Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man

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9780743202008: Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man

In a front-page obituary, "The New York Times" described Joseph Heller as "the darkly surreal novelist who spoke to a generation." Heller, whose famous bestseller "Catch-22" brought him universal acclaim as a literary icon, finished his final novel just before his death in 1999. "Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man" is a poignant and fascinating foray into the mind of an artist as he examines his life, seeking a source of inspiration for his last book. Imagine an author -- primarily a novelist -- who has become a legend...no, more than that -- an icon! In his own lifetime, all because of the first novel he wrote, many years before. Imagine that the novelist -- his name here is Eugene Pota -- realizes that the days are dwindling and he needs to come up with one more novel. But what should he write about? There's a kind of futility to his search for a subject, of course, because, like so many noted novelists before him, all of Pota's output since that first landmark novel has been scrutinized and dissected and poked at -- and found wanting. That first novel, the one that launched him, the one that made him into the cultural icon that he seems fated to remain, has become a touchstone for his life, and his life since has been pretty much a critical failure. Oh, there were some financial successes, some "New York Times" bestsellers, but nothing anyone seemed to like half as much as that first one. And now, when he's faced with the need, the compulsion to write one more novel, take one final stab at the even bigger one, what should it be? "Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man" follows the journey that Eugene Pota undertakes in his effort to settle on the subject of hisfinal work. In his quest, he talks to his wife, Polly; he talks to his agent; he talks to his editor; he talks to old lovers; he even talks to his doctor. But while everyone has ideas, no one offers any real answers. Along the way in his search, Heller -- through Pota -- pays homage to a number of favorite authors, including Samuel Clemens and Franz Kafka, and discusses the problems that have plagued so many writers in the past who enjoyed early successes and who then fell out of favor (among them, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jack London, and Joseph Conrad). And at one point Pota almost convinces himself of the futility of trying again, as he speaks to a college gathering on the subject "The Literature of Despair." Written with sections that alternate between Eugene Pota's real-life efforts to settle on what novel to write and his many and various false starts on writing that novel, "Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man" is a rare and enthralling look into the artist's search for creativity.

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Review:

"This author was determined," says the apparently autobiographical narrator of Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. "He often appropriated as his own personal infirmity the concluding words of the unnameable voice in Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable, 'I must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.'" And on his last day on Earth, Joseph Heller was still polishing this, his last and strangest novel. It is essentially an essay about a writer who's exactly like him--old and stuck for an idea for his next book. Seeking inspiration, he chats with his wife, his editors, and his friends, and floats one high-concept scheme after another.

How about a novel about the gangsters who ran Coney Island, the enchanted land of his childhood? Nah, too much plot to concoct. Perhaps he could update a classic: Tom Sawyer as a Harvard MBA, or Kafka's The Metamorphosis transposed to Manhattan. When these don't pan out, Heller takes a stab at mythology, done in the manner of his old pal Mel Brooks. Here Zeus's wife complains about his flagging ardor:

I try to put myself in Leda's place. It could be kind of thrilling, I guess, being overpowered by a huge male swan, especially after realizing it was Zeus.... I'd like to see him take the trouble to surprise me like that, even once. But that doesn't happen. He won't waste tricks like that on me. He never does, he knows he doesn't have to. When he comes to me it's never with anything new, it's always just the same, always just the same old god.
Increasingly desperate, the author tries out titles on his friends, and A Sexual Biography of My Wife stirs some interest. Still, his tentative fictions don't grab you the way the novel's sad, searing reminiscences do. When Heller--I mean, the narrator--has a tearful reunion with his adulterous old flame (who's now stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease), or asks another female acquaintance whether she regrets turning down his long-ago offer of romance, we get a privileged glimpse into the private mind of a very public author. "I want to cap my career with a masterpiece of some kind," the narrator tells his editor. This poignantly discursive book is not a masterpiece, but Joseph Heller did go on trying to the end. --Tim Appelo

About the Author:

Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn in 1923. In 1961, he published Catch-22, which became a bestseller and, in 1970, a film. He went on to write such novels as Good as Gold, God Knows, Picture This, Closing Time (the sequel to Catch-22), and Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. Heller died in December 1999.

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