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What’s the best novel ever written by an 85-year-old?

I recently read A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré. It was pretty good. Which is impressive given that the author wrote it when he was 85! OK, I’m not saying it was as good as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I still liked it. It was done well, and if it featured some of Le Carré’s more annoying tics, it also featured some excellent examples of his interweaving of thought and action, which I’d call “cinematic” except that in some ways it’s the opposite of cinematic in that so much is happening inside the character’s head.

Anyway, here’s my real question. What’s the best novel every written by an 85-year-old? Old authors can write excellent essays—they’re practiced in putting words together, and writing an essay is like noodling around on the piano for an experienced musician: they know how to structure their ideas and make them go down smoothly. But a novel, that’s another story. Updike’s novels were disintegrating for decades even while he kept up the quality of his stories and essays—and he didn’t even reach 80. Who else is or was still writing solid, readable novels at 85?

48 Comments

  1. Adede says:

    I got the impression that Updike’s decline was due not so much to aging but getting stuck in a rut with a certain novelistic schtick. Yeah, the first Angstrom book is good, but how many times can you revisit the well before it goes dry?

    This is a tricky question. I know many authors who have improved with time, but not many authors (or people in general) who lived to 85. Cormac McCarthy is 87, but hasn’t come out with a novel in over a decade. If something finally appears in print, he may take the crown.

    • Andrew says:

      Adede:

      I liked Rabbit is Rich, published when Updike was 51. It wasn’t as good as Rabbit, Run, but it still had a lot going for it. After that, though, I think his novels ranged from mediocre to flat-out unreadable. But his stories and reviews remained excellent.

  2. Jeff says:

    Haven’t read anything from the qualifying period but maybe Elmore Leonard?

    • Andrew says:

      Jeff:

      I looked it up, and Elmore Leonard indeed published a novel at the age of 85, so it’s possible. I didn’t really like any of his novels after Glitz (published when he was 60), but I don’t know if that’s because the novels got worse or because at that point I’d read enough of them that I knew the drill. In any case, for the purpose of this discussion, it’s not necessary that the written-at-85 novel be excellent, just that it be of reasonable quality.

  3. Matt says:

    James Salter wrote “All That Is” when he was in his late 80s.

    • Manu says:

      Yes, I immediately thought of this one as well. And it’s not only some book, it’s a pretty amazing one (well, at least to me). I really like Salter’s style, although I can understand when people aren’t too fond of the plot. Many books that were written that late in their author’s career probably aren’t exactly considered the author’s finest work, however some critics (if I recall correctly) named it Salter’s best book.

  4. Chris says:

    Andrea Camilleri wrote his last novel at the age of 92/93. OK the Montalbano series is not high art but these are well-plotted and amusing books that make excellent screenplays…

  5. Jeremy says:

    I thought David Lodge’s A Man of Parts was pretty good. It was published when Lodge was 76, so it’s in the ballpark.

  6. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Herman Wouk wrote two novels after 85. (Quality? No idea…)
    Tom Wolfe’s last novel was published when he was 82. Close, but no cigar.
    Toni Morrison fell just short as well.

    • RQA says:

      William Gass (b. 1924) published “Middle C” in 2013; it’s highly regarded (it won the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2015), but I can’t vouch for its quality myself. To be sure, Gass had been working on the novel since 1998.

  7. paul alper says:

    Phillip Roth (1933 to 2018) lived to be 85 but wisely quit writing (2010) after the age of 77 when he realized he could no longer produce. Tom Lehrer, America’s foremost intellectual of the second half of the 20th century, will be 93 on April 9th but he has not composed/performed for decades.

  8. anon says:

    Saul Bellow (1915-2005) published Ravelstein in 2000.

  9. Dustin G says:

    Louis Auchincloss (1917-2010, 92 years of age, cutoff at 2003) wrote novels about NYCs Upper East Side elite which, as wiki notes, “were in the tradition of Henry James and Edith Wharton.”

    He may well win the prize for most prolific octogenarian with four novels, two collections of short stories and one nonfiction published from 2003 and after.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Auchincloss

  10. Rahul says:

    Andrew:

    What are Le Carres “annoying tics”?

    Just curious.

    • Phil says:

      Oh lordy, don’t get me started. Indeed, I’m not going to start.

      My biggest complaint is not really a ‘tic’, it’s too big for that: it’s the plots. The fact that there’s a cynical, tragic betrayal of human decency in the final pages, it’s just too predictable and manipulative. His NYT obituary says “Mr. le Carré’s spies are lonely, disillusioned men whose work is driven by budget troubles, bureaucratic power plays and the opaque machinations of politicians — men who are as likely to be betrayed by colleagues and lovers as by the enemy”…yeah, and that works great for the first novel, and the second, and the third, and the fourth, but by the fifth or sixth I was starting to wish for a new theme, or at least some major variations on the same theme.

      My advice to anyone who wants to read Le Carre: read Tinker Tailor, then Smiley’s People, then (if you enjoyed them) pick any other three and read those. Then stop.

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      Oh, a bunch of things. The tradecraft and the plot are great, aa always. But Le Carré plays favorites among his characters, and he makes his heroes into supermen. Peter Guillam is something like 85 years old himself in the book, but he’s super-energetic, has lots of endurance, is always mentally alert, always ready for a physical confrontation, he’s got a twenty-something mistress . . . seems a bit much.

      • Rahul says:

        Thanks! Any reccomendations for better spy tales?

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          I like Olen Steinhauer‘s books. I wouldn’t say they’re better than Le Carré’s. Le Carré is great. Steinhauer’s have a bit more action, which is fun. Like Le Carré, Steinhauer started to get tangled in the complexities of the world he’d created, which is related to the general point discussed here, of the impossibility of a fully coherent fictional universe.

          Also I like Eric Ambler. His prewar books are often considered his best, but I’ve enjoyed many of his postwar books as well. Lots of great plots and imaginative scenarios. I remember one of his later books took place in a house on the Mediterranean where the narrator is hiding out with some colleagues and trying to figure out how to escape in one piece. Kind of a thinking man’s Donald E. Westlake.

        • Phil says:

          “Restless”, by William Boyd, is good. I’m not sure why I haven’t read more of his books, considering how much I liked this one.

          “The Sympathizer”, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is not (at all) a classic spy novel, but it’s about a spy and it’s great. There’s a sequel (recent) which I haven’t read but which has gotten good reviews.

          • Coincidentally, I just finished William Boyd’s “Any Human Heart” yesterday, and thought of it when reading Andrew’s post this morning. (It’s pretty good; a made-up memoir spanning 1906 to the 1990s.) Boyd wasn’t 85 when he wrote it, but some of the more interesting parts of the book are told as journal entries of an old man, leading one to wonder how well it captures that perspective. (I’d have to wait a few decades to answer this myself.) Plus, in the middle of the book, the protagonist is a spy.

        • I’m not an expert on spy stories, but unusually (and semi-accidentally) I read three last year that were notable:

          I Was a Spy! by Marthe McKenna (1932). Non-fiction; a riveting, fast-paced memoir of a Belgian woman who becomes a spy for the Allies during WWI. (See the first link for a bit more description.)

          Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) — really excellent, and involves spying. (Also noted in the first link, of things I liked reading last year.)

          Also, not in my “best of” list, but still quite good: “Declare” by Tim Powers (2000). A spy novel, with supernatural elements – a strange combination, but it works, especially because the spy parts occupy the vast majority of the book and are very realistically, straightforwardly done. Too long, but entertaining and unique.

          Andrew should rename the blog, “Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, Social Science, and Conversations about Literature.” (I read George V. Higgins for the first time last year, probably because he was mentioned here. I’m on novel #2 now.)

          • Andrew says:

            Raghu:

            Were you the one who recommend that French noir-style book to me? If so, I can report that I’m still working on it. Reading in a foreign language is a struggle, so I only do it a bit at at time, but it’s good for me.

            • If you mean Pascal Garnier, yes! I can’t remember which book I suggested. Probably “The Islanders,” which is my favorite of the four I’ve read. (In English.) I read “C’est La Vie” last year, which I wasn’t fond of, but I have a low tolerance for books in which the main character is a writer.

  11. Phil says:

    Not a novel, but: George Seldes’s memoir, “Witness to a Century”, is absolutely fantastic. And he wrote it when he was in his mid-nineties!

    Ursula Le Guin won the Nebula Award for Best New Novel in 2007, when she was 77. Doesn’t make the cut, age-wise (not even close, really), but hey, not just a _good_ new science fiction novel, the _best_ new science fiction novel.

  12. Nathaniel says:

    Christine Brooke-Rose wrote the exceptional “Life, End Of” at 83. It’s autobiographical but still novelistic.

  13. Mark Palko says:

    Not a novelist, but Tennyson wrote “Crossing the Bar” at 79.

  14. Not Trampis says:

    tinker tailor soldier spy was like the Harry Potter series. Great movies because of great actors but hard to read books

    • Phil says:

      I can’t agree with this for either side of the scale! I thought the HP books were easy going. The movies were good too — this is not one of those cases in which I’d argue that the books were way better than the movies based on them — but I thought the books were good.

      And I looooved Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (the book). Both movies based on it were also very good — I think I prefer the more recent one, but it’s been a long time since I saw the old one and maybe I’m not remembering it — but I don’t recall that the book was especially hard going. Admittedly it has been about twenty-five years since I read it.

      Hey, while we’re on the subject of spy movies based on books, though, how about Three Days of the Condor? I think that’s a case where I _do_ prefer the movie, although the macguffin really was nonsense in the movie.

      The Bourne Identity is another where a good book was turned into a great movie. The later movies had ups and downs, but Bourne Identity was great from start to finish.

  15. Sean Matthews says:

    Robertson Davies (who has disappeared a bit, but deserves to reappear) was still writing well reviewed novels in his early 80s. An age when, I remember David Lodge, reviewing him in the NYRB, remarking, many of us would struggle to finish reading a book, never mind writing one. He did die at the age of 82 though (working on the last volume of the Toronto trilogy) so he does not quite meet your requirement.

  16. Mark says:

    He died a few days into year 85, but a vote for Patrick O’Brian, who published the last four of his Aubrey-Maturin series at the ages of 80, 81, 83, and 84.

  17. Øystein says:

    Knut Hamsun wrote a novel-like book at 90, here is Wikipedia’s description:
    “On Overgrown Paths is the English title of the final novel by Norwegian author and nobel laureate Knut Hamsun. Hamsun’s attempt to prove his soundness of mind after his sanity was called into question. Writing at the age of 90 it was his last literary work. The short novel is part a fiction pamphlet, part diary, part old man’s apologia and part protest at the court ruling in his 1948 trial, that determined he had “permanently impaired mental abilities”.”

    Controversial at the time (post WWII), but became highly regarded later.

  18. David P says:

    Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote was written (by Pierre Menard) when Cervantes must have been at least 350.

  19. Mark Palko says:

    Also not quite the same thing but Frederik Pohl was blogging into his 90s

  20. João Veríssimo says:

    The last two novels of José Saramago (a Portuguese writer, Nobel prize) were published after he was 85 and written around that age, I think. Both have English translations.

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