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Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 12, 2000
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"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
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.
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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. It also provides an appealing look into the artist's creative process, and hints as to what was running through Heller's mind while penning his other works, like "Something Happened," "God Knows" and "Picture This."
Also deserving of praise is the way Heller captures the characters of Pota and Polly. Eugene is a man struggling to keep busy and recapture his former glory, which also includes looking in on a couple ex-lovers and old flames, of which there are many. While not quite as three-dimensional as her husband, we see little glimpses of Polly's motivation. And one wonders how the Heller marriage fared in his waning years; if the Potas are as autobiographical as the rest of the novel seems to be, theirs was a marriage that had sunken into mutual distaste and even a hint of hatred brought upon by old age. It's disturbing to behold.
It's a relatively short work, one that doesn't even come close to approaching the magnitude of "Catch-22." Which is exactly Heller's point, and makes "Portrait" all the more breathtaking. This a cautionary tale, both envy-inspiring and frightening to aspiring writers (I tremble as I type this), and a work that could have, in all honesty, probably been written by any struggling poet with a title but no song.
But Heller is the one who wrote it, and he can rest easy in the knowledge that anyone else who dares attempt such a tale will merely be following in his giant footsteps.
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. Not being able to write in the middle of a book is bad enough. But it's even worse when you have trouble just figuring out what you want to start out with. Eugene's dogged attempts to do the impossible -- to top himself -- are pleasant to read about.
His writing is funny and insightful, but occasionally becomes a bit self-indulgent. And I wasn't sure what to make about the passages about Polly, Pota's wife. Meaning, I wasn't sure if she was based on his actual last wife and whether he was frustrated with her.
Some witty dialogue, amusing false starts and some genuinely poignant soul-baring fill this book. It's a shame the "Old Man" passed away before it was even published.