Sunday, April 01, 2012

Whose last (or latish) novel was their best?


I imagine there are few writers who turned out their best work at the end of life. But...

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV as his final novel at age 60. A case can me made that this was his best and if not (CRIME AND PUNISHMENT) it certainly shows no diminution of talent.

Who else held the torch high later in life?

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good question!

I wouldn't call RAYLAN Elmore Leonard at his best but it certainly holds to a high standard at age 86. I haven't read P. D. James's latest but she certainly is getting good reviews. She's 91!

Jeff M.

Margot Kinberg said...

I was going to mention P.D. James, too, Patti. She is incredibly talented and that hasn't changed...

Todd Mason said...

Damon Knight. While he wrote brilliant short fiction (and criticism that enraged Ed Gorman, and not Ed alone), he never wrote a novel that was fully realized till the last decade or so of his life, with CV and its sequels, THE OBSERVERS and A REASONABLE WORLD, and his last two novels, WHY DO BIRDS and HUMPTY DUMPTY.

Another brilliant writer of shorter forms (wait for it), Avram Davidson, would often lose interest in his novels after selling them, and they would lose their way in the chapters written beyond the samples that drove the sale. The major exceptions to this were his first, a collaboration with Ward Moore, JOYLEG, his last published in his lifetime, in collaboration with ex-wife Grania Davis, MARCO POLO AND THE SLEEPING BEAUTY, and his great constructs of the mid '60s MASTERS OF THE MAZE and, to some extent, THE PHOENIX AND THE MIRROR (if he'd had the time and wherewithal, it might be one of the masterpieces of the decade, at least, as opposed to brilliant in large part but, to use the phrase again, not fully realized...the sequels and related stories which follow simply make this that much more clear).

HARD LANDING by Algis Budrys is woefully underrated.

And, of course, there are those such as Richard McKenna who didn't get a chance to write anything later in life, so that his one and only novel, THE SAND PEBBLES, stands as his monument, along with his short fiction and some essays. Or Karl Edward Wagner, who didn't publish a novel in the last decade of his life, while continuing to edit (and, unfortunately, to drink and otherwise recreationally medicate far too much).

George said...

Henry James hit the trifecta with WINGS OF THE DOVE, THE AMBASSADORS, and THE GOLDEN BOWL late in his career. None of those classics were commercial successes.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Penelope Lively's new HOW IT ALL BEGAN got rave reviews and she is 79.
Those were probably James' most difficult books. Amazing.
Encyclopedia Mason-how do you remember all this?

Todd Mason said...

Well, I had to retire from my elementary-school detective business when Donald Sobol sued me, and I have to fill the time some way. Workaholism only takes one So Far.

It bugs me that other examples are scratching at the edge of memory...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Read the JCO review in the NYT today where the reviewer slams JCO work ethics and those of all workaholics.
Now a writer gets a two-bit analysis with the review.

Charles Gramlich said...

Really a good question. Hemingway was still writing well at the end of his life. but maybe the Suicide thing changes the issue a bit. Gotta give it some thought.

Todd Mason said...

One fairly obvious example I'd overlooked is Fritz Leiber, whose last two non-retrospective nor omnibuses were the extraordinary novel OUR LADY OF DARKNESS and the solid and very autumnal linked-story collection THE KNIGHT AND THE KNAVE OF SWORDS.

I think Theodore Sturgeon's GODBODY isn't as bad as many suggest, including George Kelley, but it isn't the work he'll be remembered for.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that's a good example. Hemingway was only 61 when he killed himself and inability to write any more was a part of it.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

Italo Calvino's last two were IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER... and MR. PALOMAR. (Though he, too, died youngish, at 61.)(Another reminder to get in gear.)

Dave Zeltserman said...

Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind)

Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Mitchell was only 36 when it came out. Not sure how old Harper Lee was.
To have your only novel be a good one is kind of tragic. Thinking of Raintree County by Ross Lockridge too with this topic.

Todd Mason said...

I believe Dave was having some seasonal fun with the topic.

Deb said...

George beat me to Henry James. Yes, he can be a tough read (Henry, not George!), but his books are completely worth the effort. I'd put THE GOLDEN BOWL in my top ten favorite books of all time. People forget that James had a terrible disappointment in the later part of his life when a play he had poured his soul into was roundly savaged by critics and audience alike, but he pulled himself together, realized that he would never realize his dream of being a successful playwrite, and spent the remainder of his life writing some of his greatest work.

Deb said...

Margaret Mitchell lived another ten years after writing GWTW, but never published another novel. (I'm not sure, but I think she may have published some non-fiction in magazines during that time.) Her husband was ill and she spent a lot of time nursing him. In fact, she died when she pushed him out of the way of a speeding car and was hit by the car instead. There were always rumors that she had a GWTW sequel stashed away, but thus far no one has found it.

Martin Edwards said...

Reg Hill's The Woodcutter is certainly one of his best. And Julian Symons' Death's Darkest Face is exceptional too.

Todd Mason said...

Mark Twain's THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER is certainly among his better longer fictions.

Eugene O'Neill's last three plays, apparently (though others were published and performed later), were THE ICEMAN COMETH, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, and A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN...his near-best, his best, and not bad for him. (Disease disrupted his writing for the last decade of his life.)

(Mason, not writing fiction...funny how that can happen.)

Cullen Gallagher said...

Goodis. "Somebody's Done For" is his last book and, in my opinion, his best.

Ron Scheer said...

Patti, you got me to read the JCO review you mention. Ha. You're right.

Todd Mason said...

I'm never surprised, as you know, when the NYTBR is full of [excrement].

(Mason, who has finished one of possibly two zoo stories for tomorrow.)

Deb said...

I'll have Edward Albee email you my "Zoo Story"--ha-ha.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Post both, Todd. Interesting to see where you went with it.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, if I finish the second, both will be up, never fear. Thanks.

("No, Deb...I said I'm going to the LOO!")

pattinase (abbott) said...

Have never seen that play, Deb.

Todd Mason said...

Do you read plays, much, Patti? It's a good read. Though it was one of the few plays, rather than author or actor readings, I head on a Spoken Arts recording first, with pretty good casting for the two roles. From memory, the first lines are, "I'm going to the zoo. Hey, MISTER...I'm Going To The ZOO."

Well, my first story is a little long and cheats a bit...my second is a lot long (though still pretty short), but it won't get trimmed tonight! (Not least because it's almost time for THE GOOD WIFE and SHAMELESS.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Country Music Awards. No GOOD WIFE.
I rarely read plays. Not sure why.

Todd Mason said...

As if to make up for no THE GOOD WIFE, the only authentic and actually moving moment ever on HOUSE OF LIES played out on tonight's episode, when Kristen Bell's character broke up with her fiance, accepted his sophomoric response (he, unlike every other character in the series, had not acted sophomorically till now), and told him utterly earnestly that it was her fault and that he shouldn't think less of himself. A bit like seeing a scene from Ibsen or Tom Stoppard in the middle of a HAPPY DAYS episode.

Dan_Luft said...

One of my favorite books -- MASTER AND MARGARITA by Bulgakov.

Not his best but Richard Brautigan's SO THE WIND WON'T BLOW IT ALL AWAY is way underrated even by people who still love Brautigan.

Anonymous said...

I've read a lot of plays over the years, Todd - all of O'Neill and Coward, Shakespeare, Neil Simon, Alan Ayckbourn, John Mortimer, etc.

I try and read as many plays that we see as I can find at the library.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

Some definitely more rewarding thus than others. Shaw often makes a good read, better than, say, Pinter.

I'll have to check if anyone's still publishing the best plays of the year volumes of the '60s into at least the '80s...

Cap'n Bob said...

Zeltserman stole my answer.