Monday musings on Australian literature: Older men protagonists

Early last year, I wrote a Monday Musings on Older women protagonists. With my father having turned 100 last month, I figured it was time I explored older men protagonists in Australian literature. It proved a bit harder than I expected, but gradually books started to make themselves known to me.

As in my older women post, I’m using 60+ as my definition. (Please note that I am saying “older” here, not “old”, as I don’t see 60s as old, though perhaps it’s all a matter of perspective!) Of course, not all authors specifically state the age of their characters, so, as in my “older women” post, I’ve had to guess sometimes. Do correct me if you know I am way out!

My select little list is alphabetical by author (with links being to my posts). I have read most of the books below, but some before blogging.

Older men protagonists

  • Peter Carey, Amnesia (2014): An old left journalist, and his university friends, consider their activist pasts against the current world and the ongoing need for activism.
  • John Clanchy, In whom we trust (2019): Set in early 20th century Victoria, Father Pearse is a priest nearing 70, who wishes to retire and return to his Irish home, but there is trouble from his past that he is forced to confront and consider righting.
  • JM Coetzee, Slow man (2006): A 60-year-old man suffers a cycling accident resulting in the amputation of a leg, and has to refigure how he is going to live.
  • Elizabeth Jolley, Mr Scobie’s riddle (1983): Set in a nursing home, three 85-year-old men consider their lives, the past and the idea of home.
  • David Malouf, Ransom (2009): A reworking of a section of the Iliad in which the aging Priam risks all to ask Achilles for the body of his son, Hector, asking, that is, for some humanity from Achilles.
  • Alex Miller, Lovesong (2009): A retired novelist, living with his 38-year-old daughter, is told a love story which he shares with us through his own lens.
  • Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (2019): Covers the apostle Paul’s adult life, but focuses in particular on the lessons and understandings of three old men, Saul, Thomas and Timothy, in relation to the foundations of Christianity.
  • Arnold Zable, Cafe Scheherazade (2001): Journalist Martin visits Cafe Scheherazade to hear stories about displacement from its Jewish owners and patrons, particularly three friends who are also old men, Yossel, Laizer and Zalman.
  • Arnold Zable, Sea of many returns (2008): A dual point-of-view novel, with one of the POVs being a Greek-born grandfather who, in yearning for home, ponders the meaning of home and place in our lives.

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Ross King, writing in The Guardian in 2016 about older men protagonists, says this:

I was struck by the painter’s [Claude Monet] vigour, fortitude, ambition and (if I can declare some personal interest) sheer narrative traction. Monet in those years, his 70s and 80s, was very much an old man in a hurry, emerging from self-imposed retirement on the eve of the first world war to create some of the most daringly experimental pigmentary effects he had ever attempted. He offers proof that an eightysomething can propel a narrative without an author having to resort to wistful recollections of a vanished prime.

Interesting point. Certainly few of the characters in my little selection focus on their vanished primes. Several think about the past, but not in terms of their so-called prime. For some, like those older women books, there’s a need to resolve/atone for/amend the past, while for others there’s a more philosophical pondering about the meaning of the past, of home, of life. Unlike my older women books list, few if any of these older men books explore illness (like dementia and cancer).

Like that previous list too, but in reverse, most of the authors writing about old men are men – which is not surprising. I’m wondering whether any of our current male literary fiction authors who are now 60 plus, are writing about the topic? Like David Malouf (who has already done Ransom), Rodney Hall, Peter Goldsworthy, to name just a few.

And now, of course my question! Can you add some books to the list – Aussie if you’re Aussie, or your own nationality if you’re not?

68 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Older men protagonists

  1. Gerald Murnane is old in Border Districts, or his protagonist is, is there a difference? Old Blastus by Miles Franklin probably comes closest to an old (50 ish most likely) male protagonist by a woman writer. No, another one is coming, set in Claremont WA, the egg on the cover … Extinctions.

  2. Some great books here! I’ve recently read The History of Love by Nicole Krauss about an elderly man and the wonderful The Prince of West End Avenue by Alan Isler set in a retirement community – both wonderful!

    • Thanks Cathy. I’ve heard of the Krauss’ books, but not the other, which intrigues me. I recently read a retirement community one but the protagonists were all female.

  3. Such an interesting post, thank you. The point that these men are not writing about old age, cancer etc. is a good one. It means these people are living here and now, not thinking that their best days are behind them. I’m an older woman and that’s where I’m at as well!

    • Thanks Pink Roses. I like your point about living the hear and now. I wonder whether the fact that more of the women wrote about such issues than the men is because so often they are cast in the caring role so health looms larger for them. Me? Older too, and still believing I have many good years ahead.

  4. Oh my, where to begin? The Yield, by Tara June Winch features a wise old Elder; Dustfall, by Michelle Johnston (about an old bloke who still lives in Wittenoom); Burning Down, by Venero Armanno (about an ageing boxer in 1970s BrisVegas); Soon, by Lois Murphy (a fantasy Tassie version of staying put in a place like Wittenoom); and — it’s not a novel but it’s a must-read: Journey to Horseshoe Bend, by T.G.H. Strehlow, about Strehlow’s epic journey to get medical help in outback Australia in 1922.
    And some from around the world: Per Petersen writes endlessly about old men; The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy; The Years, Months, Days, by Yan Lianke, a beautiful little novella translated by Carlos Rojas; and All This by Chance, by Kiwi Vincent O’Sullivan.

  5. Hi Sue, Patrick White and his Stan Parker in the Tree of Man; Ludwig Leichhardt in Voss and Hurtle Duffield in The Vivisector, all come to mind.

    • Thanks Meg. I pondered White – a lot, in fact, as I wanted him in here. I nearly added Stan Parker but felt it was an all of life saga so in the end decided not to. It’s so long since I’ve read it, I couldn’t remember the perspective. I thought Voss too, but I don’t think he was that old, though I thought he was OLD when I first read him. I haven’t read The vivisector. I must do so!

  6. This is such an interesting post. Older protagonists, be they be male or female are too rare in literature. I do not know enough about Australian literature to have much of an opinion, but I am thinking of Septimus Harding who was Anthony Trollope’s very usual older protagonist from The Warden.

  7. The Solid Mandala? Thinking of that reminded me of On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin which covers the lives of the two men into their eighties. Does that count? (BTW I reckon sixty years is a long time, and anybody who is sixty is old. Of course ‘old’ is a dirty word except in the world of antiques where the older a thing is the better)

  8. I think a great deal of commercial fiction aimed at women has older women characters. Limprecht’s ‘The Passengers’ is one of many, and I know the mega-selling Irish authors regularly go there (like Cathy Kelly). Indeed Elizabeth Gaskell went there in 1853, with the excellent Cranford (and how good was the tv series based on it?) But to find older male characters I suspect the place to go would be crime fiction. The hard-boiled older detective, and all that. Ben Hobson’s recent ‘Snake Island’ is Oz crime fiction with an older male protagonist (albeit he is not a detective), as is Candice Fox’s ‘Hades’.

    • Thanks Michelle. I certainly found finding older women protagonists easier, and have read more since including of course The weekend too.

      Good point re crime fiction and crusty old men.

  9. Remember George Johnson, a biological triology, My Brother Jack, Clean Straw for Nothing and A Cart Load of Clay. Australian, male protagonist and if I remember correctly the final explores both ageing and the reavaluation of the past. Australian values and history at its finest, from a very male prospective.

  10. I’m amazed and embarrassed thatI’ve only read one of the many books about old men that are listed here. (I don’t count the Patrick Whites because they are whole-life stories, even though, especially The Vivisector, they have brilliant stuff about old men.)

      • I did get on a roll there for a bit Sue! I did a quick look at my bookshelves and came up with a few (only one Australian though). I love Kent Haruf, do read Our Souls at Night if you can.

        How are you going? I am thinking of you. I was very young when I lost my Mum but I remember feeling she was further and further away from me as each day went past which made me very sad – but maybe that was because of my youth. I hope you are going OK, it’s a difficult time and you’re doing well just being on this blog. Warmest wishes to you Sue.

        • Thanks Sue. I know exactly what you mean about growing further and further away. I lost my sister in our early to mis 30s and I vividly remember the same thing. It will happen here too I think… it’s one of the hardest things about loss, I think, the fading away of that immediacy to a memory. It’s very sad. You desperately want another hug, but you can’t. X

  11. Morris West, The Shoes of the Fisherman – can’t remember the age of the new Pope in this but know he wasn’t young..

  12. Fabulous topic and I loved the sentiment “eightysomething can propel a narrative without an author having to resort to wistful recollections of a vanished prime.” Contrary to the way older people are shown on television they are not all sitting in a corner knitting or reminiscing. I’m the youngest in my Nordic Walking group – most of them are in their 70s and can give me a run for my money!

  13. SO good, Sue, to see mention of David Maouf’s portrayal in Ransom of the aged King Priam making his desperate journey to the Greek camp to beg for the return of his son’s (Hector’s) body from Achilles – one of the most moving scenes in Australian writing.
    Thinking about other fictional representations of ‘older men protagonists’, one illustrious writer missing from the list so far is Patrick White. Examples include the iconic white male settler character Stan Parker who, after decades of spiritual struggle, finally perceives God in a gob of spittle (The Tree of Man), or the ageing artist-monster Hurtle Duffield in The Vivesector, the tragic-comic twins Waldo and Arthur Brown in The Solid Mandala, and many many others… (Not, of course, to ignore the gender-balancing protagonist, Elizabeth Hunter, the aged and dying matriarch of The Eye of The Storm]…
    John Clanchy

    • Thanks so much John for commenting.

      As I’ve said in other responses, I seriously thought of Stan Parker, and Arthur and Waldo, for this list as I really wanted White here, but I felt they were more whole of life stories rather than older men’s ones BUT I couldn’t remember the perspective from which they are told. Are they told from their older perspectives or are they more the story of their lives ending up with them being old… I just can’t recollect.

  14. Great post, Sue! I noticed that the majority of writers writing about men are men! I wonder if the opposite also holds (women about women?). And then I was wondering about this about literature as a whole (do writers write the other gender often) but that just made my head hurt.

    • I know it’s about men, but this whole topic reminds me of Caroline Lodge’s series of posts about the representation of older women in fiction at Global Literature in Libraries, see https://glli-us.org/category/older-women-in-fiction/
      It was excellent, and it made me much more sensitive to the way older women are portrayed in the contemporary fiction I read.
      It begs the question, of course, about whether (as Jonathan hints above) there is stereotyping of older men as well…

      • Thanks Lisa, I’ll try to read this in the next couple of days. I guess there’s always some stereotyping, by which I mean that it’s often the commonalities that make people recognisable? The question is, how are these commonalities represented and explored – simplistically or with nuance and sensitivity? Does that make sense? (It is nearly midnight and I need to get some sleep!)

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