This study examines how selected authors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries write about their creative processes in old age and thus purposefully produce a late style of their own. Late-life creativity has not always been viewed favourably. Prevalent 'peak-and-decline' models suggest that artists, as they grow old, cease to produce highquality work. Aiming to counter such ageist discourses, the present study proposes a new ethics of reading literary texts by elderly authors. For this purpose, it develops a methodology that consolidates textual analysis with cultural gerontology.
1.1 Old Age, the Age of Style
This study explores artists' creative practice in old age. However, it does not, as one might expect, investigate the three authors of the texts under scrutiny, John Barth, Karen Blixen, and Joan Didion. Authors are persons of flesh and blood who write and publish works; besides that, they have families and friends, daily household routines, worries and reasons to be joyful. In their families, they may be good or bad or average parents and spouses; to their friends, they may be close confidants or merely good for an occasional chat. They may like going for a walk on a sunny Sunday afternoon, cry over a sentimental movie, or get annoyed at politics. In their works, however, these authors make their appearance as artists. This is not to say that, when authors write, they take on a different, altogether fictional identity, disguising 'who they really are' (some may do so, some may not - as some might or might not let their spouses or children or friends know 'who they really are'). Rather, it is placing emphasis on the fact that writing a text means making a number of decisions, and one of these decisions is how to appear as the originator of the work: what tone to adopt, what qualities to foreground or suppress, what stance to take, and certainly not least, what style to use. In other words, ageing authors, as any other author, choose how to inscribe their creative agency in the text, and they do so through their style. Susan Sontag affirms: "Style is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist's will. And as the human will is capable of an indefinite number of stances, there are an indefinite number of possible styles for works of art" ("On Style" 37, italics added). In this sense, therefore, the Latin aphorism stilus virum arguit rings true. Yet, what does a style consist of, and how does it construct the image of the ageing artist? These questions shall be explored here. The present study thus aims to provide a method for reading the textual image of the ageing artist. The significance of this image extends beyond the biography of individual authors. Indeed, it will become clear that it strikes at the very core of the current 'hot topics' of ageing studies.
Creativity and questions of style are serious concerns for ageing authors, arguably more serious ones than for young or middle-aged writers. Since the mid-nineteenth century, a scholarly debate has developed, evaluating the stylistic performance of elderly artists with a particularly critical eye (Amigoni and McMullan 377). Due to "a profound shift of critical focus from genre to creative artist" in romanticism, the biography of the artist suddenly became relevant for the assessment of the work, and the critical concept of 'lateness' emerged (378). Within this development, the terms 'late style' and 'old-age style,' which owe their semantic and conceptual origin to German Spätstil and Altersstil, came to refer to the manner in which ageing artists are believed to shape their creative products, often in obvious divergence from their customary style in earlier works (Zanetti 302).
Such a change of the formal means of creative production in old age can be assessed in different ways. First and foremost, it has traditionally been viewed as decline (Painter 2). The culturally dominant stereotype of the stages of a human life consists of a so-called peak-and-decline model (Smiles 17). As depicted in numerous illustrations of the 'ages of man' (see e.g. Cole and Edwards 260), human beings are supposed to have reached their physical and social zenith in middle age and then begin their descent towards frailty, physical and mental decay, and, finally, death. The pattern was subsequently transferred to artists' work, forming the expectation that old age would inevitably leave its imprint on the creative product, which was consequently perceived as less skillfully shaped (Cohen-Shalev, "Old Age Style" 22; Smiles 17).1 This belief persisted and made it through almost two centuries into the present: as Nicholas Delbanco (an ageing writer himself) explains, "[t]here's no obvious reason why [.] writers can't improve with age - but it's the rule, not exception, that most of the important work transpires early on" (17). This negative view of late-life creativity currently coexists with an alternative concept that emerged in the early twentieth century: the exceptionalist take. Since it was observed that very few artists - notably Goethe, Monet, and Beethoven (Zanetti 61; 322) - at an advanced age still wrote, painted, and composed with exceptional skill, these great masters were believed to transcend the biological limitations to which mere mortals were subject. Hence, late style was increasingly linked to achievement and even genius (McMullan and Smiles, Introduction 2; Smiles 19-20).
For elderly authors, the late-style debate in art criticism determines to a certain extent how their works will be received, and the choice of a certain style is thus not simply one decision among others for them. Whereas promising younger authors, if they fail to hit the mark with one of their works, may still unfold their full potential at a later stage, in the case of the elderly artist, no such positive development is usually expected. In his essay "The Look of Others," Jean Améry notes that an elderly person is "a creature without potentiality" in society's perception: "People ask no longer: What will you do?" Rather, they will say: "This is what you have already done" (65, original italics).2 To be old means to be at the end: of life and of artistic progress. From this, it follows that elderly authors must make a special effort to shape their late works, as each new publication could terminate their career.
Links between late works and a supposed artistic ability on the part of their aged authors are sought by scholars as well as by the general audience; however, making connections between art and artists is fraught with complexities. Some of its implications are hinted at in the introductory quote by Robert Burton, whose expansion of the Latin aphorism provides ample material to illustrate the problems at hand. John B. Bamborough, in his introduction to the Anatomy of Melancholy, is right to state that it is "a matter for argument" whether Burton believed that "'the style is the man'" (xxxvi), as already Burton's choice of words raises some questions: "Stylus virum arguit, our stile bewraies us," he writes, "and as Hunters find their game by the trace, so is a mans Genius descried by his workes" (13, original italics).3 Burton thus translates the Latin verb 'arguit' with 'to bewray,' which is a telling choice. Whereas the straightforward meaning of Latin 'arguo' is to "show, reveal, demonstrate, prove," thus expressing a neutral connection between the sign (stilus) and its referent (virum), further meanings include "to bring charge against," "to prove guilty," "to prove wrong [.]," and "to find fault with, condemn, blame, criticize" ("arguo"). By contrast, 'to bewray' has almost exclusively negative denotations, ranging from "to accuse," "to expose," and "to divulge" to "unintentionally [revealing] what is intended to conceal" ("bewray"). An artist's style is thus a double-edged sword, as it may not only reveal one's genius (Burton 13), but it could also be turned against the artist. Art critics, the "Hunters [who] find their game by the trace," to slightly twist Burton's statement,4 will certainly be inclined to do the latter with ageing authors, unless their genius becomes particularly visible in the work.
In other words, style is the Achilles heel of the ageing artist, a fact of which elderly authors are keenly aware. Based on the discourses of the late-style debate, they expect negative responses to their late work, which consequently produces washback on their texts: the way in which authors employ stylistic devices may thus be geared towards avoiding certain reactions rather than style being a direct expression of the authors' own...