Late Styles, Part 2

[Today’s column continues and concludes the essay whose first half appeared on Monday.   – IRM]

‘What was I to do with a book I had worked on for close to three years and considered at once unsatisfactory yet finished?’

This is Nathan Zuckerman’s lament, in Exit Ghost, following the tepid response of a trusted reader regarding his latest manuscript. It is a dual frustration: the anxiety at the decline of one’s powers (not only artistic but mental and physical); and the deep inward recession that comes from realizing there is no perfection in art – what one has strived a lifetime for was never possible in the first place.

Zuckerman writes:

Having never before confronted this predicament – having been able in the past to summon the inventiveness and marshal the energy to battle through to a resolution – I thought of what two American writers of the highest rank [Hemingway and Faulkner] had done when they sensed a decline in their powers or a weakness in a piece of work that stubbornly resisted remedying.

For the duration of Exit Ghost, Zuckerman competes with a failing memory; he is made aware of episodes of forgetfulness only to augment them with further episodes of forgetfulness. A spareness in the late styles of so many artists reflects the ravages done to memory. Uncertainty leaks in. Wyatt Mason, in his review of Exit Ghost for Harper’s – a sustained, serious, and thoughtful treatment of a novel that, more so than many of Roth’s other recent books, richly deserves it – dwells on the motif of forgetfulness: ‘The Zuckerman whom Roth freed to imagine counterlives has been bound up . . . by his own life, its lessening.’

Francis Bacon’s portraits of himself alone in a room speak to the deaths of friends and lovers – there is no one to sit with – but also illustrate the loss of faith that can accompany old age. Not religious faith, which Bacon never had, but a faith in the project of one’s life, in the decisions one has made, in the memories one uses to construct a sense of self. At a certain point the only things which you can be sure of are the four walls that surround you and the chair that keeps you from falling.

One thinks also of Pierre Bonnard, and the late paintings, such as Portrait of the Artist in the Bathroom Mirror, in which he portrays his own senescence as an almost alien state – as if the body’s decline is another expression of senility, an exterior forgetting of what it looks like to be human. (In the late winter of this year the Met put on an illuminating show of this and other Bonnard works, The Late Interiors.) With shaky painted glimpses of his late wife – some seen only in sidelong mirrors – Bonnard corners and interrogates the alarming disarray of memory, most alarming when it corrupts the memory of those we most cherish.

(Picasso, an exception to almost every rule during his artistic career, was an exception to this one as well, as lavishly demonstrated by an exhibition of his late works, called Mosqueteros and currently in its final week at the Gagosian Gallery, in Manhattan, in which almost every turn of the eye finds another riot of bursting, peeled-fruit vividness in various reds, purples, oranges, and greens.)

Titian, Bacon, Roth, Bonnard, Updike – these men and others have given us the best of ourselves, and they are as good a sample set as any to look to for guidance and meaningful contemplation concerning the final years of life. Encounters with the late work of great artists, which so often transpires within arrestingly bare environments and exhausted states of mind, suggest that wisdom is an exercise in reduction rather than a stockpile. Writers and artists, like everyone else, must confront the conundrum of death, and, upon reading and seeing what they report back to us as they approach that final door, we begin to imagine heaven not as a plenitude, but as an austerity.

[Correction: On Monday I quoted Updike’s poem ‘A Lightened Life’, and discussed his line about not being able to ‘find the computer code.’ But it may be my memory that’s suffering: Updike’s actual line was about not being able to ‘do’ the computer code; perhaps I simply wished the alternate reading to be there.]

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~ by mackenz on June 4, 2009.

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