Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man

Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man

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by Joseph Heller

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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? That first novel, the one that launched him, the one that made him into the cultural icon he seems fated to remain, has become a touchstone for his life, and his life since has pretty much


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? That first novel, the one that launched him, the one that made him into the cultural icon he seems fated to remain, has become a touchstone for his life, and his life since has pretty much been a critical failure. And now, when he is faced with the compulsion to write one more novel, to take a 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 as he sifts through the detritus of his life in an effort to settle on a subject for his final work. He talks to everyone, including his wife, his old lovers, and his editor. While everyone has ideas, no one offers any real answers. Written with sections that alternate between Pota's real-life efforts to settle on what novel to write and his many and various false starts writing that novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man is a rare and enthralling look into the artist's search for creativity.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Michael Pakenham The Baltimore Sun A novel of dramatic candor and courage...very entertaining.

Steven Moore The Washington Post Book World A fascinating look at the creative life of one of the most important writers of American postwar literature.

Susan Miron The Miami Herald A hugely enjoyable work — witty and erudite, tellingly and achingly full of truths about the frustrations of a life devoted to writing.

Melvin Jules Bukiet The Philadelphia Inquirer A tenderly rueful lament about aging and ambition that never dies.

Chicago Sun-Times Warmly engrossing.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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 Cahners Business Information.|
Paul Evans
Writing about writer's block seems about as iffy as choreographing stumbling. But leave it to Joseph Heller to pull it off. His 1961 classic, Catch-22, after all, may be the best American study of gnarled absurdity: He was a master of the poetics of frustration. Heller's final work before his death last year, this novella gives us Eugene Pota (Portrait Of The Artist, get it?), a lion-in-winter litterateur whose roaring days are long past. Like Ernest Hemingway's (and Heller's), his earliest fiction was his critical smash; now he's dying to disprove Scott Fitzgerald's dictum about there being "no second acts" in American lives. Things aren't much hotter on the home front: Pota and wife Polly have settled for wary companionability, part inertia and part acceptance (he has stashed Viagra in the forlorn hope that he "gets lucky" on the lecture circuit). Divorce, however, Pota opines, is simply "not cost effective." Eclipsed by younger talent, then, and bored, less raging than whimpering against the dying of the light, the old man wants to ignite a last blaze of bookish glory. The fun here consists of Pota's desperate efforts. Aping the postmodernists, he scrambles to rewrite/deconstruct a classic (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, whatever). No go. Then, a la Mark Twain reworking Genesis, he essays a new take on the Bible: The tale of God's Wife seems like a good idea at the time. Judeo-Christian scripture not panning out, he attempts The Greeks--his brainstorm Hera's story, the ultimate revenge fantasy of the jilted wife (Pota's guilt at his marital infidelity surfacing). Heller's humor betrays an insider's virtuosity--we read Pota's notes for each aborted novel, see him artfully shuffling styles and voices. There's also a message: The older the writer (or reader) gets, the less anything less than the mythic satisfies. Pota bitches to his editor: "Real people are not impressive anymore. Or even convincing. We're trite, overdone." We learn, too, of Pota's admiration of "[Jorge Luis] Borges, who detested plots, as well as such other staples of storytelling as characterization and motivation." Yet one other idea for a surefire hit dogs Pota--The Sexual Autobiography of My Wife. The title alone guarantees cocktail-party titillation. Polly's response, however, is equally certain: She hates it. Pota dithers, staving off confronting the blank page by tackling a lecture, "The Literature of Despair." Mirroring his crisis, the narratives he dissects for his audience recount the sad ends of other washed-up scribes--Hart Crane drowning, Emily Dickinson retreating, unfortunates from Edgar Allan Poe to Robert Lowell destroyed by drink and mania. The lecture is a chilling set piece, Pota's panic in the face of it darkly comic. Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man doesn't actually conclude. Rather, it turns in on itself in a way that, depending on the reader's taste, is either clever or anticlimactic. But the novel's rendering of age and its struggle resonates. Pota takes as his motto the famous line from Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable: "I must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on." And, pathetically, bravely, he attempts to honor it.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Tom


No answer.


Still no answer.

"Oh, shit," said Aunt Polly. "Where in the world can that boy be this time, I wonder?"

That boy, Tom Sawyer, was lounging in an armchair up front in the parlor in his new Armani cashmere sport jacket, complacently calculating the overnight appreciation of his stock and bond holdings as he waited for four of his friends to come by in the leased stretch limousine with insolent smoked windows to take them all to the luxury box in the stadium for the big game — football or basketball, he had forgotten which, perhaps a prizefight. It did not matter to him. What mattered was that he be there. He had bedecked himself in a Turnbull & Asser shirt of aubergine vertical stripes with a gleaming white collar, unbuttoned at the neck. His suspenders were wide and of a red-and-black polka dot. Proudly and deceptively, he had already devised a tricky new riddle to entrap his gullible pals once more into bets of $300 each they were sure they'd win and were certain to lose. He would entice them at the start with an idle observation, as though thinking out loud, the vague surmise "You know, it really is hard for me to accept the fact that — "

Oh, shit, sighed the elderly author with great regret, and decided to give up on this book too.

Listlessly, he rolled the ballpoint pen away. The last thing he wanted to do now, he told himself, was tax his brain to devise a convincing crafty riddle for the expectations raised in the text in order to move it along; the one he'd had in mind for a start he'd already used before as a bit in an earlier novel, that Reno, Nevada, and Spokane, Washington, were both farther west than Los Angeles. No one might catch the repetition. But he would know, and that single cheat could be enough to engender self-contempt, and then induce him to loaf along in other areas too. It was not worth the effort, he sensed already. This book-length parody of the quintessential American pop novel Tom Sawyer, with a contemporary Tom Sawyer and a law degree from Yale or a master's degree in business administration from Harvard, was definitely not going to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of the world, or his race, whichever. Not now, he reflected with a rueful smile, certainly not this one in what he had already begun thinking of privately, with dismaying irony, as this last portrait in literary form by the artist as an old man. Although that, as always, was never for a minute what he seriously had in mind. And not even James Joyce had succeeded in making that long stretch to metaphysical perfection in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But this latest gambit, he now judged, was simple, hackneyed satire, affording no space for expanded aesthetic experimentation or for ambivalent domestic conflicts or wrenching tragedies, and of a kind that swarms of gifted newspaper and magazine writers could do in half a day with eight hundred words, while he would need three or four years for his novel and fill four hundred pages.

A lifetime of experience had trained him never to toss away a page he had written, no matter how clumsy, until he had gone over it again for improvement, or had at least stored it in a folder for safekeeping or recorded the words on his computer.

About this one he had no second thoughts. Oh, shit, he softly repeated, murmuring out loud this time, and gently removed the top sheets from his lined yellow pad and crumpled them into his wicker wastebasket. He overcame the urge to lie down for a second morning nap. Sighing again, he reached for a cardigan sweater and scarf and stepped outside his study for a walk to the beach that he hoped might clear his head and leave him wider awake with more mental celerity than he presently commanded. As he shuffled down his driveway in an overtired walk, he spied his wife across the lawn, regarding him from a corner of the house beside a large garden bucket, clutching a watering can with both her hands. He did not need to peer closely to know that her expression would be that familiar one of sympathy and disappointment at this evidence of failure of his newest daily attempt, and perhaps with the momentary disdain that he was experiencing for himself. Her name was Polly — Polly too; the recurrence in feminine name of the one he had just played with on paper dawned on him for the first time, and then only as a light coincidence. He waved limply, with no emotion, as he passed, forcing something of a smile, and quickened his step until he was at the bottom of the driveway and had turned out of sight on the road. Then he lapsed back into his torpid stroll, almost with a shimmer of relief to consider himself unobserved.

Thirty-five minutes went by before he reached the beach. He was not in a hurry. He heard himself breathing heavily when he arrived, but not excessively so, he hoped, for a man of his years. The wooden bench on which he seated himself to rest was empty. He gazed with intentionally cleared mind at the peaceful scene of sand and water and vacant horizon, waiting for something marvelous to occur to him. He examined with blank eyes the several distant people sauntering along the shore, some with unleashed dogs. Most were women — he was conscious these days that his attention fixed on the appearance of women more and more often, more than ever before since they started wearing tight-fitting trousers of one sort or another with the outline of their underpants explicitly traced, and miniskirts too — and these women seemed perceptibly shorter and more heavyset than normal as they trudged along flat-footed through the sand. He seldom noted what men looked like, or cared.

Where, he wondered, had ingenuity gone? He could guess some answers, for himself and for so many of his contemporaries, and for renowned others of similar occupation who now were long gone. In earlier days of youthful mental vigor and stronger drive the dependable literary thoughts and inspirations that vaulted out of nowhere into mind whenever he beckoned for them had seemed inexhaustible. Now he had to ponder and wait. Pondering and waiting, he stared dully at the unfettered flocks of birds in view, the gulls and terns gliding overhead, the sandpipers scurrying along the shore for their meal of worms as the last splashes of surf were sucked back into the sea. He craved almost desperately for the flicker of a vibrant and usable idea to come gliding into his attention from somewhere in an illuminating flash of revelation, from anywhere, like a bird, a beautiful, glittering bird spontaneously on its own, as never had failed to grace him in his more prolific past, an idea fertile with throbbing possibilities that would revitalize the imagination and invigorate his spirit. His mind wandered. His eyes glazed. His head felt heavy and started to droop. He let his lids slither closed. He might even have dozed. He came awake slowly, thinking, his lips moving in a dialogue, and straightened alertly with the feeling his prayers mystically had been answered. He stood up with a start.

His walk back was close to ten minutes quicker. He made directly toward the low wooden building that served as his studio and as sleeping quarters for overnight guests on the rare occasions they invited any. He was breathing more heavily than earlier but paid no attention. Polly, working now with rose clippers and studying him intently, took notice of his brisker walk and purposeful attitude. She smiled appreciatively and responded to his jaunty wave with a beaming reciprocity of delight and optimism. He was perspiring a bit. Inside, he speedily rinsed the body moisture from his neck and face with splashes of cold water from the sink in the bathroom and then hurried to his swivel chair at the desk. Switching his radio on, he took hold of his yellow pad and ballpoint pen. He was aware only dimly that he had been humming the melody to the Caribbean song called "Yellow Bird" until the music welled through on the classical station to which the radio was always tuned. It was by pure good luck the exuberant last movement of the popular Haydn cello concerto. An omen. He was elated.

Copyright © 2000 by Erica Heller and Theodore M. Heller

Meet 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, and Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. Heller died in 1999.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
May 1, 1923
Date of Death:
December 12, 1999
Place of Birth:
Brooklyn, New York
Place of Death:
East Hampton, New York
New York University, B.A. in English, Phi Beta Kappa, 1948<br> Columbia University, M.A., 1949

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Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man' leaves future writers with not much ground to stand on, as it delivers a unique and true criticism on writing in general. This novel could've been a writer's first and only or last and loudest. It is a novel that reveals great things about observation, and it uncovers the dejectedness that those observant few are bound to encounter; Heller's final lashing out.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man is like reading about a tragic greek hero or, even better, Hegel's attempt to create the final philosophy. It is in this narrative that Heller delineates the inevitable anticlimatic end of literary creators and how one author, Eugene Pota, manages to elude it temporarily by recognizing and celebrating it. The overwhelming sense of nothingness brought on by the linear-ness of western philosophy becomes disturbingly conspicuous as the story unfolds. A satire on the Sisyphian spirit and a lyrical overcoming of fate, this book is also intriguing in it's structure: a deliberate polar opposite of Joyce's work. Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man should not be read as dionysian ramblings of an old geezer nor as some pathetic attempt to portray the pathetic attempt. Rather, it should be viewed as a piece of art true to both form and function.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being of that certain age, I may be more tolerant of this mess of a stillborn novel than say someone yet to reach the twilight of an often frustrating professional career. Published some months after the author's death, it seems a paean to the life of a writer who achieved a quantity of fame and fortune with his first book ('Catch-22') that was never again matched. Yet he continued to pursue his craft because, as he has the principal character and obvious standin for Heller himself say toward the end of this last novel, 'writing is about the only way I can define myself.'