‘A different way of living’: why writers are celebrating middle-age

Viv Albertine, Deborah Levy, Lavinia Greenlaw and Rachel Cusk are redefining life after menopause, children or divorce and it has never looked so good

When Viv Albertine performs her 2009 song Confessions of a Milf live, she alternates between two voices. Theres the saccharine lisp of a brainwashed housewife chanting home sweet home, and theres the raging chant of an angry punk proclaiming that if you decide one day that youve had enough, you can walk away. Though swans and seahorses mate for life, we aint so nice.

In the 70s, when Albertine performed with her punk band, the Slits, she appeared fully immersed in her performance of exuberant anger, but also strikingly unformed, too busy bouncing and shouting to hold the gaze of her audience. Then, she retained the vulnerability of her younger self, but there was a steeliness underlying it. Now she stares out at us, no longer interested in hiding.

I chose being an artist over being a wife, the housewife sings, predicting sadly that now Im gonna lead a very lonely life. But then the punk takes the lines over and the life shes going to lead becomes very lovely. By the end the two voices have exploded into one and theres a joyfully furious torrent of wife wife wife life life life that ends with a list of the household activities that are being abandoned by the housewife and reclaimed by the artist: cooking, cleaning, baking, washing, faking, fucking, cleaning, shopping.

In her recent memoir To Throw Away Unopened, Albertine describes deciding to return to music after more than a decade as a housewife, ending her marriage as a result. In the past century of fiction, the middle-aged male protagonist has sprawled and rutted his way to a kind of bathetic greatness in the hands of Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow. The middle-aged woman has appeared far less often as a protagonist questing for a style and identity, but that is changing fast.

What
Enjoying the freedom that no longer being constantly looked at by men brings Viv Albertine. Photograph: Duncan Bryceland/Rex

Albertine is one of several writers this year to tackle lives that follow divorce and the menopause. Lavinia Greenlaws forthcoming novel is a middle-aged love story. Deborah Levy uses the moment of transition from one life to another to fashion a new story about femininity in her living autobiography The Cost of Living. Like Albertines, Levys career began in an era when the young insisted on their own youthfulness. Whats striking is that both writers have found a way to incarnate their middle-aged selves in new voices that dont reject the spontaneity of punk but reinvent it in a quieter yet no less vigorous form.

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end, Levy writes, tired of serene femininity and of corporate femininity. There were not that many women I knew who wanted to put the phantom of femininity together again … it is a role (sacrifice, endurance, cheerful suffering) that has made some women go mad.

The task is both to create a new life and to redefine what being a woman means. Albertine returns to singing and buys a new haphazard home for herself and her daughter. Levy discards the marital home and installs her daughters in a flat, where she mends the plumbing in her nightie and transports her groceries on a liberating electric bike. One female friend teaches her to live with colour and another provides a writing shed.

Deborah
Deborah Levy discards the marital home and installs her daughters in a flat. Photograph: Sheila Burnett

For both writers, theres a particular pleasure in the physical freedom that no longer being constantly looked at by men brings. Its easy to assume, as a young woman for whom being desired matters above all else, that much will be lost when men start looking at younger women. But Levy and Albertine enjoy it when men are no longer central. I get the same lurching thrill now when Im about to sit down to an egg mayonnaise sandwich and a packet of plain crisps as I used to get when I fancied someone, Albertine remarks. Ive had two great loves: my mother and my daughter.

Albertine is here in a lineage with Germaine Greer, who published The Change in 1992 aged 53, and has recently reissued it with new material. Greer urges women to accept the changes of age. She suggests that HRT, used to minimise the symptoms of the menopause, is part of a male-centric conspiracy to contain the wisdom and rage of older women. There are positive aspects to being a frightening old woman, she writes.

Greer describes how, aged 50, she looked ahead into what seemed like winter, ice, an interminable dark. But having grieved for her younger self, she finds freedom and calm on the other side, attained through giving up on sex. Younger women might find it impossible to believe that when they are no longer tormented by desire, insecurity, jealousy they wont be as dead as a spent match, but they can look forward to a whole new realm of experience.

Beguilingly, Greer compares the difference between the clamorous feelings of the younger woman and the calmness of the apparently withdrawn older woman to the difference between how the sea appears to someone tossing on its surface, and how it looks to someone who has plunged so deep that she has felt death in her throat. The older woman can love deeply and tenderly because she loves without the desire for possession.

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Free to command attention in new and more authentic ways Doris Lessing circa 1975. Photograph: Express/Getty Images

Women through the decades have claimed something of this liberation through age. When I first read Doris Lessing, I wasnt convinced by her announcement in a 1972 interview (when she was 53) that the physical changes of middle age had been one of the most valuable experiences that I personally have ever had. Now Ive come to admire her explanation that in middle age a whole dimension of life slides away, and you realise that what, in fact, youve been using to get attention has been what you look like, leaving you free to command attention in new and more authentic ways.

Lessings 1973 novel The Summer Before the Dark is a great portrayal of this moment of transition, and a book ready to be rediscovered. Kate Brown, a pretty, healthy, serviceable housewife, becomes disillusioned when her children leave home and her husband has one too many affairs. She accepts a job as a translator for an international conference, dyes her hair a sleek red and has an affair with a younger man. But its in what follows that her real discoveries are made. She becomes sick and spends weeks in a hotel, consumed by a fever that sends her deep into herself and then leaves her alone, stranded far away from her married life, curiously free. Wandering the streets in ill-fitting clothes with dishevelled hair, she discovers what it is to be ignored by men. And when she returns home, she insists on keeping her hair as it is: plain, greying, tied neatly behind her head, as Lessings was when she wrote it. Her discoveries, her self-definition, what she hoped were now strengths were concentrated here she was saying no: no, no, no, NO a statement which would be concentrated into hair.

This is a charged yet odd novel, as baggy as Kates clothes. Characters are introduced and discarded; Kate begins one phase of life after another apparently at random. One of Lessings achievements was to find a structural equivalent for the mental state of middle age. As children leave home and sexuality changes, several women describe being left with a feeling that the script they grew up with has run out. This is both frightening and exhilarating. And it opens the way for a new kind of plot.

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Illustration: Nathalie Lees/Guardian

So the love stories with middle-aged women as protagonists take on a more episodic form, with love itself presented as an ambivalent prize. In 2016 there was AL Kennedys Serious Sweet, a romance between two damaged loners. And now theres Lavinia Greenlaws In the City of Loves Sleep, published next month, which offers us a story of lovers neither beautiful nor certain nor young. This is an elegantly meandering tale in which the lovers repeatedly connect only to lose interest in each other, stuck in a kind of endless middleness. Perhaps falling in love in middle age is in part the desire to experience fixity again, the narrator muses. But the drive for fixity is thwarted by the form of this novel, which is determinedly fluid, as if in search of a style appropriate for the fluidity of the middle part of life.

Levy experiments with form in The Cost of Living, discarding the traditional literary structure as she discards the marital home, and creating a memoir out of a collage of deftly interconnected fragments. Objects perform a lot of the work here, often appearing to know more than the humans who surround them. When the I no longer quests for the familiar goals of love and marriage, the authorial persona becomes a subtler figure, glimpsed through shadows. Levys bike threatens to become a major character and relegate her to a minor player, though we can see Levy winking at us as it does so, less shadowy than she might appear.

Nowhere is the narrator more occluded than in Rachel Cusks spare, strange trilogy Outline, Transit and Kudos. On one level, these are novels about a marriage ending and a woman, Faye, seeking new forms of freedom as her children move towards independence. In Outline, Faye describes herself as trying to find a different way of living in the world. But though Cusk is interested in questioning ideas of femininity, she seems most concerned with using the dissolution of familiar structures to seek a new concept of selfhood and a new structure for the novel.

By Kudos, the characters all speak in the same international voice and the narrators experiences at the hands of men are interchangeable with those of all the other divorced middle-aged women she encounters. One of these, Sophia, observes that shes coming to think that too much has been made of the distinctions between men, when at the time the whole world had appeared to depend on whether I was with one, rather than another. By this point the committed reader is coming to think something of the same about characters in general. Perhaps in all our novel reading, weve made too much of the importance of individual characters, when it turns out to be more general truths that matter.

The truths revealed here resonate with those explored by Levy and Albertine. Near the end of Kudos, Faye has a revealing encounter with a woman called Felcia, who has just lost the final battle of her marriage for custody of her car. Now, cycling exhaustedly across the city, impoverished, mocked even by her mother (Look at what all your equality has done for you), Felcia accepts that she has not found freedom by leaving him: in fact what I had done was forfeit all my rights.

Its not wholly a coincidence that a bicycle should play a central role here, as in Levy. Bikes have served as symbols of independent womanhood since the turn of the last century. Felcia, cycling around stoically, has something of Levy and Albertines doggedness and dignity in countering the assaults of the world. She hasnt gained the freedom she sought in separation, but its also clear that she couldnt have remained with a man prepared to treat her as her ex-husband does. Freedom, in all these books, becomes less of a good in itself once the struggles become primarily practical. But this doesnt invalidate the initial urge for freedom that takes these women out of their marriages. Its an urge towards a life lived in good faith, which is what all of Cusks characters are struggling in their different ways to do. The peculiarly even quality of Cusks prose doesnt just provide a literary equivalent of the middle years, it points us towards the thought that the way to act with integrity may be to relinquish the struggle for individuality, though the singularity of her style always works bracingly against this.

Rachel
An urge towards a life lived in good faith Rachel Cusk. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Cusk presents us with a radical new vision of communality at this stage of life, one which asks us to consider that we dont yet know what solidarity is. This takes us back to Levy, guided in her new life by her female friends, and to Albertine, accepting that the love that means most is the love of women. And it opens up the question of feminism.

Greers suggestion in The Change is that men have been denying women the right to a quietly sex-free middle age in championing HRT. In this context, the acceptance of middle age becomes a feminist act, and the same seems to have been true for Lessing in 1973, whatever her crotchety scepticism about womens lib. Certainly Kates rage in The Summer Before the Dark is rage at men who have told her she will be fulfilled by appealing to their lust. It was a rage, it seemed to her, that she had been suppressing for a lifetime. This is a woman poised to explode into Albertines cries of wife wife wife life life life.

Its significant that the women Albertine has loved most are her mother and daughter. The death of Albertines mother is a central event in her book, as Levys mothers is in hers, offering one form of feminist connection. Albertine describes learning her rage at the patriarchy from her mother. Dont ever give the biggest slice of cake to a man, you take it for yourself! she informed her daughters. And now in middle age, Albertine feels that she is turning into her mother. I can see [the patriarchy], I can hear it, I can feel it, and Im burning up because of it. Levy, looking back with love on the war between myself and my mother, quotes the US writer and activist Audre Lorde: I am a reflection of my mothers secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.

Read alongside the reflections on the death of the old forms of femininity, this allows the older generation of women to have a voice in the poetry and anger of the present. And Lorde herself is a mother figure for these writers; the essays collected in last years posthumous collection Your Silence Will Not Protect You have something of the energy of punk. Im saying that we must never close our eyes to the terror, she told Adrienne Rich in an interview when in her 40s, recovering from breast cancer and reconstructing her sense of herself in middle age. At this point it seemed vital to attend to the chaos which is black which is creative which is female which is dark which is rejected which is messy which is sinister, smelly, erotic, confused, upsetting.

The erotic is significant here, connected as it is to the dark and the messy. The role of the erotic in middle age troubles many of these writers. Greenlaws Iris finds that the rigmarole of undressing for sex with a new lover feels like a foolish masquerade: They are two middle-aged people trying to persuade themselves into sex on a Sunday afternoon. Things improve when they forget about surfaces and allow themselves something more diffuse. But if Lessing and Greer advise abandoning sex altogether, Lorde insists that the erotic remains key to everything. This is no longer the young girl taking pleasure in being looked at by men. In Lordes hands the erotic transcends narcissism and patriarchy and becomes the force that binds our sense of self with the chaos of our strongest feelings. This is a force that connects women to each other and perhaps especially to their mothers. Lorde advised all women to listen to the black mother within them, who she believed countered Descartes with: I feel, therefore I can be free. It seems all the more appropriate that Levy should think of Lorde in mourning her own mother.

Yet this is not a simple tale of freedom-seeking daughters realising their mothers hopes for a better world. Theres a disillusionment, too, because if feminism has now become mainstream, theres a danger of it becoming an accoutrement of a society that hasnt changed in the ways that the feminists of the 1960s and 70s hoped it would. This is presented as clearly not good enough. If the news upsets me I just switch it off, sings the housewife in Albertines song. But what more can she do in her angrier punk incarnation? Is it better to watch the news? To sing and write about it? Is this a necessary component of the freedom of the middle-aged woman? And will it help her feel more free or just enable her to be committedly feminist as she seeks her freedom?

Germaine
Freedom and calm on the other side Germaine Greer. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

The answer may lie partly in the complex sense of the communal evoked by all these writers. Arguably, its more necessary than ever to form communities of insight and sensitivity situated determinedly within the realm of feminism. Whats compelling in these books is that other more uncanny lines of affiliation can coexist with this. Its important that Albertine remains connected to punk, Levy to surrealism and psychoanalysis, Cusk to particular strands of European high modernism.

But we search in vain if we turn to these books for answers, partly because these writers are more interested in asking questions, and partly because they are too singular, and too defiant, to tell us what to do. Greer ends by announcing that though younger people anxiously inquire, and researchers tie themselves in knots with definitions, the middle-aged woman is about her own business, which is none of theirs. Women come racing up from behind, asking how to negotiate the next phase. But were not going to learn much because, Greer says, the middle-aged woman is climbing her own mountain, in search of her own horizon, after years of being absorbed in the struggles of others. The ground is full of bumps, the air is thin and her bones ache. Nonetheless, the ascent is worth it, however baffling it may seem to others. Greer exhorts her middle-aged readers not to explain or apologise. The climacteric marks the end of apologising. The chrysalis of conditioning has once and for all to break and the female woman finally to emerge.

Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing (Bloomsbury).

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/11/viv-albertine-deborah-levy-rachel-cusk-divorce-menopause-midlife

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