By Nicholas Delbanco
Six years ago, during one of my summer writers' workshops, I found myself presented with a young man who was already (at the ripe age of 12) a world-renowned pianist and composer, a frequent guest on "The David Letterman Show" and a full-time Ivy League undergraduate student in music and science. He was also, as it turned out, a most charming and delightful human being and story teller, but I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering, back then, how the years would treat him and if he would survive - if he would grow beyond his early fame into a more mature and still fecund version of himself. His was a candle already burning bright. Who, or what, would further coax and sustain the flame?
Nicholas Delbanco would apply the term "lastingness" to this query. It's the word that frames his twenty-fifth book, the trigger for the question: "...what does cause some artists just to fade away, and why is it that others soldier on?" Delbanco is concerned with the lastingness of the artist as well as of the artist's work. He wants to know how and why some writers, musicians, and visual artists transcend earlier versions of themselves, despite the encroachments and physical limitations of age. What, if anything, do Georgia O'Keeffe, William Butler Yeats, Guiseppe Verdi, Giuseppe de Lampedusa, Grace Paley and Francisco Goya have in common? How did they avoid the traps of complacency and endless self-repetition? What kept them in their studios, or at their desks? Were their late works their greatest works? Did they understand the source of their own ambitions?
Delbanco goes about his exploration by assembling anecdotes of artists past and by weaving into the text a fair amount of autobiography - stories about his long-lived father and father-in-law, stories about his travels and conversations, one quite long passage lifted from a novel Delbanco once wrote. It's all quite genial, a tour of the past, a bit of this and a bit of that, though it grows ever harder (Delbanco himself admits to this) to firm up categories, to declare conclusively, to know, in fact, what makes an artist last. Individuals are individuals, with their own trajectories, good luck, cause. One case, or a gathering of cases, is not ultimately predictive.
Still, having raised the question Delbanco seeks some kind of answers, some general guidance. There is, for example, the need to "believe the best work lies ahead." There is the fair generalization that "whenever possible, the old practitioner expends less energy on the business of daily life; others shoulder the burdens of 'getting and spending' while the worker works." There's the importance of focusing on process, the general shift toward believing (sincerely believing) that "the making of the thing itself displaces its reception; reviews and sales and standing ovations come to matter less."
But mostly it seems that what might matter most is "unabated desire" and "unflagging expressive ambition," - two things that can only burn from within. There are no college courses that deliver unequivocal artistic ambition, for example, though there are plenty of people and works and conversations that can shape and yield inspiration and artistic need. It is all, in the end, rather case by case, and so what shines here is the stories Delbanco tells, the scenes called up from the past, the quoted passages he shapes or finds to illustrate one life or another.
Personally, I was most deeply affected by the letter John Updike writes in response to questions put to him by Delbanco. Delbanco wants to know how Updike's work habits have changed since his early days as a writing "apprentice." He wants to know if Updike's goals have been redefined. He wants to know, finally, if Updike himself had written about lastingness in some oblique or overt way. Updike's response is both eloquent and tactical, reminding us that ultimately it's the daily details that matter most - the discipline of the artistic endeavor, the motivating ideal (again and again) of a finished work, the refined understanding of what true art is:
"By and large what lasts best is the most concrete, the most actual, delivering to the reader a piece of earth and humanity. Aesthetic flourishes fade and wrinkle, though they may get attention when new. A blunt sincerity outlasts finely honed irony, I would think. An ability to see over the heads of important contemporary issues into the simple truth of daily life is what we can respond to a century later."
Six years have passed, as I have said, since the young musician became a young writer over that summer. Recently I looked him up and (gladly) discovered that his flame burns even brighter - that he remains on a most remarkable trajectory. The young man's enormous curiosity and great good humor will, I suspect, continue to serve as succors. The diversity of his interests will sustain him, too, his endless enrollment in new studies. Lastingness, like genius, may defy our quest to understand it. But it almost always makes for an interesting tale.
Beth Kephart's 13th book, "You Are My Only," is due out in the fall. She blogs at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.