On Late Style

In his introduction to On Late Style, Michael Wood, a friend and colleague of Edward Said, explains its circumstances. Said died in 2003. Three of the chapters of this book had been lectures given in London in 1993. At that time Said knew that he had leukemia; from 1998 on, he completed no fewer than six other books but left On Late Style unfinished. Wood suggests that there may have been a psychological block about completing a book about lateness and death. Four of the seven essays represent Wood’s positioningand sometimes combiningof Said’s other writings on the subject, but Wood claims that he added no bridges.

To say that On Late Style, on which Said was working when he died, examines the late works of several authors and musicians, is a statement that must be almost immediately qualified. One of the important works studied by Said is Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925), written when Thomas Mann was decades away from his own death. It does, however, deal with a dying man named Gustave Aschenbach. Furthermore, in discussing Benjamin Britten’s opera based on Mann’s book, Said notes that Venice, “by virtue of its history of glory and degradation . . . is a preeminently late setting”as if the concept of late style might refer not just to the “lateness” of author or hero but even setting. Late style for Said can be an elusive concept.

It is more profitable, although not a great deal easier, to approach late style thematically. No writer is more important for Said than the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, who, like Said, wrote extensively on music. He finds in Adorno’s extensive study of the career of Ludwig van Beethoven indications of an abandonment of any attempt at reconciliation, at “transcendence” or “unity.” These characteristics are not to be understood as a breakdown in a man who was growing old, deaf, and somehow unable to compose in his previous manner but rather an aesthetic challenge to prevalent modes, a kind of deliberate self-exile from the generally accepted manner of the composer’s day. Beethoven was an artist who, in works such as his Missa Solemnis (1823) and Ninth Symphony (1824), was abandoning the kind of communication that his audience was expecting. Beethoven instead was telling the listener that his art had aged and must face a kind of death.

Adorno’s evaluation of the twentieth century composer Richard Strauss led the author to further thoughts about late style. Adorno considered Strauss’s penchant for frequent retreats to the eighteenth century for his subject matter artistic backwardness. Indeed, Strauss’s late work seems smoother, more “at ease” with the musical world of his day. Said finds Strauss’s late works “defiant,” unregimented, and unreconciled with the musical standards of his time. In short, he represents late style in a manner unrecognized even by Adorno.

Said is particularly fascinated by opera. The first opera he saw as a boy who came to the United States in the 1950’s was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. First performed in 1790, only a year before Mozart’s death, it is clearly a late work, albeit the composition of a thirty-three-year-old man. Mozart once confessed that he never lay down at night without reflecting that he might never see another day. As he insisted in a 1787 letter, “death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.” The feeling of lateness in life can come at any age. For a creative person, it is not a gloomy thought but one which drives the artist to an intentional defiance of the aesthetic status quo.

What in the aesthetic status quo causes this defiant late style? It appears to be that the modern world, recognized by those like Beethoven and Mozart in the late eighteenth century, is a growing negation and disorder in which a bourgeois, consumer-oriented society is swept along but against which the late style stands resolute. Among modern artists who have done so, Said rates pianist Glenn Gould, who died at age fifty, very highly. His success at performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard music reflected what Said calls “a capacity for inventing, creating a new aesthetic structure” from works composed nearly three hundred years earlier. Gould’s performances were ventures beyond the irrational, negative forces of modern life.

Said considers three novelists. One whose late works are strewn with images of death is Jean Genet, for whom death was “a weightless and largely...

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Booklist 102, no. 15 (April 1, 2006): 13.

Library Journal 131, no. 4 (March 1, 2006): 90.

New Statesman 135 (May 29, 2006): 52-53.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (July 16, 2006): 19.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 5 (January 30, 2006): 50.

The Spectator 301 (May 27, 2006): 62.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 29, 2006, p. 30.

The Wilson Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 113-114.