Defend Truth


Books Column: Sipping from the bitter cup


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

A column about measuring out my life in sips of medium roast coffee, or, why Tolstoy was wrong about storytelling.

The news that medium roast coffee is better for ageing brains than dark roast coffee has sent me into a tailspin. Apparently, the lighter roast has better-preserved antioxidants, called polyphenols, which help ward off Alzheimer’s. 

As everyone knows, though, dark roast coffee is the preferred drink of readers, writers and other serious folk the world over. The darker, the hotter, the more burnt, the more scalding — the deeper one can pierce into the soul. The idea of switching roasts is too intellectually enfeebling to bear.

That I even pay attention to such news, which lurks ominously in bland-sounding but ambush-happy corners of the internet like “Health”, counts as a warning sign. Prufrock’s rolled trousers are abroad, stalking my generation like an invisible, half-dressed pensioner. We grow old, we grow old. There’s no scuttling away from this fact.

The incipient horrors of having to drink medium roast coffee for my own good initially led me to the doorstep of another writer, however, not Prufrock penner TS Eliot’s. No, instead I found myself approaching the welcome mat of none other than Lev Nikolayevich, Graf Tolstoy. For it is to Tolstoy that is ascribed — perhaps apocryphally; a strong case also exists for American author John Gardner — the following immortal sentence on the art of storytelling:

“All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”

I’ve always thought that something was amiss with this claim, however brilliantly put it might be. The formulation excludes love, for example. Consider Romeo and Juliet: one of the greatest stories ever told, with nary a stranger nor a journey in sight. I suppose one could claim that love itself might be the stranger — or the journey — per the license of metaphor, but that would be to weaken the wonderful, concrete vitality of Tolstoy/Gardner’s phrase, which extends in its echoes to millennia-old literary binaries like Hestia and Hermes.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Until recently, then, I held that there were in fact three great story archetypes: stories of strangers, of journeys, and of love. But perhaps because I’d just drunk a cup of extra-sour medium roast coffee, I was recently seized with the idea that there’s a fourth to round out literature’s bridge table: namely, stories of growing old. 

Tales of love and growing old are alike in that both involve a turn of helplessness: one is stricken by love, by old age; the part of one’s brain that is not befogged by the calamity understands fairly clearly the risks of each, and watches in horror as perfectly foreseeable and commonplace humiliations and woes devolve upon the captured person. 

Every Romeo who is not star-cross’d becomes a Lear, then; and many a writer is around to bear witness, as Shakespeare did:

… I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;
And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Perhaps the play would have ended differently if the king had had a Caffè Nero in his neighbourhood to frequent, for a daily chalice of medium roast coffee.

The Bard apart, literary works on growing old are plenty and notable: look no further than Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which sits at their pinnacle. Others are less well-known but just as decisive: one of the overlooked gems of the 20th century, for example, is MFK Fisher’s volume of short stories, Sister Age, which is entirely given over to the subject. (Its publisher blurbed it with the memorable line, “Fisher … embraces age as St Francis welcomed Brother Pain”. God spare us from encounters with Brother Pain!)

Closer to home, the great novelist Justin Cartwright, who was born in Cape Town in 1943 and died in London in 2018 — without, sadly, the full recognition that was his due — often took ageing as his theme. In The Song Before it is Sung (2010), for example, he conjured Elizabeth Partridge, a razor-sharp, elderly grand dame who appears in only a few scenes, but offers the full force of her judgment quite memorably:

“Do you know, I never took it seriously when people said that growing old is awful. But the truth is that it is awful. Things conk out.”

“Things conk out” — a delightful turn of phrase that ushered me, immediately I read it, to re-write Yeats. Forgive me:

Things conk out / The centre (of one’s waist) will not hold / Mere senility is loosed upon the world …

To wrap up, then, the four great stories in literature are: journeys, strangers, love, and age. Stir that into your cup of medium roast, which I have decided to re-christen Uncle Sulphur. Does one ever get used to a rendezvous with Uncle Sulphur? No? A bitter cup indeed. DM/ ML


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider