Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor

Don’t read this book. Anyone who pays serious attention to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont ought come away from it feeling less able to cope with their life. Like grief, this will be a feeling that vanishes to deceive. Just when you are enjoying a sunny spell as you walk down the street, you will remember, in the words of the poet, that like the generations of leaves so are the lives of mortal men. And that, before the branch you perch on becomes a bare ruined choir, you will have to grow old.

I will say it again, just so we are clear. Don’t read this book. I mean this like I mean it when I tell my children not to cross the road without me. Odds are, you’ll be fine. But this isn’t a risk you ought to be taking. Most of us know less than nothing about old age. There’s no mystery about why loneliness is the biggest health problem most elderly people have: we are not brave enough to see our future in such graphic detail. This masterpiece of a novel may or may not be the way you want to learn. And if you are already well versed in the impending horrors of your dotage, you should only approach this book on a sunny day when there’s a bottle of good sherry waiting for you afterwards.

Old people are among the most underrated companions you can find. It’s probably true, as Fran Lebowitz says, that you can only really understand someone of your own generation — that’s why keeping the company of older people is so rewarding. They are so different from everyone else you know. It’s like going abroad. Octogenarians have outlived enough to make them interesting irrespective of who they are, if you have the ability to listen to them clearly.

But being friends with old people gets heavy. I don’t want to diminish the suffering all friends go through with each other. Everyone’s life is as difficult as it feels to them, even, and perhaps especially, if you are young, healthy, and have no idea how lucky you are. When you are old, problems persist and they compound.

No-one escapes the bad luck of old age: the sores and the aches; the slow, cumulative loss of physical, emotional, and mental function; the slowness; the way you get overlooked; the shock of feeling young inside and then seeing yourself in the mirror; the falls; the endless medical fussing; the pills; the well-intentioned intrusion of other people’s advice; the oblivious, patronising “help”; the rudeness; the boredom; the having to piss in a commode; the sheer lack of will; the nights; the persistent knowledge that you are still beating the odds; the way you are not aware of just how far gone you are until you break something; the emptiness. It’s like being drunk, only the fun part of the evening is already way behind you.

We all know this. But we know it in passing. It is, too often, ephemeral knowledge that hasn’t corroded our souls. It can be ignored. It has to be. Perhaps you have felt the chill of Larkin’s poem The Old Fools, about as callous an example of the plain truth as literature has to offer. Or maybe you spooked yourself by getting to grips with King Lear. But still: don’t read this book.

Usually, for a book this good, this well written, this artful, I would extol it and exhort you, I would send copies to people, I would quote and quote and quote. The world is full of second-rate books about old people that are as scary as a walk in Hyde Park on an autumn day. This has all the shameless, revealing force of Larkin’s poem, but with the added despair of a mild sense of optimism that fails to deliver. Like Tess, if you find it readable you will eventually find it unreadable. Before you reach that point you will find it morbidly compelling. Spare yourself.

Mrs Palfrey is so sad, despite its eloquent concision, and the fact that it ought be used as an example everywhere of how to write precisely (Elizabeth Taylor must be one of the last people who was able to use “fantastic” credibly with its original meaning), because of the way it approaches hope and then swiftly abandons it. And the ending is cold. I don’t know how she was able to write it.

Saul Bellow famously dismissed this book by asking whether he could hear the tinkle of tea cups. Genius can be imbecilic, sometimes, and Saul was clearly putting in a late shift as a flaming moron that day. The only credible explanation is that he didn’t really read the book. Maybe he simply didn’t want to yield to his emotions and found it easy to ignore this as just one among many as a book about an old middle-class woman. If so, he must have got the fright of his life when he realised one day that he was, as we all are and will be, Mrs Palfrey.

Elizabeth Taylor has a genius not just for simple misery but for unnoticed bleak oblivion. So, only when you are ready should you read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. Read it early or read it late. This is not for the faint hearted or the middle aged. If you think you need to scare yourself in oder to make the most of your life now, then you must do nothing until you have read it. Just be warned: I told you not to.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (US link)

Poetry Society of America, Tribute to Philip Larkin — you can hear Zadie Smith reading “The Old Fools” here, much recommended

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