I left a blithe and/or cynical comment or two at the end of this post (itself a response to this article) a day or so ago. Both writers, as you may see for yourselves, deal with the subject of genius, comparing the concepts of the ‘prodigy’ and the ‘late bloomer’. The examples given are Jonathan Safran Foer, of whom I am well aware, and Ben Fountain, of whom I am a little less well acquainted (though any man who says things like “you haven’t lived until you’ve had Haitians stay in your house” has to be worth investigating).
Since these two American scribes may not be familiar to my usual audience, I should like to suggest an alternative set of examples: namely Oa Aayorta and Edmund Ek. Aayorta, as we all know, is your typical ‘late bloomer’. He emerged onto the European literary scene at the tender age of eighty-one, full of new ideas and with a lifetime of experience with which to back them up. I am often asked about his earlier career: was it full of rejections? Were there several decades of depression before he came up with the concept for Silence with Subtitles?
The answer is that I don’t rightly know. There are rumours that he worked as a chef for many years at a respected Andorran restaurant, but I am unable to verify this fact. Nor am I able to explore the nature of any financial backing he has had at any point in his career, though I can say this: if the Spanish magazine Pezrojo is to be believed, Aayorta owns a pretty big house, with not one but four private cinemas (and fourteen dogs of superior pedigree).
Ek is also a complicated character, though in a very different way. He burst onto the Norwegian literary scene at the age of twelve, thrilling and frightening everyone with his heartwarmingly vicious short-story Ducks!! His first novel, The Incredible Expletive Shock, published in his early twenties, continued to suggest a man stuffed like a green olive with the scarlet pimento of sheer talent; a view that has sadly faded in the years since (and, with the appearance of his second novel, threatens to disappear altogether).
Would I call either of them a genius? Ek’s early precociousness suggests that, for all his faults, he might yet have a better chance of spiriting a masterpiece than the elderly Aayorta, whose wise work seems to us the product of continuous careful thought, rather than lightening insights wed to an incomparably natural sense of style. Or am I being seduced by preconceptions of age and talent? Perhaps Aayorta is the precocious one, living a second childhood in his eighties, and Ek is the wise master growing old in his late twenties. What matter? Theories of genius have always been flawed and we should all know better than to expect anything other than the unexpected when the issue of creativity comes up. I will, however, confirm this fact: an obsession with youth and newness will always lead one into a charming but simplistic system, crammed with criminal oversights. I can’t be the only one who fears a literary world echoing that of popular music, with a parade of pretty starlets ruling the roost for a customary two months before another, younger flock of parrots comes along.