The theme tying the Palfrey, Klein, and Bendrix books together, apart from I read them near simultaneously, is how to live given our peculiar predicament in place and time. For Mrs Palfrey and Klein, the quandary is old age, for Maurice Bendrix, another of Graham Greene’s difficult but entertaining characters, it’s another man’s wife.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey finds herself widowed and looking for a suitable place to live out her remaining years. Daniel Klein returns to Hydra, the Greek island he first visited in his youth, now, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus et al his companions, “in Search of a Fulfilled Life.” And Graham Greene, obsessed with another man’s wife, tries to reconcile lust, love, man, and God in London at the end of World War II, no less. The trio of books forms a sandwich of bread fiction with filling of popularized philosophy.
In Elizabeth Taylor’s “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont,” first published in 1971, recently widowed Laura Palfrey decides she would prefer living in London at a partially residential hotel where she can take her meals and companions or not as part of the deal. She doesn’t have much of a plan, so the random but lifelike twists and turns come naturally, while old age seems to bring the same existential questions one faced in one’s foundling youth but perhaps put on the back burner during one’s years of forced employment or marriage, more concerned about the bread than the filling. But in old age, one returns to the choices of fillings. How, for example, we might fill our time.
Daniel Klein, in “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life,” argues for simplicity in old age, the art of doing nothing contentedly, a choice of course requiring a bit of privilege. But his point, in part, is that even those with a ton of privilege often waste it trying to stay young, while old age offers a predicament thoroughly to be enjoyed. Part of that enjoyment includes the gift of being untied from the train tracks of sex.
Graham Greene’s Maurice Bendrix in “The End of the Affair” enjoys no such respite. Another Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition with a movie-trailer-like Introduction better left unread or at least saved until after you’ve read the book, “The End of the Affair,” first published in 1951, is another of Greene’s fictions borrowing enough it seems from his own experience to qualify as fictional memoir, a good choice for those readers who might need the explanations of gossip as critical backdrop.
So, how does one live one’s old age? Well, one could do worse, for starters, than reading about it.