Literary Review

The evening, under lamplight

Scary Old Sex; Arlene Heyman, Bloomsbury, Rs. 499.  

A writer recently told me an amusing story of how a publisher gently fobbed her off when she spoke of bringing out a set of lectures, and asked if she would write an erotic novel instead. Erotic novels are the publishing world’s newest hot cross buns, even more lucrative when written by women. In this heaving, undiscriminating mass, only a few display literary merit. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I picked up Scary Old Sex, but it was with joy that I put it down.

The 73-year-old New York-based psychiatrist, Arlene Heyman, has made one of the most stylish and taboo-breaking literary debuts of recent times, with a topic that is treated squeamishly at best but mostly safely ignored: sex for the over-60s. But saying this is to undersell the book because it isn’t so much about sex as it is about life and growing old, about loving and grieving and finding crumbs of comfort in physical intimacy. The characters in Heyman’s stories make love not just for sexual gratification but to celebrate their connectedness, to feel skin touching skin, to iterate life and breath.

In an interview, Heyman speaks of how sex is scary at any age… “You are there with your whole self”. But replace ‘sex’ with ‘relationship’ and it still holds true. Reaching out to another person, at any age, is possibly the most frightening thing we do; timidly offering up our ragged, vulnerable, imperfect selves, our “heads (grown slightly bald) upon a platter”. And what after? Does one hope that this, then, is the life-giving transfusion of bodily fluids and mental espousal that the self needed? Or does one go back to a life of lonely but careful and safer singledom?

Heyman appears to have little doubt that the former is vastly more desirable; and she is not afraid to examine the shared intimacies between older people in close, clinical detail. So there’s KY jelly and Viagra, estrogen tablets and fantasies. In the first story, Marianne is 65 and Stu is 70. “Spontaneity was difficult,” the writer says, “Making love was a little like running a war.” Then there are the older bodies, the sagging muscle and skin, the paunches, the age spots and thin arms. But even through this ruthlessly prosaic approach, what surfaces is tenderness and empathy, the acceptance of not just the other’s but one’s own brokenness.

Pop culture’s possibly best shot at senior love was Something’s Gotta Give, where a 60-plus Jack Nicholson and a 50-plus Diane Keaton discover each other late in life. I also remember Last Vegas, mostly hammy, but where the understated romance between 69-year-old Michael Douglas and the elegant, older singer Mary Steenburgen plays out without a false note. Still, they stuck safely to beauty and romance.

But Heyman undresses the body too with a flourish, the pitiful, inadequate, unloved human body, leaving little unsaid. Her triumph is that despite this, her book is not just about scary old sex. It is about scary old relationships — between 68-year-old daughter and 90-year-old mother, between cancer-ridden man and wife, cancer-ridden father and teenaged son, mother and step-daughter, a paediatrician and his receptionist and his son, between 19-year-old Leda and an artist 28 years older. Even Leda’s story, which could so easily and genuinely have been about the physicality of their union, goes far beyond to explore human interconnectedness. “I am not your child, I don’t want to depend on you,” she says, to which Murray replies, “We all depend upon each other.”

Love, intimacy and compassion come attached, inexorably, with rage, disgust and frustration. Perhaps that is why Heyman uses the word ‘scary’ in the title of her book; perhaps because when you are older, you finally stop hiding these other facets of love away.

“I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch/ How should I use it for your closer contact,” asked Eliot in ‘Gerontion’. Heyman tells you just how.

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 11:25:11 AM |

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