That 70s Show

Illustration by Jordin Isip

WITH MOVIES AND TELEVISION RELUCTANT to take on the subject of old age, and theater preferring to sign up young movie stars, it falls to the novel to tackle life's unglamorous end. It's a theme that, if only by virtue of its unpopularity, almost becomes subversive in and of itself. This much-dreaded period of life is the subject of two new British novels, Anita Brookner's Making Things Better and Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters, and forms the richest part of a third, William Boyd's Any Human Heart.

Brookner's novels (Hotel du Lac, Fraud), which appear promptly once a year and rarely if ever exceed 300 pages, are literature's equivalent of an afternoon cup of tea — short, dependable, and with a spooky configuration of small dark leaves at the bottom of every pot. That her 21st novel features a septuagenarian hero is hardly a surprise, since she has turned the seventh and eighth decades of life into her own personal fiefdom in book after book. Even when she does write about relatively young people, they tend to act bizarrely old, making retirement plans while they're in their 30s and treating the springtime of their lives as if the wind was howling and the frost was already glittering malevolently on the ground.

Julius Herz, the wan protagonist of Making Things Better, is in a long line of solitary, self-denying Brookner heroes and heroines who have spent most of their lives wrapped like mummies in suffocating family ties. Now, in the twilight of his life, divorced, childless, he is free — but with nothing to do but walk around London, invent errands for himself, and then return to his small one-bedroom apartment. Increasingly, his thoughts return to his native Germany, from which his Jewish family fled just before the war, and to his cousin Fanny, the coquette who captured his adolescent heart without ever showing much interest in it. Fanny, it turns out, is now in Switzerland and as bereft of company as he, and an increasingly urgent correspondence between the two of them leads him to believe that there might be a last chance for love in his life.

But first, Herz succumbs to hopes of another last chance, this time personified by the enticing figure of Sophie, a self-confident, hard-edged young executive who has taken the apartment immediately below his. Improbably, Herz falls in love with her, and, predictably, gets nowhere. Though a relatively minor character, Sophie is so brilliantly drawn that you wish Brookner would write more about younger people.

Like most Brookner novels, Making Things Better is short on plot but oddly suspenseful nonetheless. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters, which has a promisingly dyspeptic start but loses its way after about 100 pages. It doesn't help that Drabble's heroine isn't terribly engaging. A recently abandoned housewife (her husband took off with a younger woman) and mother of three children, Candida Wilton has left the countryside she lived in for decades to move to the city on the cusp of old age. Her life isn't very exciting, and Drabble doesn't try to hide the fact. Instead, she presents metropolitan life from the perspective of someone too old to really take part in it.

Drabble's London is a much less genteel city than the one Brookner writes about. "There was a black girl standing on the corner at the bus stop . . . her shoulder bag was like a grenade. I'm not joking. It was circular, and covered with long plastic or rubber spikes about three inches long," Candida notes in her diary. She also makes note of strange tramps, scary underpasses, and abandoned Christmas trees, as well as her own dutiful laps in the swimming pool of the local health club, and her small circle of friends — for the most part, single older women like her.

How do you make a bold start on a new life when your former life was marked by excessive caution? Like Brookner's hero, Candida is trying to overcome a lifetime of inertia even as she is dragged down by the weight of her own history: a bad marriage, estranged children, and a rather sexless disposition in an age when sexiness is thrust even on those who no longer have a use for it. Women are supposed to go on looking sexy into their 60s, she notes, but "for some of us, it means nothing but a sense of unending failure and everlasting exclusion."

Candida does get lucky — she inherits some money unexpectedly — and together with a group of friends and a tour guide (the "seven sisters" of the title) goes on a sightseeing tour of Naples and Tunisia, where she finds something like happiness. As readers, we expect some sort of dramatic revelation, a personal breakthrough of some kind, but none is forthcoming. Instead, Candida has to settle for being disillusioned, in the good sense. She isn't happy, but at least she sees her life clearly.

THE CAREER OF LOGAN MOUNTSTUART (1906-91), the gallant, long-lived hero of William Boyd's Any Human Heart, is so crammed with incident and adventure and sex and travel it would terrify the small, fearful protagonists of Brookner and Drabble. Boyd presents his novel as a journal kept by Mountstuart throughout most of his life, starting in boyhood in the 1920s and continuing through 1977, after which the rest is silence or at least advanced old age. Though this is fiction, Boyd asks us to read it as if Mountstuart — a sporadically successful author, art dealer and spy — were a real historical figure whose career brings him into contact with everyone from Joyce and Hemingway to the Duke of Windsor, Jackson Pollock and the Baader-Meinhof Group. It's a testament to Boyd's artistry that by the end of the novel you almost believe that Mountstuart was a real person.

Boyd's last novel, Armadillo, was a smart, vivid take on contemporary London, hilariously funny in places and populated by some extremely odd characters. More often, though, he has reached back into the early 20th century (The Blue Afternoon, The New Confessions) for inspiration, and so his new novel finds him on familiar ground. What he conveys so convincingly here is the sheer length of a life lived to the full, the accumulation of decades, and how, at a certain moment, one's existence can be changed forever. Logan's boyhood is spent in Uruguay, after which he studies at Oxford, where he launches himself as a writer by penning a biography of Shelley. A successful, slightly outré novel then follows, and Mountstuart is propelled on what looks certain to be a lucrative and productive literary career. In fact, he will publish only two more books in his life, though he keeps up a stream of freelance articles for decades. He serves as a spy in World War II, becomes an art dealer in New York in the 1950s and '60s, and spends his last productive years in Africa as a university professor before succumbing to old age in England and then France.

There's plenty of tragedy in Mountstuart's life (his second wife and daughter are killed in a bombing raid in World War II, his son dies of a drug overdose in New York), but he always seems able to shake it off, somehow untouched. Perhaps that's why the second half of the book is the best, when enough adversity has accumulated for even a born survivor to feel tested as he starts down the long slide to oblivion. The last part of his life really begins when he is still riding high as an art dealer in New York and enjoying carnal relations with a girl who, it turns out, is a lot younger than she's been letting on. Threatened with arrest, Mountstuart flees to England, and years later (by this time he's in Africa) reflects that his sex life -- he's been celibate ever since — effectively came to an end the day the girl's father showed up at his apartment in New York.

Boyd excels at depicting such sudden reversals of fortune. His account of his hero's old age, when, forgotten as a writer, he lives off dog food in a grim London apartment while taking care of an old flame dying of lung cancer, is extraordinary. But even after he foolishly becomes entangled with a group of grim revolutionaries with ties to Baader-Meinhof — which does seem a bit improbable — Mountstuart once again bounces back and is granted an almost idyllic, if solitary, old age in the French countryside. Mountstuart's life may be too extraordinary to belong to any old human heart, but heart is something this superb book is full of.

MAKING THINGS BETTER | By ANITA BROOKNER | Random House | $24 hardcover | 275 pages

THE SEVEN SISTERS | By MARGARET DRABBLE | Harcourt, Inc. | $25 hardcover | 320 pages

ANY HUMAN HEART | By WILLIAM BOYD | Alfred A. Knopf | $26 hardcover | 498 pages

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