To thumb one’s nose at ageing – a notion that usually comes to us accompanied by creams and other cosmetic embellishments that help older ladies and a few older gents leverage a younger look. But in the last few years I’ve been thinking about other things than the battle against age. Because to say “I defy age!” means first that you accept ageing as a fact. Taking skin cream as an example, the logic goes: age means wrinkled skin and cream gets rid of it. But is ageing – and the meaning of age – really such an irrevocable fact?
In the novel I’ve been working on for the last couple of years (with the working title “Do You Want Me?”), I’m trying to counter this inflexible notion of ageing. For me it’s not about the “cultural speeding up” of life, which leads to younger generations today often coming across as “older” than previous ones (“I already knew about sex when I was 10”), nor is it about advances in technology and medicine that make older people all of a sudden appear younger (“You’re 70 and still having sex!”) I’m also no fan of clichés like “12 is the new 20” or “70 is the new 50”. I often ask myself whether the stereotyped ideas that we attach to various age groups ever genuinely correspond to reality.
In the book I follow the life stories of a group of friends from when they’re 10 to when they’re 50. In each chapter I deal with a particular phase of their lives – each one is written in its own style and revolves around a specific theme. In this way I’ve upended the stereotypes associated with age.
So something like the theme of working life and careers isn’t in the chapter that looks at the characters in their 40s and 50s but in the one where my characters are 10. One of them, Yoav Schneider, on a summer’s day in his home village near Jerusalem, on a whim begins to sell drink packs of frozen fruit juice. His friend Ari Zielner strikes back, setting up an ice lolly stand next to the basketball court in the centre of the village. Both of them make money because there aren’t any places selling food in the village and Israeli summers are so damn hot. So a full-on business war breaks out between the boys, with the dirty tricks and mannered civility that you’d expect from grown-up businessmen.
“I want to tell, in a quirky way, a story about ageing”
The same applies with the story’s thread about death, which isn’t introduced in the final chapter but much earlier. The protagonists are just 19 years old when Ari Zielner – the former ice lolly seller – is killed while serving in the Israeli army. His tank drives over a landmine in the south of Lebanon. Grief and how people cope with it, the obituaries and eulogies, the philosophical questions about the reasons for our existence, don’t occur here between old age pensioners but within a tightly knit group of young adults.
Love in “Do You Want Me” also doesn’t make an appearance where you’d expect it to. Not in the tender teenage years as in “Romeo and Juliet”, nor in the thirtysomething years like in a lot of films and TV series. No – love comes much later. To be exact, in the very last part of the book, when my protagonists – in this case the figures of Gershon and Liat – are nearly 50. And even though it’s not their first experience of love and sex, it’s still without doubt the most intense and passionate one.
Of course, you can say, “Yeah okay, you’re a novelist, so you play around with readers’ expectations, to surprise them and make them see the world with a different eye.” Maybe I’m portraying the ageing process untypically because I was having fun doing it in that way. But it’s actually also the case that all the examples I’ve given, even though they’ve been turned into fiction, are based on real-life people and incidents. The Ari Zielner character is based on a young lad who was selling ice lollies when he was 10 and got into a bitter struggle with another boy, who in the book became Yoav (and who in later life actually becomes a very successful businessman). The real-life “Ari” died later – this is also true – at the age of 19 in a tank in Lebanon. And the love story between two middle-aged people was also inspired by a real story.
“Many people have to deal at an early age with the tragedy of death”
One question that I often asked myself while I was writing was about the extent to which the narratives – not typically associated with certain ages – were primarily tied up with aspects like place and time. At the very least, Israel, unlike most countries, is still caught up in a political and military conflict which is still taking the lives of many young soldiers. No wonder, then, that people here die at younger ages. But it wouldn’t be true to say that this is therefore an Israeli problem. It’s much more that soldiers are fighting and dying, not just in Israel but in many other countries. And it’s not just war that kills young people – car crashes, gang criminality, cancer and other causes take the lives of young adults, teenagers and children every day. People have always died young. It’s not a specifically Israeli experience, having to deal with the tragedy of death far too early.
The situation is similar with the young entrepreneurs. That very young people are already business-minded is also not an Israeli phenomenon. And finding love later in life has even less to do with geographical or temporal reference points. A person can find (and make) it anywhere and at any time. If there are irrefutable truths, then this is one of them.
In spite of all our prejudices about ageing and the phases of life associated with it, it’s also true that for a long time we didn’t know any better. You just have to look into the literature to discover that life sometimes plays out differently from what we call “normal”. Our predecessors already knew this. Read Dickens and you’ll encounter sharp-witted children involved in amazing business ventures. Read Gabriel García Márquez and you’ll learn something about old people falling in love at the turn of the 20th century. And on the subject of young people and mortality, watch “Titanic” or films by Coppola and Tarantino, or read the Bible – you’ll encounter the theme everywhere.
Of course it’s not natural for a young person to die, for a kid to become a finance mogul or for two people over 50 encountering the love of their lives. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to turn the expected course of events completely on its head. I don’t want to get into disputes about kids who should be busy with children’s stuff, that when they’re older they should have books and not weapons in their hands, that they’ll generally meet their long-term partner in their thirties, that one or two decades later they’ll reach the pinnacle of their professional lives and that they’ll then get old and die at a ripe old age. That’s all well and good and probably how it’s been for the average person, whether now or hundreds of years ago.
But should that dreaded average be elevated to the norm here and now? I don’t think so. If we’re talking about age and phases of life, then we should be thinking more creatively in future, to open up other routes so we tread the quirky and interesting paths instead of the “normal” ones. Why can’t we just have courage and ignore the clichés? Why don’t we thumb our noses at age for a change? Not by smearing our wrinkled selves with cream but by doing things that no-one would’ve expected us to do at our age.
Achtzehn Hiebe (Eighteen Lashes), Books in the Attic (Sifrey Aliyat Hagag, 2017)
Auf fremden Land (The Hilltop), Scribner (London, 2013)
Hydromania, Luchterhand (Munich, 2009)