Ironically—or perhaps not—the later-bloomer and the early bloomer are often one in the same. Following are five writers who shot straight to early achievement, but then took many years—in some cases, over 20—to complete their next, and often most accomplished, work.
Though Saramago is now a household name in the literary world, known for such works as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1991) and Blindness (1997), his path was long and fraught, marked by starts and stops. His first novel, 1947’s Terra do pecado (Land of Sin), came out when he was 24 years old; but he did not publish anything else for 19 years. Land of Sin was a promising work, the story of a 19th century woman, Maria Leonor, and the dramatic events that follow after she is widowed; but it ultimately received little attention, and Saramago himself would later assert that “at that age he knew nothing of widows or sin.”
In the interim years, he read voraciously, wrote journalism, engaged in politics, and held a string of jobs at garages, newspapers, and printing companies. In his forties, he published poetry, along with collections of newspaper articles and translations. But his next novel, Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia (Manual of Painting and Calligraphy) wouldn’t be released until 1977, when he was in his mid-fifties. Five years after that, when Saramago was 60, the release of Memorial do Convento (and its subsequent translation into English as Baltasar and Blimunda) catapulted him to worldwide recognition and acclaim.
The recent publication of Claraboya, a 1953 novel-in-manuscript that Saramago submitted to a Portuguese publisher who (perhaps wary of the novel’s themes and Saramago’s radical leanings during the tenure of then-Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar, a conservative) didn’t respond until 1989, reveals that Saramago didn’t completely swear off writing or publishing novels during his apparent hiatus. Regardless, the 30-some years between Saramago’s first novel and his rise to literary prominence were crucial, as his characterization of the author as “apprentice” in his 1998 Nobel lecture makes clear.
Known now as a writer of postmodern, highly experimental fiction, Markson first began publishing in his early thirties, writing what he would later call “entertainments”— conventional crime, noir, and mystery novels like Epitaph for a Tramp (1959) and Epitaph for a Dead Beat (1961); and humorous Westerns The Ballad of Dingus Magee (1965) and Miss Doll, Go Home (1965). Dingus Magee did achieve the distinction of a movie adaptation, Dirty Dingus Magee, starring Frank Sinatra and with a screenplay written by Joseph Heller—but Markson himself had not yet bloomed in the way he wanted to, and later would. While these early novels did bear some traces of Markson’s playful, highly literary and allusive style, it was not until the ’70s that his work would see a gradual shift toward maturity—first, with Going Down (1970), described by Markson himself as “Faulknerian” and also heavily indebted to Malcolm Lowry, on whom Markson had been writing a master’s thesis; and then 1977’s Springer’s Progress, a clever, chaotic sprawl that told the tale of roguish novelist Lucien Springer. A period of 11 years would then pass—during which he published a volume of criticism, Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning, in 1978, but no fiction—before the work that would make Markson’s international reputation, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, emerged.
Published in 1988, when Markson was 61, Wittgenstein is a complex work. featuring an idiosyncratic narrator, Kate, who memorably declares herself to be the last living person on the planet. Wittgenstein’s Mistress was published only after 54 publishers’ rejections. In the years following, Markson went on to write a veritable barrage of critically-acclaimed experimental novels, or “anti-novels,” including: Reader’s Block (1996), This Is Not a Novel (2001), Vanishing Point (2004), and finally, 2007’s The Last Novel. Despite this spate of productivity and success in later-life, as late as 2005 Markson would observe, in this interview with Bookslut, that he ran the risk of being “well known for being unknown.”
Unlike the previous authors in this list, Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 debut Housekeeping was a celebrated one. Critic Anatole Broyard was particularly enthusiastic, declaring in the New York Times that Robinson‘s prose “achieved a kind of transfiguration.” Others who shared Broyard’s zeal included the PEN/Hemingway panel, who awarded Housekeeping the prize for best first novel in 1982, and the Pulitzer jurors who nominated the novel for the fiction prize that same year. Housekeeping was a masterful work—the story of two girls, Ruth and Lucille, growing up in fictional Fingerbone, Idaho, as well as a meditation on the natures of domesticity, rootedness, and transience.
Robinson then took a 24-year break from writing fiction, focusing instead on essays, articles, and works of history and criticism. She published two books during these years—a 1989 study of Britain’s Sellafield nuclear plant, Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution; and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), in which Robinson explored theological texts and thinkers at the heart of American culture and views on morality, along with the ethics of Social Darwinism, among many related subjects. When asked in a 2008 Paris Review interview why she’d made the switch from one genre to the other, particularly off of the heels of Housekeeping’s success, Robinson replied: “To change my own mind […] to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out…or open up something that would have been closed to me before.” The same interview reveals that Robinson chose to write about what interested her when it interested her, admitting little pressure to take particular paths with her work; and, for better or worse—“I wish I could have made myself do more,” but, “I write when something makes a strong claim on me.”
It was not until 2004, when Robinson was 61, that fiction would again make such a claim; Gilead would make good on the promise of the novel that had come before it by winning the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was followed by a sequel, Home, in 2008, which Robinson was inspired to write by the sense that certain characters in Gilead had their own stories that needed to be told. It would seem that her organic approach to writing ensures that Robinson will remain an author perpetually in bloom.
Born Aron Ettore Schmitz, to an affluent family in the Italian seaport city of Trieste, Italo Svevo was keenly interested in literature from an early age and harbored intense desires to be a writer, before the failures of his father’s business and health forced him to withdraw from his studies of the classics and enter the working world. He spent nearly two decades working as a clerk for the Viennese Union Bank. It was not a particularly engaging experience, as the original title for the debut novel that it inspired, 1893’s Una vita (A Life), reveals. Svevo had wanted to call the book “Un inetto,” or “The Incompetent”—after its provincial protagonist, Alfonso Nitti, an aspiring writer and social-climber who succumbs to the stultifying rhythms of office work. But editors forced him to change it to something more positive, or at least more marketable. The publishing house, Vram, also had Svevo pay for Una vita’s publication out of his own pocket. This early episode foreshadows both Svevo’s ongoing thematic concern with the notion of inettitudine, or ineptitude, and the difficult relation that he would have to the publishing world.
Svevo published Una vita at the age of 32 to near silence. His next effort, Senilità (translated variously as Emilio’s Carnival, or As a Man Grows Older), was published five years later, with much the same result. Frustrated and disheartened, Svevo turned his attention to business ventures, having married a cousin, Livia Veneziani, whose family ran a business making paint. And, with the exception of a handful of short stories and plays, and a faithfully-kept diary, he fell silent for the next twenty years.
In 1907, the year Svevo turned 46, he made the acquaintance of James Joyce, who’d arrived in Trieste to work as an English teacher at the Berlitz School. Svevo engaged Joyce’s services to refine his English, and the two quickly discovered similarities in their literary tastes and styles; a shared, “primarily pessimistic view of life,” masked by the “rich humor and irony” of their stories and sensibilities; and a common ambivalence with which their own countries received them. In time, Joyce would become the fervent champion that Svevo needed. It was Joyce who encouraged Svevo to write the novel that would break his long silence—La Coscienza di Zeno (The Confessions of Zeno, or Zeno’s Conscience), which Svevo self-published in 1923, at the age of 62.
Described by James Wood as “[t]he great modern novel of the comic-pathetic illusion of freedom,” Zeno is the fictional memoir of an aging businessman, Zeno Cosini, who tries to quit a smoking habit by plumbing the depths of his desire to do it. Though acclaimed today for its exploration of a profoundly untrustworthy comic narration, Zeno originally enjoyed the same lackluster publication as Svevo’s preceding works . But Joyce’s praise for the work led to the book’s translation into French, and from there, Zeno received the readership that Svevo had always yearned for, internationally as well as in his native Italy. Though it had its detractors, it was largely hailed as a masterwork and a fine addition to the Italian canon, as well as the roster of great works in translation. Svevo’s earlier works were republished, and several novellas followed. In his final years, he enjoyed a career as a lecturer on his own work, until his untimely death in a car accident in 1928.
Like Jose Saramago, Harry Bernstein enjoyed his first success at 24, publishing several short stories in magazines like Manuscript and The Anvil, which appeared alongside the works of such celebrity writers as Gertrude Stein. His promise was such that Clifton Fadiman, then chief editor at Simon & Schuster, suggested he submit a novel. Bernstein did. Hard Times and White Collars told the story of American executives during the Great Depression, and reflected Bernstein’s lifelong interest in stories related to his own working-class heritage as the child of Jewish immigrants. Upon receiving the manuscript, however, Fadiman declined to publish the novel. Nevertheless, he arranged for Bernstein to start work at the production company MGM, under his brother, story editor Robert Fadiman. For nearly two decades, Bernstein would work for a series of Hollywood studios as a script reader. He would also meet and marry his wife, Ruby. He continued to write fiction throughout this period—over forty novels, all told—but none, with the exception of 1981’s The Smile, were published. And that one, about the decline of a fashion model, did poorly.
Bernstein abandoned fiction and tried to content himself with a second career editing magazines, and then with a quiet life with his wife after he retired. Her death from leukemia in 2002, however, changed everything. His grief at her loss was such that, shortly after, at age 93, he immersed himself in writing once more. And this time, he returned to his working-class childhood in a memoir, The Invisible Wall—named for the segregation that he and his family experienced in their divided English town; and named also for his elder sister, Lily, who, to their father’s fury, fell in love with a Christian boy across the street. Bernstein wrote furiously, completing the book in a year, and sent it to various publishers. After a long struggle, including a year stuck in the slush pile at Random House’s London offices, the manuscript was accepted there in 2006; Bernstein was 96 years old. Ballantine Books then published The Invisible Wall in his native U.S. In 2008, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Bernstein followed The Invisible Wall with a sequel, The Dream (2008), and after that, The Golden Willow (2009), a memoir of his relationship with Ruby. When the New York Times profiled him in 2007, he seemed to regard his late-life bloom with equanimity: “If I had not lived until I was 90, I would not have been able to write this book….It just could not have been done even when I was 10 years younger. I wasn’t ready.” Bernstein died in 2011, at the age of 101.
Homepage image: Italo Svevo