From comedy by Kingsley Amis to Shakespeare's tragedy, the novelist considers literature 'where the old take precedence'
William Trevor at home in Exeter. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian
Paul Bailey was born in 1937 and worked as an actor before taking up full-time writing in 1967. His novels include At The Jerusalem (1967), which won the Somerset Maugham award; Peter Smart's Confessions (1977) and Gabriel's Lament (1986), both shortlisted for the Booker prize; and Sugar Cane (1993), a sequel to Gabriel's Lament.
He has also written plays for radio and television, and his non-fiction includes two volumes of memoir, An Immaculate Mistake: Scenes from Childhood and Beyond (1990), and A Dog's Life (2003). Three Queer Lives: An Alternative Biography of Naomi Jacob, Fred Barnes and Arthur Marshall (2001), is a biography of three gay popular entertainers from the 20th century.
Chapman's Odyssey, Bailey's new novel, tracks the psychic voyage made by an elderly writer, bedbound in hospital, through the characters, real and imaginary, that have meant most in his intense imaginative life. In the Guardian's review, Alfred Hickling described it as "an enigmatic work whose meaning is worth grasping for. It is the kind of book that could be construed as a deeply moving, valedictory statement of a valuable career."
"When I wrote my first novel At the Jerusalem in the 1960s I wasn't especially conscious that I was tackling the subject of old age. My characters were real women who just happened to be advanced in years. I am in my seventies now, so when writing Chapman's Odyssey I was looking back on a life lived, which every so often resembled my own. I like to think that the narrative has a certain youthful energy, however, but I might be mistaken. Old age is a fact of life and should not be isolated from it. More sentimental rubbish has been written about the 'plight of the elderly' than I can bear to contemplate.
"There are hundreds of novels in which elderly characters feature – in the great works of Dickens, Dostoevsky and Balzac, for example. They function in the narrative but don't occupy centre stage. Here are some titles in which the old take precedence."
1. "Old Love" by Isaac Bashevis Singer
This is one of the master's most poignant short stories, written in his own old age, about a romantic affair between a couple of pensioners.
2. "Ending Up" by Kingsley Amis
Perhaps only Amis could make someone suffering from nominal aphasia as funny as he is touching. The tone throughout is mordantly comic.
This heartbreaking long short story about a woman with Alzheimer's and the weird course her life takes while her husband watches in dismay and confusion has all the honest virtues that distinguish Munro from virtually every other living storyteller.
4. "Memento Mori" by Muriel Spark
Spark's masterpiece, with its echoing reminders that we must all die, is horrifically funny from beginning to end. The dialogue throughout is a joy.
5."Doctor Faustus" by Thomas Mann
Mann's great novel is concerned with the life of a famous composer who, as the title suggests, has forged a pact with the devil. No other novel matches its deep knowledge of the creative urge.
6. "As a Man Grows Older" by Older by Italo Calvino
This comic masterwork isn't strictly about old age, but it is concerned with the attainment of knowledge that comes with the passing of the years.
7. "The Old Boys" by William Trevor
Trevor's first novel is funny and moving and quietly observant of the eccentricities to which the elderly are prone.
8. "Confusion" by Stefan Sweig
This novella is told in the first person by an elderly professor who looks back on the unhappy man who was the greatest influence in his life. The story ends with a surprising and touching revelation. 9. "King Lear" by William Shakespeare
It's not a novel, of course, but it is arguably the greatest play in the language. We watch in pity and terror as a once proud man is reduced to almost nothing.
10. "The Book of Job"
One of the masterpieces of the Old Testament, especially in the King James translation. As with King Lear, Job is the victim of malign fate. He has to suffer the indignities of sores and lesions before he is restored to humanity.