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Review: Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man by Joseph Heller

Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man by Joseph Heller1 Review: Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man by Joseph Heller


Like many readers probably are, Im fascinated by recursion: by sentences that can carry on forever through the syntactic links of subordination, and by narratives that fold in and over themselves, a literary homunculus. In particular theres something about books about books and authors writing about authors that I find utterly compelling. Perhaps its that its still a novelty to see an author take centre stage rather than being some sort of amorphous force cuckolded by their own work.

As is quite obvious from its title, a reference to the James Joyce book (caveat: which Ive not read), Hellers'Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man'incorporates all of the above, while quite firmly taking the piss the entire way. Its not always successful, and sometimes you feel a bit as though youre sitting through an extended dinner-table yarn where a single-line quip would door perhaps an article in the Sunday extra rather than an entire novelbut its a rewarding, sometimes moving read, if only because its hard to see anything but Heller himself in this book.

My husband has always joked that writing is like tango or golf: its one of the few things at which you can get better at as you get older. Writing is considered by the wider public to be a part of a writers identity; if someone stops writing, then they are no longer a writer. But given'the recent press about Philip Roths decision to retire and the subsequent retaliatory articles about older authors who have decided to press on regardless of age, it seems as though this is something that just isnt done. Theres a perception of writers as being artists driven by some sort of manic, hypergraphic inner muse; an expectation that writers should be pen-in-hand until the very end.

However, the circumstances of todays writers are different from those of writers of generations ago, as Heller points out in this wry volume. Writers, he opines, of past generations had the sense to die early, earning themselves posthumous glory and avoiding having to read their own poor press. Not only that, but by truncating their lives by virtually embalming themselves with alcohol, challenging everyone around to duels, and generally throwing themselves in harms way, they ensured that they wouldnt dilute their oeuvre with mediocre work. Nor would they peak too early, living the rest of their lives pallid and tragic beneath the shadow of their own literary behemoth:

What next, then? The artificer who lives long enough, particularly the writer of fictions for page and stage, may come to a time in his life when he feels he has nothing new to write about but wishes to continue anyway. Musicians joke in belittlement about the last compositions of Mozart, who died young, that he did not die soon enough.

Heller, whose'Catch 22'remains the pinnacle of his work, can no doubt relate. In'Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, we see Heller himself grappling with this very problem: what he should write about when he has nothing left to write, but yet wants to keep writing. (Think Beckett:I must go on. I cant go on. I will go on.) He turns, of course, to the old adage of write what you know, writing about a washed-up ageing author (Eugene Pota) who, too, is attempting to write something worthy while also turning to the familiar. The book skittles in and out of these points of view with innumerable detours into Potas proposed novel ideas, all of them hilariously terrible and appallingly derivative. We cringe through an achingly long riff on Kafkas'The Metamorphosis'and an equally bizarre effort involving Tom Sawyer as an author. But these are nothing compared with Potas eye-gougingly awful attempts to write an explicit sexual history of his wife or to reclaim ancient mythology. Oh, Heller, if only youd lived to see todays bestseller lists

The stories within the story, although forming its bulk, are probably the weakest part of the volume, being as they are little more than extended jokes. The meat of the volume is in the narrator/Potas pained awareness of their increasing irrelevance as artists and of the indifferent responses received to their pitches: their editors have a remarkable knowledge of their past works, but show little inclination to spend time on anything new. What I found particularly interesting here is the relevance not only to the careers of older authors, but just to todays authors generally. There are times when Heller or Pota sit down to write something only to find that someone else has got there before them'(That impish Nabokov had already written it, damn him!), and I couldnt help but wonder whether this is increasingly a problem for todays authors given just how much has already been written, and the extraordinarily multiplicative way in which our global library is expanding.

There are times, too, when the narrator/Potas new ideas turn out to be a reprise of their own previous workperhaps not surprising given not only that their editors are encouraging them to write something similar, just not'too'similar, to what theyve come up with in the past. Its a difficult ask when not only do we live in a world thats more and more demanding when it comes to content, but also when authors careers (presuming they dont bow out and go into some better-paying industry) are far longer.

The books conclusion, which incidentally reminded me somewhat of Calvinos'If On a Winters Night a'Traveller, is'at once predictable and anarchic, and I suspect it will have readers divided. Its a conclusion thats less about the narrative than it is about making a point: Hellers frustration about perceptions around artistic novelty and how these are so often tied to and potentially stifled by the creators identity. The book that he/Pota has written is one that comprises all of the break-out efforts that have struck himKafka and Tom Sawyer and so onbut which in its final form contains all of these efforts within a wider narrative of semi-autobiography, which is exactly what the narrator/Potas editors have expected all along. Its pointedly a narrative of failure, but one thats a failure within a set of carefully delineated,'editor-approved'boundaries. Ah, publishing.


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Other books by Joseph Heller:

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller Review: Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man by Joseph Heller

Something Happened by Joseph Heller Review: Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man by Joseph Heller

Closing Time by Joseph Heller Review: Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man by Joseph Heller


  1. sounds like an interesting book