Late-Life Love: A Memoir, by Susan Gubar

Deborah Rogers on a testament to literature’s power to sustain life in the face of the indignities of disease and age

January 24, 2019
Source: Getty

Late-life love is a thing. Consider, for example, online geriatric dating sites such as Silver Singles – or the texts examined here by Susan Gubar, who is best known for The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (with Sandra Gilbert, 1979), which may be said to have founded Anglo-American feminist criticism.

At the age of 70, Gubar was miraculously in remission from the stage-four ovarian cancer described in her Memoir of a Debulked Woman (2012). If that work attacked medical culture for its mortifying treatment of gynaecological problems, Gubar’s Reading and Writing Cancer (2016) expanded “Living with Cancer”, her monthly online New York Times column, to promote the healing qualities of writing. Late‑Life Love, Gubar’s third cancer book, claims that her cancer and her husband’s ageing make them equivalent in terms of physical decline and deterioration. The first line of the book reads, “I am sick and he is old…”

Gubar’s husband, Don Gray, who is 17 years her senior, had been her carer during her first seven years of treatment. A successful clinical trial has given her at least two years beyond what she calls her “expiration date”. Now the tables are turned. Dealing with Don’s age-related challenges and difficult recovery from two operations for a torn tendon, Gubar is the carer.

In charge of Don’s dressing, feeding, bathing and toileting, Gubar finds much of her attention devoted to the swollen feet, the non-skid hospital socks, the toilet seat raiser, the plastic bed urinals, the extra-wide sneakers with Velcro straps. Even though she is in remission and doesn’t require Don’s help, she is still coping with indignities of her own such as excretions, vomiting, ostomy explosions and excrement dripping down her thighs. I could go on.

Gubar is frank – I’ll give her that. While I admire her unflinching, brutal honesty, unnerving though it may be, the repetition and lack of organisation become tedious. In no particular order come repeated descriptions of the trials of late-life dressing, late-life cooking, late-life grocery shopping and late-life (read non-genital) sex. Not to mention the selling of the house, the dissolution of a 40-year friendship, the family and the quilting.

In the face of degradation after degradation comes a saving grace, the literature that has always sustained Gubar, who reasserts her dignity and identity with literary analysis, musings and meanderings. Interwoven with painful physical realities are penetrating and sensitive considerations of works by Jenny Diski, Helen Simonson, Samuel Beckett, Donald Hall, Gabriel García Márquez, Ovid, Marilynne Robinson, Doris Lessing, Vita Sackville-West, Shakespeare, Philip Roth and John Updike, to name a few.

Although there are many insights here, there are also (too) many plot summaries and comparisons: “Like Don and me, Ovid’s couple [Baucis and Philemon, pictured left]…felt their own and each other’s hearts pounding…” Their first kiss is like Robert and Elizabeth Browning’s. You get the picture.

Literature and her own late‑life writing help Gubar to dignify her experience at the same time as she is urgently living it. This late‑life love may take place less in the bedroom than in the bathroom. Yet its intimacy, devotion and companionship, imbued with the anticipation of ending, can in many ways become deeper than youthful romantic love.

Deborah D. Rogers is professor of English at the University of Maine. Her history of the University of Maine from 1965 to 2015, Becoming Modern (co-edited with Howard Segal), will be published this year.

Late-Life Love: A Memoir
By Susan Gubar
W. W. Norton, 272pp, £17.99
ISBN 9780393609578
Published 20 December 2018

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