A prolific author now in his late-60s examines why some artists remain productive, even innovative, in the dying of the light, while others opt not to rage but to rusticate.
Though Delbanco (The Count of Concord, 2008, etc.) confines himself to the visual arts, music and literature, he realizes the enormity, even impossibility, of doing justice to everyone who deserves attention. After some introductory ruminations on aging in America (it’s not popular) and on the premature deaths of some notables, he begins his journey through his tangled subject with a discussion of his father, who practiced his cello into his 90s. Delbanco then moves to Herman Melville’s late-life marvel (Billy Budd, unpublished in his lifetime) and a lengthy discussion of Shakespeare, who died in his 50s, an advanced age for the 17th century. The author follows with some brief biographical sketches of artists who labored long and well, among them Tolstoy, Hardy, Alice Neel and George Sand. Searching still for answers, he gives more lengthy treatments to nine more figures, including Casals, Monet, Yeats, Liszt and Lampedusa, whose late-life The Leopard (1958) was a phenomenon. Realizing the importance of good fortune, health and genetics, Delbanco also looks at brain science, and specifically at Picasso, who worked into his 90s—perhaps an exemplar, writes the author, of the notion that “competitive wrangling and brilliant innovation and sexual careerism may coexist.” Delbanco provides an old-fashioned disquisition, not a self-help book, so he offers no bullet list of the Ten Things We Can All Do to Remain Productive Geniuses. However, he does extract from his wide reading and capacious imagination a few principles, among them the “desire to capture what disappears, to fix in melody or line or language what otherwise is mutable.” In that vein, he reprints some eloquent comments on the subject supplied by John Updike, not long before he died in 2009 at age 76.
Shows that time’s winged chariot can glisten brightly, even in the sunset.