time, having already been rejected in the morning. Frobisher this time rejects him the way the other general rejects Dimitritch Tcherviakov in “The Death of a Government Clerk”: “Get the hell off my premises, you bloody old fool! Go on, Suffolk, hop it!” The general’s entreaty (“”Look, I’m a little lonely –” gets him nowhere. He doesn’t go home to die, like Tcherviakov. He wishes. But he won’t be so lucky. His wrenching realization, a preface to Donald Hall’s two memoirs: “I could live for twenty years,’ he whispered. ‘My God Almighty, I could live for twenty years.’ Tears spread on his cheeks.” He should have met William Maxwell’s Pearl M. Donald: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” or Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Max Flederbush in “A Party in Miami Beach”: “sometimes I think that the real heroes aren’t those who get medals in wartime but the bachelors who live out their years alone.”


The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1967)

Yoon Choi, “The Art of Losing” (2017)

An old man, Mo-Sae, a Korean War survivor (he was 10 when it started) and dementia victim, left home alone his wife Young-ja who’s “coming up with errands that were really excuses to leave,” though she doesn’t need to: shes’s ill, too. He’s losing his memory, and she’d rather not always be near him to witness it. A young boy at his stoop, “appearing also in Mo-Sae’s cognition.” Not a very good sign, this Cognition. The boy is his grandson, Jonathan. Young-Ja has atrial fibrillation. Her husband was at that stage where he would come up “with likely versions of the past that became fixed in his memory.” But the story loses itself in memories of Young-ja, her violence toward her sister, “her need to connect again and again with something solid, resistant, and alive—shoulder, cheekbone, the open mouth that housed the teeth,” an image As convincing, poetic or otherwise, as a closed-mouthed metaphor. It’s about filling in the past in Korea, before hands-off America, where there was no hitting. Then back to facing a hisband’s dementia. Sundowning. And the bullshit of doctors’ advice: “She had been told to expect increased confusion, even agitation. She had been told that the only way to respond was with patience and kindness. Patience. Kindness. What did they really mean between husband and wife? Sometimes she felt that patience and kindness could be stretched so far in a marriage as to become their opposites.”

And this, of course:

Did he know?
She could never directly ask him, never actually say the word Alzheimer’s, chimae, in English or Korean. She would rather pacify, indulge, work around his nonsense. Perhaps this was patience and kindness. Or perhaps it was the worst possible way to be unkind.
Sometimes she wondered. Was it all an act? Would nothing really remain? In the middle of the night, did a dawning horror sometimes spread over his soul? Or did he really think, as it seemed when his defenses were up, that all the world was in error and he was its lone sentinel of truth and fact?

Those thoughts we’ve always had caring (if caring it was) for an Alzheimer’s torture victim. But now the church is asking his wife whether he’d consider returning to the church choir for a Messiah
Reformable after quitting out if dissatisfaction with the previous conductor. His wife would rather he not be found out. But he accepts. And makes a spectacle of himself, sidling up to the soloist’s part during the performance. The secret was out. “Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.” But not the burden of responsibility. Her children broach the inevitable: “Something had to be done about Dad… but what?”

But this: the twist is that it’s young-ja whose illness collapses everything, herself included. Mo-Sae can only make sense of fragments, and not of her absence as he watches the boy, remembering memories near and far, keeping vigil over the sleeping boy, waiting for his wife to return, as she will not. It’s a searingly true story, calmly told, its tragedy a surprise, but not a surprise, unless you read it cynically, though no less realistically, if not justifiably: Young-Ja’s illness was not unwilled.

New England Review, vol. 38, Nr. 2, 2017.

Hemingway, “Old Man at the Bridge” (1938)


A two-page sketch, a 76-years-old man escaping from the advancing fascists (during the Spanish Civil War), but too exhausted to go on. All pathos, all pity. He talks of his animals that he took care of until the last minute before he was forced to leave. He thinks the cat can take care of itself, but not so much the other animals–who, it turns out, are like him: his fate is sealed. The fascists’ planes were not up. “That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old an would ever have.” The story is intended to be heartbreaking. Visualizing the old man, it is. It is a universal image: the civilian at the end of his rope, and luck. Those are his last moments, witnessed apparently by a news reporter. Unlike “Cat in the Rain,” the cats in this case are self-sufficient: it’s the old man who is reduced to the state of a kitten, shivering with uncertainty, no Hadley to save him.

Notably, the sketch was possibly intended as a news article: “It is based upon an Easter Sunday stopover at the Ebro River during his coverage of the Spanish Civil War in April 1938. Although employed by the North American Newspaper Association (NANA), Hemingway apparently decided to submit it to Ken Magazine as a short story instead of using it as a news article.”

Ken Magazine, May 19, 1938

Edith Wharton, “Mrs. Mantsey’s View”

Mrs. Mantsey is an aging, stuck-in-her-ways woman whose only pleasure in life seems to be the views of the city from her boardinghouse in New York. Mrs. Black plans to build an extension of the building in front of Mantsey’s view, which would be blocked. Matsey panics, offers $1,000 to Black not to build. Black had offered her a room in the extension, which would have fixed the problem. But Mantsey doesn’t want to move. Black takes Mantsey for nuts. She’s right. Mantsey next sets fire to the construction’s wares after the first day. But she catches pneumonia and dies–happy, because she was able to look at her view one last time. (Compare to Carver’s “The Idea.” Why do we assume that looking out from a greater distance is OK, but looking from a nearer distance is voyeurism, at least when one is within one’s own home?)

The story reminded me of this recent item in The Times: “That Noise? The Rich Neighbors Digging a Basement Pool in Their $100 Million Brownstone: The extremely loud and incredibly expensive renovations that have shattered a formerly quiet residential block in Manhattan.” (See the picture above.)


Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1968)

isaac singer a frien d of kafka

The former actor Jacoharaques Khon’s rambling story of his illusions of shadowing glamour, whether through his friendship with the unknown Kafka or his affair, a one night stand, with a countess running away from her murderous lover. Too rambling. Similar to Singer’s “Dr. Beeber.”

Forfward, June 1968, The New Yorker, November 23, 1968