Carmen Concilio (ed.), Imagining Ageing: Representations of Age and Ageing in Anglophone Literatures

Carmen Concilio (ed.), Imagining Ageing: Representations of Age and Ageing in Anglophone Literatures (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2018) 210 pp. €29.99 Pb. ISBN: 978-3-8376-4426-5

Literary age studies is a burgeoning field that, in the last few years, has seen several major new contributions and an expansion in the venues that publish work in the area. In 2017, the year before this volume was published, Aagje Swinnen et al. observed that the ‘proliferation and enrichment of literary age studies is well underway’ and advocated for an intersectional approach to resist and transcend boundaries.[1] Against this backdrop, the aim of this essay collection is more modest: to ‘explore some literary representations of ageing in British and Anglophone literature’ (7) in cases that its editor, Carmen Concilio, hails as exempla for expressing the topic. After the Introduction, which gives a concise summary of each piece, the collection begins with a personal essay by the writer Licia Canton. She uses her experiences as a second-generation Italian immigrant to Canada, now ‘approach[ing] sixty’ (13), to reflect on themes of intergenerational socializing and the value of senior citizens to society. It is a thought-provoking and affecting way to broach ideas that are to be met repeatedly in the collection.

Paolo Bertinetti’s ‘Shakespeare’s Grandiose Old Men’ concentrates on King Lear as the most ‘significant play for a reflection of ageing in [the] work’ (21) of the English playwright and poet. Bertinetti argues that its tragedy stems from the infirmities of old age, of which Lear, unlike the manipulative Goneril and Regan, is incognizant. Yet the essay is strongest when it turns to consider the case of Falstaff; in his Henry IV Part I and II appearances, the character resists that master ‘narrative of decline’ identified by Margaret Gullette (1997) by his quick wittedness, only for a consciousness of old age’s limitations to be re-asserted in The Merry Wives of Windsor. It is unfortunate that the conclusion does not draw together the threads spun by Bertinetti to give a fuller, birds’-eye appraisal of the topic.

Lucia Folena’s ‘Ageing and the Attainment of Form in Robinson Crusoe’ builds its case upon the idea that narrative is the result of giving form to experience, and that the ‘early novel [of 18th century England …] is structurally dependent’ (28) on this characteristic. Folena argues that the Old Man figure of chivalric romance is repurposed in Defoe’s novel: having once been an insightful foil to the athletic naivety of the youthful hero, he is now the figure into which that youth must ‘convert himself’ (30) if he is to comprehend his experiences. The essay perceptively reads the temporal preoccupations of Robinson Crusoe, including how the imposition of form runs in parallel to the spatial colonizing of the island on which Crusoe is shipwrecked.

There is a considerable chronological jump to Pier Paolo Piciucco’s ‘The Ageing Confessor and the Young Villain: Shadowy Encounters of a Mirrored Self in Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending’. Examining Barnes’s 2011 novel as a parodic instance of confessional fiction, Piciucco sustains the concerns with form and genre broached in Folena’s piece, as well as its suggestion of insight as the result of ageing: ‘Tony’s attitude as a narrator largely benefits from both the sense of wisdom and freedom in judgment that old age ensures him’ (46). The essay’s deft consideration of the novel’s treatment of age identity and its resonances with the Mass Observation Project of 1992 proves something of an isolated moment, however, as the topic of age and ageing becomes relegated beneath the focus on confessional subjectivity and narration.

The Late Poems of the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella is the topic of Donatella Abbate Badin’s contribution, being read against the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio’s De senectute. The topic of memory, and of its vitality to the older subject, forms a continuum between this and Piciucco’s piece. The poem ‘Novice’ acts as something of a frame here – its conflation of the ‘death moth’ that sustains itself on material from its youth with the old poet is recurrently drawn upon by Badin in effective ways. The theme of bifurcation between old and young perspectives, as raised in Folena and Piciucco’s essays, reappears again in the craftsperson poems that Kinsella writes over a forty-year period; so too in the poet’s divergent responses to the idea of decline and death. The section on ‘Belief and Unbelief’ is intriguing, although less obviously relevant to the discussion, but Badin’s conclusion refocuses on and draws out the meanings of ‘cyclicality’ with aplomb.

Irene De Angelis’s ‘A Voice Fit for Winter: Seamus Heaney’s Poetry on Ageing in Human Chain’ opens with an arresting account of the poet’s stroke and its connections to his final poetry collection. The essay ranges across Human Chain to touch on intergenerational filial love, the role of the caregiver, and rediscovery/recovery as the flipside to notions of decline. De Angelis’s readings of the poems and their age-related concerns are always insightful and written with sensitivity, offering close engagement with aspects of language and form in such poems as ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ and ‘Miracle’. Regrettably, the author is reluctant to provide her own conclusions, instead allowing other scholars the ‘final say’ on several sections. The result is a degree of uncertainty as to what De Angelis sees as the piece’s contribution to the critical debate.

Alice Munro’s The Bear Came Over the Mountain and Sara Polley’s Away From Her, a film based on Munro’s short story, are the focus of Carmen Concilio’s essay. Concilio looks first at the symbolism of marks: that ‘on the floor’ which Fiona, coincidental with her leaving her home due to Alzheimer’s disease, starts to erase; then the filmic representation of marks on the ‘snowy field’ (108) left by the protagonists during a ski trip, which act as a metaphor for memory and its fragility under the effects of neurodegenerative diseases. Loss of language and agency within a care-home setting are other major concerns, adding further dimensions to ideas broached by the two prior pieces. The essay reflects finally on how the film and short story treat the possible forms of social life available to older persons.

Blossom Fondo’s ‘Coming to Terms: Ageing and Moral Regeneration in J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron and Elizabeth Costello’ opens by appraising the state of literary age studies and its as-yet unrealized pursuit alongside postcolonial studies. She persuasively delineates these fields’ overlap – both ‘animated by the question of representation’ (129) – and the mutual benefits to be obtained by a ‘postcolonial gerontology’ that could dispel myths (131). Fondo’s analysis evidences such, arguing that Coetzee’s works set physical decline against moral rejuvenation, with an attendant awakening to issues of political and social justice. The conclusion cleverly ties together not only this essay but others in the collection by observing that gerontology and postcolonial studies interrogate ‘processes that hierarchize the world’ (137).     

Coetzee, alongside Virginia Woolf, continues to be a focus of Concilio’s second essay, which reads their two old women, Mrs Curren and Mrs Dalloway, intertextually. Structured by short topical sections – ‘Old Age’, ‘Illness’, &c. – an admirable accessibility comes at the cost of a frustrating want of depth; at scarcely a page, some sections tantalize with broader themes and ideas but fail to deliver on them. Sections on ‘Style’ allow the concerns of age and ageing to drift from focus (though they are brought back at the end), leaving this as arguably the least essential contribution to the collection. The piece is informative and articulate, but ultimately it fails to meaningfully advance the discussion and somewhat deflects from the more obvious linkage between Fondo’s and Valle’s essays.

‘Representing Age and Ageing in New Zealand Literature: The Māori Case’ by Paolo Della Valle advocates for a combinatory approach to the topic that uses qualitative and quantitative sources and methods. He outlines the country’s 2014 Report on the Positive Ageing Strategy and an alternative, Māori version whose ‘interface approach’ (169) might avoid the alleged Western centrism of the PAS. This second, ‘Sources’ section lays the ground effectively but could perhaps go further in interrogating especially the situation of Māori vis-à-vis Pākehā (non-Māori New Zealanders) on such issues as inequalities in life expectancy. The next part, on the literary cases, identifies aspects of a positive Māori ageing in works by Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace, including the short story collections Pounamu Pounamu (1972) and Electric City (1987). The readings of literature likely unknown to a great many readers are insightful, though (perhaps for that reason) tend towards the descriptive rather than analytical in the main.

The last essay is Enrica Favaro’s ‘Ageing and Neurological Disease’. Favaro, a scholar in the medical sciences, fulfils the promised brief by listing and illustrating the clinical background to conditions such as Alzheimer’s. That said, neither an admission of the piece’s difference, nor its impeccable research, can mitigate its inaccessibility to the non-clinician. Concilio, in the Editor’s Introduction, writes that this final contribution might ‘highlight certain features’ (11) of the literary figures encountered in the volume; the dense, list format of the essay and lack of overture to scholars of a social sciences or humanities background makes this seem unlikely – indeed, its emphasis on the ‘decline or loss of physiological functions’ (183) cannot but reinstate a ‘narrative of decline’ that other pieces have worked to resist. By no fault of its author, then, the essay constitutes a somewhat detached ending to the collection.

How does Imagining Ageing: Representations of Age and Ageing in Anglophone Literatures work as a whole? The geographical spread of the collection is to be lauded, representing writers from South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, and the UK; it truly captures the diversity of Anglophone literatures on this subject. Chronologically, the coverage is also ample, with one notable exception: attention to the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. These periods have been the focus of much recent work in age studies,[2] albeit with excellent reason; these years saw the development of attitudes and policies towards age and ageing that remain highly influential today, including old-age pensions and the idea of retirement as a withdrawal of older people from the labour market – developments whose legacies are felt in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century cases that comprise much of the volume.

That said, the collection achieves its stated purpose: its readings are thought-provoking and advance our understanding of the representations of ageing in the case studies. With themes such as memory, young and old perspectives, and ‘decline’ (resisted and reaffirmed) being raised in several of the pieces, there is considerable scope for reading the essays collectively as well as individually – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts here. The contributors carry on the enrichment of literary age studies identified by Swinnen et al. and indicate how a consciousness of age and ageing can enrich our sense of fiction and its social contribution.

James Aaron Green, University of Exeter       

[1] Aagje Swinnen, Cynthia Port, and Valerie Barnes Lipscomb, ‘Exploring the Boundaries of Literary Age Studies’, Frame 30.1 (May 2017), 19-30 (p. 29).

[2] Andrea Charise, The Aesthetics of Senescence: Ageing, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel (SUNY Press, 2020), xxii.