Quick plot summary: Leo is a young tiger. He might have ADHD, he might be shy; it’s never quite clear what’s wrong with Leo, but he doesn’t keep up with his peers. The book begins this way with one sentence and one illustration per page:
“He was a sloppy eater.”
|Leo blooms at last|
As the front edge of the Baby Boomers hit their 60s, the legend of Leo the Late Bloomer lives in the world of wannabe writers. It goes something like this: you’ve been sort of wanting to write a novel all your life and you’ve written some stories, maybe even a novel or two that never got out of the drawer, but now that you have a little more time in your life, maybe you can get serious about writing, finish that novel, and get it published. I know that dream well because it is my own.
Can you handle the truth, though? I’ve done a little research and discovered the odds against rookie novelists’ being discovered after the age of 50 are long indeed. Here’s the short list, according to Wikipedia:
- Kenneth Grahame retired from a bank and published The Wind in the Willows at 49.
- After publishing poems and short stories for years while working for the U.S. Post Office, poet Charles Bukowski published his first novel, Post Office, at 49.
- Raymond Chandler published his first short story at 45 and his first novel at 51.
- Watership Down, the first novel of British writer Richard Adams, an epic of rabbit life was a big seller in 1972, when Adams was 52.
- The Marquis de Sade, perhaps a special case, wrote his first novel, Justine, in two weeks while imprisoned in the Bastille at age 47, but it was not published till he was 51.
These late bloomers are all what you might call borderline on the age 50 requirement. Most had been serious writers practicing their craft in obscurity for years before their breakthrough novel.
|Charles Bukowski on French TV|
And then there are the famous writers with long careers who, some say, did their best work late. “I could, for instance, compose a long list of late-blooming writers,” writes Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust the Neuroscientist, in a recent post on scienceblogs.com. “Henry James peaked in his early 60s; Virginia Woolf didn’t fully master the form until her mid-40s; late Bellow is much better than early Bellow; Proust might have started writing RoTP at 37 but he didn’t ‘finish’ it until he was 50; Joseph Conrad wasn’t a serious writer until middle-age; Nabokov wrote his finest work in his 50s and 60s; Gabriel Garcia Marquez continued to produce masterpieces well past middle age.”
But none of these superstars meet my criterion – unpublished till age 50. For that, I’ve been able to find only three instances.
Harriet Doerr was a California mother and housewife who returned to college in her 60s at her son’s urging. She took a summer writing workshop, and voila! her talent jumped off the pile of manuscripts at her instructor. She took a more advanced writing class and began honing her collection of short stories about the life she’d led with her family in a small mining town in Mexico. The collection called Stones for Ibarra got published in 1983 when Doerr was 73. It impressed the critics, partly because of Doerr’s remarkable back story, and won the National Book Award. This profile of Doerr in Stanford Magazine is a fine account of the late bloomer legend come true.
The other example is a mysterious case. The novel, titled The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, is set on Guernsey in the Channel Islands; the protagonist is an elderly curmudgeon reminiscing about his long life and the history of his little island. It’s one of the oddest books I’ve
ever read, and it gets inside your head with a powerful sense of authentically felt life. The flavor of the book comes through in the opening as told by the rambling Ebenezer:
|The mysterious G.B. Edwards at right|
G.B. Edwards was the author of this novel, which appeared in 1981, five years after his death. Edwards had been a writer of great promise in England early in the century, but ran into difficulties, both with people – he became estranged from his wife and children – and writing – let’s call it writer’s block. He’d written for a literary magazine as a young man, but was never able to complete any of his longer writing projects. He apparently began writing The Book of ELP in his late 60s, and one has the feeling the line between Ebenezer and Edwards is far from clear.
The third example of a late novel of high literary quality is The Leopard (1958), about a Sicilian prince by an actual Sicilian prince, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1956). I’ve blogged about this work on 317am before so I won’t dwell on it.
Robert Kraus, by the way, was far from a late bloomer when he wrote Leo the Late Bloomer. The book appeared at the peak of his career as a writer of children’s books when he was 46.
|Ah, fair Guernsey|