March 11, 2011 10:03 pm

Morning, Noon and Night

 

Morning, Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books, by Arnold Weinstein, Random House, RRP$27, 464 pages

Arnold Weinstein is a professor of comparative literature at Brown University. This book is a discussion of how and why “stories of growing up and growing old extend who we are”. It is a claim that seems at once self-evident and grandiose: what can the experience of Hamlet and Lear, Heathcliff and Jane Eyre, have to do with our more mundane lives? That is what Weinstein sets out to discuss and to demonstrate, in more than 400 pages of close and passionate exegesis of around 70 texts. The result is, he says, the book of his own old age, fuelled by decades of sharing such works with students.

A review spattered with even a fraction of Weinstein’s references would soon lose the reader. Take it that he has lined up the usual suspects – a dip into the canon of European and US literature – and flourished a few obscurities of his own (hats off to readers familiar with Hans Jacob Christ­offel von Grimmelshausen).

His method is to move with the trajectory of the human lifespan, looking at the way significant texts and, above all, their characters, mesh with the universal experience of childhood, of falling in love, of experiencing disillusionment, empowerment and, finally, the diminishment of ability and expectation. Few of us share the Oedipal experience of patricide but most know what it is to resent or resist a parent.

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Weinstein is concerned with the way in which the young seldom consider old age, and the old are obsessed with recollection. We look back in anger, in regret, occasionally with pride. But literature is concerned with extremes; lives of quiet contentment do not make for a compelling story and are probably rare anyway. You do not need to have had the childhood traumas of Pip in Great Expectations to empathise.

Equally, old age has a universality; King Lear, Balzac’s Père Goriot, Ibsen’s The Master Builder – all provoke or endure extravagant forms of later life but their feelings can be of profound interest to anyone. Weinstein cites courage in old age, with Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as his central text, and while most of us are more likely to have to wrestle with infirmity and disease than a large fish, we take the point.

Weinstein observes that in the 19th century fiction was the only available art form to which the young might go to find out about the adult culture they were soon to enter. Its overpowering moral authority is lost in the age of television and the internet. Most people don’t read books at all. Weinstein’s students were and are among the exceptions and the privileged. He must be an invigorating teacher.

The book is not, however, an easy read. You forge from text to text, from Sophocles to Mark Twain to Faulkner to Molière and then back to Faulkner (Weinstein’s abiding mentor), feeling culture-dazed. I came away not entirely convinced that a re-reading of The Old Man and the Sea will help confront arthritis, but entirely sympathetic to the argument that literature enlightens, consoles and even directs.

Penelope Lively is author of ‘Family Album’ (Penguin)

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