Late-career novels! They can be tired, not that original, or other negative things — even if they’re written by great authors. There are only so many ideas in novelists’ brains, and their energy might flag as they grow older.
Yet, over the centuries, some authors have penned exceptional books decades after their debut novels were published — after spending many years honing their craft and gaining (frequently bitter) life experience. In some cases, those books may have taken longer to write than those authors’ earlier efforts, but they were worth the wait.
I thought about this last week while reading the novella Hadji Murat, which Leo Tolstoy started in 1896 and finished in 1904 (when in his mid-70s) before it was released posthumously in 1912. (Tolstoy’s best-known works — War and Peace and Anna Karenina — were published much earlier, in 1867 and 1877, respectively.) Hadji Murat, about a brave and adept Chechen rebel, is a gripping piece of fiction — with the added bonus of a scathingly satirical look at the loathsome Tsar Nicholas I, who appears in one chapter.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final work was none other than his amazing The Brothers Karamazov, published in 1880 — the year before Dostoyevsky died at age 59. Many literature lovers debate whether Karamazov or 1866’s Crime and Punishment were better (I prefer the latter), but they’re both masterpieces. Dostoyevsky’s first novel came out in 1846.
Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee, also appeared in 1846. Forty-two years later — when Melville was in his late 60s and hadn’t authored a book for many years — he began the riveting Billy Budd that ended up being published posthumously.
Many novelists with successful late-career books come out with fewer fictional works in their later years for a variety of reasons — other things to do, the aforementioned fewer ideas and lower energy levels, etc. In Melville’s case, he had fallen into obscurity after poor sales and negative critical reaction to works such as Moby-Dick and Pierre.
I’m not sure why George Eliot wrote fewer novels after a rapid burst at the start of her fiction-writing career, but the last two — Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda in the 1870s — are incredible. Maybe it had to take several years to create such long, rich works.
But Henry James annually churned out three admired, complex novels in 1902 (The Wings of the Dove), 1903 (The Ambassadors), and 1904 (The Golden Bowl) in the latter part of a fiction-writing career that began in the 1860s.
Also at the start of the 20th century, we have a young Colette bursting onto the literary scene with 1900’s Claudine at School. But perhaps her best-known work is 1944’s Gigi — published when the author was in her early 70s.
Agatha Christie, whose first novel was published in 1920, continued to churn out mysteries into the 1960s and 1970s. They might not have been her best work, but were still considered quite good.
John Steinbeck’s debut novel Cup of Gold came out in 1929. His last full-length fiction book — 1961’s The Winter of Our Discontent — was a very solid effort.
Margaret Atwood, whose first novel The Edible Woman arrived in 1969, was still writing with the best of them in her mid-70s when the excellent third-in-a-trilogy MaddAddam appeared in 2013.
Toni Morrison recently wrote two well-reviewed novels — Home and God Help the Child — in her 80s. Her first novel appeared back in 1970.
And going way back, Voltaire was in his mid-60s with a large canon of writing when his masterpiece Candide came out in 1759.
Late-career duds or near-duds? There are many, but I’ll name just three: Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Erich Maria Remarque’s Shadows in Paradise, and Jack Finney’s From Time to Time.
Your favorite late-career novels? Any misfires you’d like to mention that were published near the end of authors’ lives? (And for those of you who are rooting against the New England Patriots in tonight’s Super Bowl, the still-great-at-40 quarterback Tom Brady will be late in his career one of these decades… 🙂 )
My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — my 700th! — is here.