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Sunday October 20, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday October 20, 2013 MYT 9:03:34 AM
by nicholas lezard
Young success: ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous,’ said English romantic poet Lord Byron on his success when only 26 years old. —Hulton Archive/Getty Images
So you’ve won the Booker Prize before you’re 30. Now, what about the rest of your career as a writer? One literary critic weighs in on peaking too early.
IN 1956 Samuel Beckett, then 50 years old, wrote to his American publisher about how he viewed his newfound fame, as Waiting For Godot suddenly gave him an audience that had hitherto been ignoring him for decades. “Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me. In fact, I feel more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life up to the last couple of years.”
That’s always been one of my favourite quotations: it advances the idea that success is somehow not good for one, and that failure is bracing and healthy for the soul. So we sympathise deeply with the unfortunate Eleanor Catton, who at 28 has become the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker prize. What is more, she did it with an 800-plus-page book (The Luminaries – look out for an interview with Catton and a review of her book on Tuesday in Star2). I am fairly sure there are plenty of people who, by the age of 28, have not read 800 pages, let alone written them.
As I grew up, I did what I suspect is very widespread practice: I would note my own age, and compare it with the ages of people I aspired to be like. So when I first got into the Beatles, aged 12, I would say to myself: “Plenty of time yet,” as I knew that I had 11 years before I needed to sign my first record deal (if we count from John Lennon’s age, not George Harrison’s). How foolish! Twenty-eight, McCartney’s age when the Beatles split up, is now a dot in the rear-view mirror.
Contemplation of the successful young gets more depressing as we get older without achieving anything, apart from that time you won the girl’s Year Nine discus event or, in my case, a year’s free Puffin Club membership in 1974. It has all been downhill ever since and although – like all authors – I imagined, on the eve of my books’ publications, that I would awake the next day to find myself, like Byron, famous, fame somehow remains elusive. (This happened to Byron after the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, when he was – eurgh – 24.)
The problem, I like to think, is peaking too early. One does not want to wear the batteries out. Well, that’s what you say as the milestones fall.
We now tend to dwell on those who took a while to get cracking. Anton Bruckner was 48 before he composed a symphony he was happy with (and he was still tinkering with it 20 years later). Kenneth Grahame was 49 when he published the still selling well The Wind In The Willows. Lowry didn’t have his first London exhibition until the beginning of his sixth decade, which puts whippersnappers such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin in their place. Now round about the half-century mark themselves, they could be said, if the reviews and the evidence of my own eyes are anything to go by, to be entering the twilight of their careers. Get knocked down at that age and it becomes harder to get up again.
So let us salute the masters – or mistresses, if you prefer – of the art of starting late: Mary Wesley and Diana Athill, 70 and – amazingly – 83, respectively, before their careers really got going. There is also Prof Peter Higgs, a Nobel laureate at 84 (albeit for work he’d done 50 years earlier). Contemplate these most worthy and excellent examples, breathe deeply of the vivifying air of failure, and heap pity upon the likes of poor Eleanor Catton, who is going to have to spend the rest of her life with a major achievement behind her. – Guardian News & Media
Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for The Guardian newspaper.
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