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Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man: A Novel Paperback – July 17, 2001

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Editorial Reviews 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This slim posthumous novel, playing blithely with the idea of an elderly novelist in search of a subject, is the last thing the author of Catch-22 left us. Although not a profound leave-taking, it is nonetheless a pleasant reminder of the author's great charm and fluency. Eugene Pota, Heller's alter ego here, rifles the back corners of his mind for a new novel that will restore to him some of the luster that shone from his earlier efforts. In the beginning he tries to do something with Tom Sawyer, first with a postmodernist Tom on Wall Street, then as a character determined to run down the secrets of success for an American writer. But Pota discovers, in his wry researches into the lives of Tom's own creator, Jack London, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville, Henry James and many others, that a combination of prosperity and cheerfulness are profoundly elusive for an author. This segues into a speech Heller himself used to make about the many afflictions, particularly alcoholism, of noted American writers. Pota toys with the idea of a book to be called The Sexual Biography of My Wife, then realizes he doesn't know enough about women's sexuality, and doesn't like to ask his wife, so he calls on some old flames, and begins a few cautious, elderly flirtations. He plays, too, with the idea of the Creation from God's point of view, has some fun with Hera and Zeus, and engages in regular, despondent talks about his lack of progress with his editor (who is unfortunately about to retire). Some of this is familiar, some is simply rambling, but it is all done with a spirit of faintly irritated self-reproach that is endearing. At the very least, this is a frank and at times funny look at how a legendary American novelist coped with the onset of old age. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1st Scribner Paperback Fiction Ed edition (July 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743202015
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743202015
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #746,882 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More 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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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Kelly Langston-Smith on December 4, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This novel is about the only reasonable way that Joseph Heller could have closed the book on his tumultuous and probably very frustrating career. Being cursed with the blessing of having his very first book, Catch-22, hailed as a literary masterpiece still read by high school juniors everywhere, there was no real way to eclipse his initial offering. When you start at the top, the only place to go is down, and with each successive book, this became painfully apparent. Even his decades later sequel, Closing Time, fell very flat and very far short of Catch-22.
So I was very surprised and very pleased when his final book, Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man, turned out to be vibrant and refreshing and about as good as it gets. It is a frank and honest thinly veiled autobiography about the joys and terrors of being a writer of some acclaim who seems to have run out of steam. The false starts and stops of what this book could have been make the novel even more enticing. Resistant to the idea given by his editor of writing about the process of writing, Eugene Pota is trying to end his career with a grand magnum opus on par with Tom Sawyer or The Odyssey or even a scandalous book about his wife's sex life. And aren't we lucky that he ditched all of those ideas and brought us this rare treat instead. An original work about a writer trying to figure out what to write about.
It is short, it is original and it is a very good read. Bravo on such a courageous choice to close the book on a career that started out with one of the best novels written in the English (or any other) language.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Weaver on July 14, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Writer's block happens.
Joseph Heller apparently knew it well. Before his 1999 death, the famed author of "Catch-22" put his frustrations into fiction, resulting in 2000's "A Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man," recently released in paperback format.
The story is ingenious, and perhaps eeriely autobiographical. Aging author Eugene Pota (how clever is Heller? Pota = P.O.T.A., or Portrait Of The Artist) is struggling to write his next novel. We, as readers, get to see his latest attempts in action.
They range from a modern day re-telling of Tom Sawyer, a story told from the viewpoint of a gene, a re-telling of a mythological story, another re-telling of a biblical story, and so on. Pota gets a few pages written, but ultimately rejects each one for a variety of reasons (too much research required, it's been done to death, ludicrous concept).
Oh sure, there's the appealing notion of penning a sex book. People will coo and wink naughtily at parties, especially when you reveal your title: "A Sexual Biography of My Wife." (Your wife, in this case Eugene's wife Polly, on the other hand, is none too thrilled.) But when the title is all you've got, well...
Here Heller presents a scarily realistic view of the horrors of writer's block, and proves he has perhaps the only sure-fire method of alleviating it: Write about your writer's block.
In the midst of doing exactly that, Heller presents a three-dimensional figure in Pota. The book lives up to its title, as Eugene feels his age and struggles to capture a glimmer of what he once had. ("Catch-22," anyone?) "Portrait" is very much a story of an artist struggling to keep a grip on his craft, as it is the only thing he has left.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Stephen M. Kerwick on July 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This isn't Heller's best or even second best work and I didn't get the feeling it was expected to be by the author. It's also a much different work than anything he's done before. The most interesting aspect of Portrait is its introduction into the mind of the author looking for a subject for his next novel. Heller produces some vignette items that are very clever in themselves, but which lack the potential for development into a larger work -- thus presenting his dilemma with something like, but not exactly, writer's block. By doing this with plots from American literature and literary biography, Biblical figures and Homeric characters and other Greek mythology, he gives a pleasant, if not profound, work that is excellent for summer beach reading. On a deeper level, Heller seems (at least) to share some of the reflections of his last couple of years in an autobiographical sense. Portrait is well worth a trial, if only as light to moderate entertainment.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Mark K. Fulk on June 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Like many novels in our postmodern world, Heller's final work is interesting and engaging, but also very caught up with sex. His reflections and humour are still as good as ever, and especially profound are his insights into what it means to grow old and the pressure on aging writers to produce a(nother) masterpiece. The novel runs the intellectual gamut from the Illiad to Tom Sawyer, plus offers a compendium of other works that I intend to pursue. Overall, a worthwhile find in the mode of contemporary, male-authored literature ala Updike and Roth.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By EA Solinas HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
It's somehow unsurprising that "Portrait of an Artist As An Old Man" was Joseph Heller's final novel. It feels like a final novel, both autobiographical and a musing about the art of writing. People who haven't tried to write probably won't appreciate this odd little novel as much as those who have.
Eugene Pota is a well-known author who produced an immensely successful modern classic many years ago. Though his books since then have been critical and monetary successes, all of them have been compared to that first book. Now, in his mid-seventies, Eugene reflects on the changing literary world and wants to write a mega-success, a fantastic book that will be loved and appreciated and possibly made into a movie. That's a pretty tall order.
So he begins writing various books, such as the Biblical parody "God's Wife," a book about Greek legends from the goddess Hera's point of view, a parody of "Tom Sawyer," and a novel about a husband viewing his wife's "transgressions." All of them don't quite work out...
Exactly how much of this book is autobiographical isn't clear -- between the witty final line and the stuff about Coney Island and "God Knows," it's clear that much of Pota is actually Heller. One thing that Heller did in this book (besides homage himself) is reflect on the authors who have gone before him. There are lots of references to Henry James, Mark Twain, Jack London, and plenty of others; at the same time, he mulls over the tragic qualities of their lives. (The aborted "Tom Sawyer" parody includes Tom going around looking for them)
This book, technically, is not about writer's block; rather it's about the frustration of feeling required to top yourself, and of a basic lack of inspiration.
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