My interest with literary representations of age and the aging process probably began somewhere in my late teens with the pessimistic musings on turning thirty in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Although that milestone birthday was still fairly far off, to my gauche teenage self it was also terrifyingly close and Nick Carraway’s claim that thirty would prove to be “a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair” did little for my (already pretty gloomy) peace of mind.
And as gauche teenager became gauche twenty-something and that dread “decade of loneliness” crept ever closer, I would be constantly on the look-out for a fictional character with whom I shared the same age – to measure myself against (be it enviously, bewilderingly, thankfully) – and to keep me company for those twelve months before stepping aside for next year’s model. At some point mental notes turned to scribbled jottings, and a very personal and private obsession drifted into the realms of an objective project. And I began to wonder if it would be possible to find a different male and female representative in literature for each year of a person’s life. The result would be, I hoped, a kind of anthology which, when read from start to finish, would give a sense of the passage of time as viewed through the prism of literature: the miniscule changes wrought upon our minds and bodies as consciousness blooms, experience accrues, hopes rise and fall, options expand and then retract.
I decided early on to toe to Biblical line and take my cue from the King James Bible, Psalm 90:1. (“The days of our lives are threescore and ten.”) In doing this I am well aware that I am blithely ignoring scientific advancements, life-style choices, etc. that have extended the human life-span into the high-nineties and beyond. (I am also conveniently ignoring the Psalm’s caveat that “if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” But let’s not get into that.) This decision has nothing to do with any deeply-held religious beliefs. Instead, seventy years presents, in my view, a nicely symmetrical arc: one that can be summarised by Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man with approximately a neat ten years allocated to each stage between mewling infant and mere oblivion: childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle age, old age.
For my Personal Anthology, then, I thought I’d try to do with twelve short stories what Three Score & Ten is trying to do with hundreds of literary characters, and have chosen twelve stories that, when read in sequence, should give an impression of one’s progress through life. I’ve chosen stories with a male and female protagonist for each stage, with male authors writing the male characters and females authors writing the female characters. This is mainly for consistency, but also because, as Angela Carter observes in her introduction to her short story anthology, Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women:
“On the whole, women writers are kinder to women.”
Three Score & Ten or Like Ice Under a Terrible Fire lives at http://livesinlit.com/.