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  • Bohumil Hrabal and the Poetics of Aging
  • Daniel Just

Aging in Modern Fictions

Modern literary fictions offer a wide range of representations of aging, from vitalism to nihilism. For example, in Doris Lessing's "The Grandmothers" the two female protagonists retain their vitality and zest for life as they grow older. In Gabriel García Márquez's The General in the Labyrinth the elderly Simón Bolívar has lost most of his vitality, but he still reflects on his life with calm and curiosity, unlike Hagar Shipley in Margaret Laurence's Stone Angel, who rages against growing old. A lightly ironic attitude to aging is a further step away from vitalism. In Thomas Mann's Death in Venice the aging writer Aschenbach interprets Plato's Phaedrus—and misinterprets, as Helen Small demonstrates (35–52)—in an attempt to manage his infatuation with the young boy Tadzio, with the narrator incorporating Aschenbach's interpretations into his story to an ironic effect which foreshadows Aschenbach's realization that he cannot live up to Plato's ideal. Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet is more openly satirical about aging by depicting an assortment of outlandish occupations in which two retired friends engage in order to stave off the monotony of old age. The protagonist in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace has no illusions about this looming monotony, and yet even he tries to delay it when he has a chance. Another step away from vitalism is the theme of wasted opportunities: a missed opportunity that is not recognized as such (e.g., John Marcher in Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle), [End Page 1390] one that is recognized (e.g., James Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day), and an overpowering feeling that one has squandered one's entire life (e.g., Ivan Ilych in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych). Georgi Gospodinov's The Physics of Sorrow is a variation on this theme, but no longer with any trace of vitalism. Gospodinov's autobiographical protagonist-narrator views aging melancholically, as a growing realization that human existence is intrinsically hollow: "longing for something lost or that had never taken place" (75). In Thomas Bernhard's memoir Gathering Evidence, as well as in his later novels—for example, Reger in Old Masters and Franz-Josef Murau in Extinction—the hollowness of existence loses its melancholic undertone and becomes nihilistic: "Nothing mattered—that was the truth of it. It was a question of age. Nothing mattered" (212). Louis-Ferdinand Céline's novels present a similarly nihilistic attitude toward aging with the added ingredient of bitterness and fury: "…at a certain age nothing means anything…" (Rigadoon 200); "smile and grimaces, victors and vanquished, same cauldron! …what you want at the end of your life is not to see them any more, not to talk about anything, you've seen enough" (North 230).

What all these different representations of aging in modern fictions have in common is that their narrative operation renders them irreducible to statements and propositions. Even straightforward declarations, such as Céline's, are inseparable from literary poetics that shapes their meaning. In Céline's case, part of this poetics is his explosive and at times rambling style interspersed with exclamation points, ellipses, and self-mockery: "More of my rancor!… you'll forgive me for being a little soft in the head… but not if it gets so bad that I bore you… me and my three dots… a little discretion!… my supposedly original style!…" (Castle to Castle 338). But perhaps even more important than style when it comes to rendering aging in modern fictions is the creative use of anachrony. Presentation of material out of chronological order takes on various forms in modern narratives, but three main tendencies stand out. The first is the prominence of ellipses, prolepses, and analepses. These devices break chronological sequence by momentarily stepping out of it. Marcel Proust's In Search for Lost Time is an exemplary case. Proust frequently deploys prolepses and analepses to enable reader's easier orientation in the long story of the protagonist-narrator's development from his childhood to older age. But...


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