For two months, as part of an experiment by the Guardian in collaborative reporting, I have been investigating what retirement looks like today – and what it might look like for the next wave of retirees, their children and grandchildren. The evidence reveals a sinkhole beneath the state’s provision of pensions. Under the weight of our vastly increased longevity, retirement – one of our most cherished institutions – is in danger of collapsing into it.
Many of those contemplating retirement are alarmed by the new landscape. A 62-year-old woman, who is for the first time in her life struggling to pay her mortgage (and wishes to remain anonymous), told me: “I am more stressed now than I was in my 30s. I lived on a very tight budget then, but I was young and could cope emotionally. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I never thought I would feel this scared of the future at my age. I’m not remotely materialistic and have never wanted a fancy lifestyle. But not knowing if I will be without a home in the next few months is a very scary place to be.”
And it is not just the older generation who fear old age. Adam Palfrey is 30, with three children and a disabled wife who cannot work. “I must confess, I am absolutely terrified of retirement,” he told me. “I have nothing stashed away. Savings are out of the question. I only just earn enough that, with housing benefit, disability living allowance and tax credits, I manage to keep our heads above water. I work every hour I can just to keep things afloat. There’s no way I could keep this up aged 70-plus, just so that my partner and I can live a basic life. As for my three children … God knows. I can scarcely bring myself to think about it.”
Juan Pollo has all the hallmarks of a kitschy local chain. There are framed newspaper cutouts from the three decades Okura’s been in business, photos of Okura smiling with generations of Miss Juan Pollos in bikinis, heels and tight dresses, and Polaroids of guests with their testimonials written in Sharpie. (“I eat here all the time. I should be ½ owner,” reads one.) The tables are brightly painted with murals of a pastoral countryside. It’s the kind of roadside spot that travelers are tempted to stop at simply to see how a place so thoroughly un-Instagramable could have stayed in business for so long.
The secret is all in the chicken.
It’s not that I’m ignorant to the bad things that can befall women in public, nor that I’m particularly “brave” to set foot to concrete. Women (especially trans women, and women of color) run risks anywhere we go. But neither “foolish” nor “fearless” tell very much about what happens when female feet hit the sidewalk. There is much more to say, and more for women to gain.
That terrain is the subject of Lauren Elkin’s fine new hybrid work of memoir, literary criticism, and cultural history of women who walk. In these pages, the native Long Islander ditches her ancestral car keys for a life abroad and on foot, in search of a feminine definition of the flâneur, Charles Baudelaire’s famed and always male urban wanderer. In the streets of Paris, Tokyo, London, Venice, and Manhattan, Elkin roams through broken relationships, unexpected career turns, spiritual impasses, and intellectual harvests. The streets resist and affirm her choices and beliefs; they structure her imperfect wandering. In herself and the paths of famous female walkers, Elkin uncovers her flâneuse.
Writing a piece like this, asking such a question, feels a little ridiculous. A little juvenile, if I’m honest, but there’s something compelling in the idea—what would an answer to Lolita look like? If the legal ramifications around the jealously guarded rights to the work were not a consideration, if we didn’t try to make it “modern” in the ham-fisted sense of placing it bang in our time, but just straight-up rewrote the work from that ghost’s voice—what would it look like?
There are more than enough very learned people who have studied Nabokov and literary theory who would say it’s an impossibility. Indeed, when you consider the exquisite workings of the novel, of Nabokov’s entire body of work, its boldness, his rarefied and rare imagination, the magnificent play of idea and reference, pattern and parody, feeling and wit, everywhere at work in the novel, it does seem absurd to imagine there could be an answer. But I feel, still, there should be one. What is it about answering that novel that makes it such a necessity to me, a compulsion?
Michael Cunningham might be the modern master of the fellatio scene, but it took leaving them out to finally win a Pulitzer. "I can't help but notice that when I finally write a book in which there are no men sucking each other's dicks," he told Poz after winning for The Hours, "I suddenly win the Pulitzer Prize."
Cunningham's facility with writing fellatio is a rare talent. In Flesh and Blood, he uses a chapter-long scene running up to a blowjob as a kind of self-contained bildungsroman. Newly arrived at Harvard, Billy Stassos is seduced and fellated, and—although the scene begins with him full of fear and wary—he ultimately finds confidence in his newly assured homosexuality and a trust in men that he never received from his tough father. It is perfectly and succinctly rendered—a self-contained story in a single blowjob.
It was around noon of my third grueling day recording the audiobook of my first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, when my innermost self cried out to be heard. I mean this literally. The disembodied voice of my director burst into my headset to inform me that my disgruntled, empty stomach was grumbling loudly enough to be picked up by the hypersensitive microphone; my solo performance had inadvertently become a duet. To muffle these complaints from within, I finished the chapter with a pillow pressed against my belly.
Truth be told, my cantankerous abdomen spoke for the rest of me, too. For the marathon task of recording my own audiobook over four long days proved far more demanding than I had expected.
Two ideas drive the now decades-old campaign to extend royalty payments to translators. The first is practical: since publishers have tended to resist paying rates that would constitute a decent income for translators, one that corresponds to the professional skill and long hours involved, introducing a royalty clause into the contract ensures that at least in cases where a translated book makes serious money the translator will get some share of it. The second is conceptual: every translation is different, every translation requires a degree of creativity, hence the translation is “intellectual property” and as such should be considered authorship and receive the same treatment authors receive.
In the end, "I believe, you will have to make a stand," Coetzee writes. "You will have to say: We need free inquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society." Nowhere does — or would — Coetzee invoke love, but love can provide an important ground for this kind of argument. If, for early modern readers, coming to love books meant coming to treat them not as things to be used but as things to be appreciated, then doubling down on the potency of those emotional commitments and their ethical entailments might be a way to resist the instrumental rationality of market values today. If we are serious about our love of literature, its study can be justified on its own terms, for love needs no justification. We read literature not because it is good for this or that, although there’s little doubt it does us all good.