The Book Babes have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about women's lives. One of the premises behind our book, "Between the Covers," is that we women have similar needs and ambitions as men but a different life trajectory -- hardly an original thought with us, but one that literature haoften overlooks in favor of the male model of heading out to conquer the world. Lately, though, I've been focused on some excellent recent fiction that examines men's lives from another angle: old age.
Through the lens of "Out Stealing Horses," the bestseller by Per Petterson; "Rules for Old Men Waiting," by Peter Pouncey; and "Italian Shoes," by Henning Mankell (best known as author of the Kurt Wallander novels), I've marveled at how hard the final stage of life can be for men alone. "Rules" feaures a widower waiting for life's end in the summer cottage he and his wife had long shared in the Northeast U.S. The other two are Scandinavians -- Petterson's Norwegian, Mankell's Swedish -- who have isolated themselves from society and seem to be marking time. They go through the day with little purpose and passion.
For Pouncey's character, a retired academic, the aloneness seems an unwelcome byproduct of being out of the swim of things. For Petterson's and Mankell's characters, however, their isolation is quite deliberate, a result of their temperaments and the circumstances of their past lives. They are not collegial people. Petterson's Trond Sander still pays the price of his father's desertion when he was a teen. Mankell's Fredrik Welin has a disturbing fear of connection. He jilted a woman who loved him. A surgeon, he left the profession after accidentally committing malpractice.
Some observations based on these stories:
1. Wife-less feels life-less. Without a significant other to give shape to their lives, each of these men seems adrift, unable to give love or have it returned. Women offer at least the potential for emotional salvation.
2. Nature or nurture? The social conditioning in the U.S. promotes the extrovert. In Scandinavia, not so much: Aloneness and loneliness are hardly seen as one and the same. And yet in both contexts men seem less prone to stay connected with others.
3. What about the male quest? The archetype of the heroic individual looks appealing in a young and successful man. But somehow the aging process plays havoc with that model.
Women often think that aging favors men, but these three fictional characters may change your mind.