At first I didn’t know quite what to make of this slim volume. Daniel Klein, an author with many books to his credit, was in his seventies when his dentist told him he needed tooth implants. But instead of summiting to at least a year under the drill, he heads to Greece, with a bag of books, to see if one of his favorite philosophers, Epicurus, could teach him something. about being an old man, with all its many problems, and dreaded fears.
I could tell from the very beginning of this book that this was no robust Zorba the Greek. Instead, the author mainly sits alone in Dimitri’s Taverna in the village of Kamini on the Greek island of Hydra, and watches closely other old men, natives of this small island, as they spent their final days in close, familiar contact with each other.
As he sits, always keeping a close eye on the old men, he ponders not only Epicurus, but also heavy hitters like Camus, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Sartre, Aeschylus, Longfellow, Kant, Plato, Nat King Cole and a host of others.
It is clear that Klein puts his degree in philosophy from Harvard to good use here; and it is equally clear that at this stage in his life, he favors the writing of Epicurus because Epicurus believed that old age was the pinnacle of life, the best it gets.
Writes Epicurus: “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”
Yet, despite this sage advice, we find the author himself vacillating from this “safe harbor.”
As he admits: “The idea of being an old man safe in the harbor buoys me up as I sit under Dimitri’s awning, pondering the best way to spend this stage of my life. It is the notion of being free from vacillating beliefs that gets to me.”
Should the aging author Klein take seriously-- unsaid, but strongly implied-- the famous injunction of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
Or, should he follow the example right in front of him of men as old as he, contently staring out at the water, or grazing fondly at a passing, voluptuous young woman, or telling each other the same stories, that each have heard dozens, if not hundreds of times?
Which could give him the answer and comfort he came so far for?
In the end, this reader had no firm idea. Perhaps if I knew a little more about what led Klein here in the first place, and what his life was like in America. In that sense, there is little blood on the floor, which, whether we like it or not, can give great clarity to big ideas.