Introduction to a cradle-to-grave (and beyond) Personal Anthology

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

‘The Basement Room’ by Graham Greene


All his seven nursery years vibrated with the strange, the new experience…

When his parents set off for a fortnight’s holiday, seven-year-old Philip Lane is left at home in the care of the butler and housekeeper, Mr and Mrs Baines. Philip takes the absence of his parents in his stride. He is giddy with his new-found freedom and more than happy to exchange the familiar confines of his nursery of the for the strange new world of the Baines’s titular basement room. Indeed, throughout this story Philip seems to be on a quest to expand his experience even further and explore the world beyond the walls of his parents’ “great Belgravia house.” (“This is life,” he tells himself again and again, the phrase running throughout the story like, well, like a stick of Brighton rock.)

But as Philip pushes against the boundaries of his childhood he discovers that life beyond the nursery is beset with incomprehensible adult concerns. And Philip soon becomes unwittingly entangled in Mr Baines’ extramarital affair – something that has terrible consequences for all concerned; consequences that go far further than the realisation that Philip’s beloved Mr Baines has feet of clay; consequences, indeed, that will reverberate down the years, and colour Philip’s own adult life. (And colour, perhaps, L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between, which seems to be a development and expansion of Greene’s brilliantly compact short story.) 

First published in Town & Country, 1936. Collected in Nineteen Stories, William Heinemann 1947 and Collected Stories, Penguin 1986

‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit’ by Sylvia Plath


The year the war began I was in the fifth grade at the Annie F. Warren Grammar School in Winthrop, and that was the winter I won the prize for drawing the best Civil Defence signs…

More lost innocence and more feet of clay are dealt with in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit.’ A young girl growing up opposite an airport spends her nights dreaming that she can fly, like Superman “in his shiny blue suit with his cape whistling in the wind, looking remarkably like my Uncle Frank who was living with Mother and me.” But when she is blamed for something she didn’t do (pushing over her schoolmate Paula Brown and spoiling Paula’s brand new snowsuit) she is dismayed to discover that her inherent assumptions regarding ideals such as fairness and rightfulness are really quite useless when put up against the actual cruelty of other children and the fallibility of adult judgement:

The silver airplanes and the blue capes all dissolved and vanished, wiped away like the crude drawings of a child in colored chalk from the colossal blackboard of the dark.

First published in Smith Review, 1955. Collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams and Other Prose Writings, Faber & Faber 1977

‘Araby’ by James Joyce


I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play…

The narrator of Joyce’s ‘Araby’ is neither named nor aged, but going from his preoccupations (caught somewhere between enjoying the company of his schoolboy friends and longing for the company of a local girl whose name “was like a summons to all my foolish blood”) I think it’s fair to say that adolescent hormones are starting to simmer. When the object of his affections finally deigns to actually speak to him (flirtatiously bemoaning the fact that she will not be able to attend the local Araby bazaar) the narrator is determined to go in her stead and bring her back a gift. And so the visit to the Araby becomes an idee fixe in his young mind: a quest to win the girl’s love and progress on to the next stage in his development. But, as we have already seen in Greene’s ‘The Basement Room’ and Plath’s ‘Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit’ the adult world is too vast and complex to accommodate the idealisations of non-adults. And when the narrator’s adolescent epiphany comes, it is crushing.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards Ltd, 1914. available now in numerous print editions and online at The Literature Network

‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter


I was seventeen and knew nothing of the world…

Angela Carter’s masterly retelling of the story of Bluebeard and his murdered wives begins with the seventeen-year-old narrator travelling by train “away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.” She is also journeying into that liminal, unpredictable terrain that lies between child- and adulthood; between innocence and experience; between fear and desire. Of her new husband we are told that he is “older than I. He was much older than I; there were streaks of silver in his dark main.” He is also immensely wealthy and a widower a few times over, and it doesn’t take our seventeen year-old narrator long to realise that she is seriously out of her depth: that she has come too soon to that “unguessable country”; and that she will be made to pay a price for her folly.

‘The Bloody Chamber’ is brilliantly sustained piece of floridly gothic writing – by turns darkly funny, sensuously erotic and humanely moving, with gleeful forays into the blackest horror that lies at the heart of all the best fairy tales. Interestingly – and perhaps provocatively – Carter makes her heroine something more than a mere hapless victim. Throughout the story we are not only reminded of the narrator’s youth and innocence, but also of her “potentiality for corruption” and longing for experience, the narrator seeming to accept some degree of responsibility for the fix she finds herself in:

I could not say I felt one single twinge of regret for the world of tartines and maman that now receded from me as if drawn away on a string, like a child’s toy…

First published in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Gollancz, 1979 and currently available from Vintage Classics. Collected in Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories, Chatto & Windus 1995

‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz

Young Adulthood…

I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday…

Delmore Schwartz’s most famous short story (apparently written over a single weekend by the similarly aged Schwartz) is the retelling of a dream the unnamed narrator has on the eve of his twenty-first birthday. In this dream the narrator is seated in a cinema audience, watching an old black and white film of the courtship of his own young, not-yet-married parents. He sees his father arriving at his mother’s family home to take her out on a date, and watches his grandfather (his mother’s father) disapprovingly observe his would-be-son-in-law. The narrator muses that his grandfather is perhaps worried that “my father would not make a good husband for his oldest daughter,” and just at that moment the film breaks down.

It quickly resumes, and the couple depart for their date at Coney Island. And yet the sense lingers that the grandfather, through an unguarded comment or question, could have put a stop to everything right there; but, by holding his peace, has allowed the union to continue, and all that follows. Meanwhile, the twenty-one-year-old result of this union continues to watch his parents on their date, all the time horribly aware of their flaws and insecurities. At one point he even stands up to shout at the screen: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”

It’s Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’ meets the Back to the Future – shot through with a healthy does of Jewish intelligentsia circa 1930s New York.

First published in the first issue of Partisan Review, 1937. Collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, 1938 and in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories 1978

‘Interrupted Story’ (“História interrompidia”) by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Young Adulthood…

I was twenty-two and felt nature in my every fibre…

The importance of the sudden acquisition and the careful of wielding of real adult responsibilities is also considered in Clarice Lispector’s ‘Interrupted Story’, which, like Shwartz’s ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’, was written when its author was around the same age of her story’s narrator. Here the unnamed narrator finds herself ill-equipped to meet the demands placed on her by her depressed lover. We are told very little about this man other than he is “sad and tall” and constantly complains that his life is “shattered” and amounts to nothing but “a pile of shards”. The narrator struggles to find the words that she thinks her lover would see as an adequate response and instead falls back on platitudes (“for someone who’s read a little and thought quite a lot during nights of insomnia, it’s relatively easy to make up things that sound profound.”) At the same time the narrator is intensely conscious of her youth – luxuriating in its sensuousness, while decrying its inexperience – and realises that her own, autonomous, happiness is under threat:

I had to react. I wanted to see whether the grayness of his words could cloud my twenty-two years and the bright summer afternoon.

The woman believes that her youth and beauty alone will be enough to “save” her lover; that these in themselves are a form of “Truth”; and that if the couple were to marry all their problems will be over. But before she is able to propose she learns that the man has committed suicide. 

The story ends with the narrator (now married and looking back at this period in her youth) wondering if any of this – her lover’s suicide, her own pain – “had any meaning”. This ambiguous, elliptical little story does not proportion blame. Rather, it seems to be reflecting on the flawed innocence of youth and the fundamental unknowability of other people’s inner lives. 

Dated October 1940, first published posthumously in Beauty and the Beast (A bela e a fera), Nova Fronteira, Rio de Janeiro, 1979, then collected in Complete Stories, New Directions 2015

‘Events in Yer Life’ by James Kelman


He was thirty one and he didn’t feel like was making a good job of his life…

Derek, the thirty-one year old protagonist of James Kelman’s (relatively) long short story is back home in Glasgow to assist in matters following the death of his mother. Effectively orphaned (his father died when Derek was a child) Derek suddenly feels adrift in his own life: unwilling to fully commit in his relationship, still smarting over an incident at art school which saw him leave the course prematurely, still grieving and reeling over his “first adult experience of death”:

He kept getting tearful. But that was alright, that was alright. It was alright. It was just

What follows is a very Kelmanesque long dark night of the soul: Derek meets up with his old friend from his student days and they go to the pub, Derek hoping that the drinking session will help him “get the other thing out of his system. What other thing? His fucking life.” So, they get drunk. They reminisce. They eye up girls at the bar. They argue about Derek’s apparent “Englishness” after being away from Glasgow for so long; discuss old friends and acquaintances; Derek look enviously at his friend’s married status and compares it to his own uncommitted relationship:

He had been too long on his own. Maybe if he had settled down and was rearing a family.

As tends to be the case in such things, nothing gets resolved. Kelman’s instincts regarding where to begin and end his stories – or rather, where to join and leave his untidy narratives – is as impeccable as ever. And the reader is left with a sense of Derek’s life going on, like all our lives, in their own haphazard fashion, far beyond the final full stop. 

Published in The Burn, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd 1991

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

Middle Age…

He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one…

We meet Ned Merrell – the protagonist of Cheever’s most famous short story – one summer Sunday afternoon at a poolside, amongst friends. And although Ned is never specifically aged, we are not only told that he “seemed to have the special slenderness of youth” but also that he is “far from young.” This discrepancy between appearance and reality lies at the heart of this story (and given what we come to learn about Ned’s situation in life, it is safe to assume that he is deep into middle-age). Indeed, Ned Merrell, with his habit of repressing “unpleasant facts” could be a distant relative to ‘Bliss’s’ Bertha Young. Even the imagery used by Mansfield and Cheever to describe their respective protagonists is strikingly similar: Bertha is described as feeling “as though [she’d] suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in [her] bosom”; while Ned is described “as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.” However, it is important to note that both these descriptions come from the beginnings of their stories, and Ned, like Bertha, is in for a rude awakening as he attempts to swim his way home via the pools of his neighbours. And while one nurtures a vain hope at the end of ‘Bliss’ that the thirty-year-old Bertha might still be able to salvage something from her life and start again, crucially, Ned seems far older than Bertha, and subsequently the stakes seem far higher. And by the time the one has finished reading ‘The Swimmer’ it is quite clear that Ned is finished too. 

First published in The New Yorker, 1964, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in The Brigadier and the Golf Widow, Harper & Row, 1964, and The Stories of John Cheever, Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield


What can you do if you are thirty…?

Bertha Young, the thirty-year old protagonist of ‘Bliss’, is someone who has settled down to raise a family. Indeed, on the face of it, she appears to have it all: 

“Really – really – she had everything. She was young. Harry and she were as much in love as ever […] She had an adorable baby. They didn’t have to worry about money. They had this absolutely satisfactory house and garden. And friends – modern, thrilling friends, writers and painters and poets or people keen on social questions – just the kind of friends they wanted. And then there were books, and there was music, and she had found a wonderful little dressmaker, and they were going abroad in the summer, and their new cook made the most superb omelettes…” 

And yet, and yet… Bertha Young may well spend the story in a state of sustained bliss (playing with her little daughter, hosting a dinner party for her fashionable friends, teasing her husband, etc.) but there’s an unvoiced adage lurking behind that single word title. And when, in the final passages of the story, Bertha’s reality is made brutally clear to her, that adage takes shape to remind us all that ignorance is bliss, and that bliss is ignorance. 

First published in the English Review 1918. Collected in Bliss and Other Stories, Alfred A. Knopf, 1920 and The Collected Stories, Constable, 1945. Available to read on the Katherine Mansfield Society webpage

‘Christmas Roses’ by Edna O’Brien

Middle Age

Miss Hawkins had seen it all…

Miss Hawkins used to be a cabaret artiste. A woman who “had toured Europe and was the toast of the richest man in Baghdad”; someone who “had had lovers of all nationalities, endless proposals of marriage, champagne in every known vessel, not forgetting the slipper.” But now, at fifty-five, Miss Hawkins has decided that it is time to hang up her “gold meshed suits” and settle down. So she retires to London where she leads a simple, solitary life, teaching private dancing and tending to her local municipal garden. Then one day she comes across a young man camping out in her municipal garden. The pair strike up a conversation and become unlikely friends – attending the theatre together, dining out in restaurants, etc. – and when the young man announces that he has to leave his Notting Hill flat-share, Miss Hawkins offers him a bed (OK, a futon) in her home. By now readers may well be bracing themselves for a humiliating denouement of Ortonesque proportions, but the surprising (and quite refreshing) ending of ‘Christmas Roses’ seems to bear out Angela Carter’s claim that “women writers are kinder to women.” 

First published in Mrs Reinhardt and Other Stories, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978

‘By the St. Lawrence’ by Saul Bellow

Old age…

At his age the reprieve from death could be nothing but short…

Bellow’s last short story, ‘By the St. Lawrence’, concerns a typical Bellow protagonist-cum-surrogate: the elderly academic Rob Rexler – or, as the opening sentence puts it: “Not the Rob Rexler? […] the man who wrote all those books on theater and cinema in Weimar Germany, the author of Postwar Berlin and of the controversial study of Bertolt Brecht.”

Rexler is still convalescing after a near-fatal illness when he is invited to travel from New York to his childhood hometown of Lachine, Canada to give a lecture. Having described himself as a man “playing hopscotch at death’s door” Rexler perhaps realises he may never get this chance again to revisit old haunts, and accepts the invitation. Once at Lachine he tramps about his old neighbourhood, noticing how whole streets have been demolished, so that he is afforded an uninterrupted view of the great St. Lawrence river (with undoubtedly symbolic connotations regarding the river and Rexler’s closeness to death: what once was hidden is now in plain sight, with “its platinum rush towards the North Atlantic”).

This being Bellow, the narrative swings liberally between the past and present, Rexler giving full play to his childhood memories. He remembers growing up with his extended family of cousins and uncles and aunts; of having to wait outside in the car while his older cousin paid a visit to a local whorehouse; of the dead man they see on the way home, killed by a passing train, “his organs on the roadbed – first the man’s liver, shining on the white, egg-shaped stones, and a little beyond it his lungs.” Rexler’s recollections regarding sex and death and the ripeness of all are leant poignancy by their vividness (Bellow may well have been a convalescent himself at the time of writing ‘By the St. Lawrence’, but his prose is as sharply observed as ever) and by the knowledge that all these remembered individuals are now dead; that Rexler is the last man standing and that he himself is fast approaching “the magnetic field that every living thing must enter.”

Ultimately ‘By the St. Lawrence’ is more than a mere jaunt down memory lane. Nor is it a simple memento mori. Rather, it seems to be a paean to the vitality of memory and of the knowledge that comes to one towards the end: 

These observations […] were his whole life – his being – and love was what produced them.

First published in Esquire, 1995, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Collected Stories, Viking, 2001

‘Sleep It Off, Lady’ by Jean Rhys

’You know Letty, I’ve been thinking a great about death lately…’

Old Age…

Another late story from another great writer unafraid to look old age squarely in the face, ‘Sleep It Off, Lady’ opens with its elderly protagonist, Miss Verney, confessing to her friend, Letty, that her thoughts have started to take a morbid turn. 

Her friend tells her that this is “quite natural. We old people are rather like children, we live in the present as a rule. A merciful dispensation of providence.” But Letty is voicing these platitudinous assurances from the relative comfort of being “only sixty-three and might, with any luck, see many a summer” whereas Miss Verney, being “well over seventy, could hardly hope for anything of the sort.”

And so we follow Miss Verney into her final months (then weeks, then days) as trivialities grow to all-consuming tribulations: her unwanted garden shed, her fear of the rat she has seen in the garden, her loneliness and frustration at having to rely increasingly on others as her health continues to fail. Until, finally, one morning she wakes up “feeling very well and very happy. Also she was not at all certain where she was. She lay luxuriating in the feeling of renewed youth, renewed health and slowly recognized the various pieces of furniture.

‘Of course,’ she thought when she drew the curtains. ‘What a funny place to end up.’

First published in The New Review. Collected in Sleep It Off Lady,André Deutsch 1976, and The Collected Short Stories, Penguin 1987

‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ by H.P. Lovecraft

Death… and beyond!

“There are horrors beyond life’s edge that we do not suspect…”

I know, I know, that I should stop at twelve – that to press on any further is nothing but sheer madness and a blatant – nay, blasphemous! – transgression of Personal Anthology Guidelines… But if the fates smile and Jonathan turns a blind eye and allow me this moment of folly to choose one last story (and an unlucky thirteenth story to boot!) the reader will come to learn of an eldritch world where distinctions between the male and female form, between youth and old age, between life and death itself! become hideously intwined… 

(To say much more would be to spoil the twists and turns of this nasty little story – and I’m already worried that I’ve said too much already – but I shall just add that ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ is not only also my favourite Lovecraft, but is an ideal starting point for new readers who just fancy reading a good old-fashioned-and-genuinely-quite-chilling horror story without getting too bogged down in the bottomless swamps of the Cthulhu Mythos. Though there are far worse swamps to get bogged down in, if you ask me…)

First published in Weird Tales, 1937. Collected in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 3: The Haunter of the Dark, Victor Gollancz 1951. Available to read on the HP Lovecraft website here