Saturday, 2 June 2001

Joseph Heller: Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man (2000)

Edition: Scribner, 2000
Review number: 832

Heller's final novel, published posthumously, is about an American author in his seventies, struggling to get started on what he expects to be his final novel. He wants to create something by which he will be remembered, rather than something which will be compared disparagingly to his famous first novel, as all his subsequent fiction has been. (As he says, though, you can only burst triumphantly onto the scene once.)

Like the novel to which it makes clear reference, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there are obviously many autobiographical elements to Heller's tale of Eugene Pota (POTA - Portrait Of The Artist). It is perhaps not intended to be such a general depiction of the nature of the artist (note the title changing "the" to "an"). After all, people in old age are more individual than children and teenagers, simply because they have had more time for their experiences to differentiate them.

The inevitable thing that the reader does is to compare Heller's last novel with his earlier work, precisely what Eugene Pota complains about. It seems to me to be gentler than the earlier novels that I have read, much more resigned to the world even than Closing Time. It is humourous, particularly in the false starts Pota makes toward his final novel, and it is full of ironic references to Heller (at one point Pota complains that he is stuck in a Catch-22, for example). It reads rather like a John Barth novel rather than a Joseph Heller one, and it is certainly much more self-consciously literary in character (which is of course because it is about writing a novel and is part of the joke).

I like Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man. It may lack the fire of Catch-22, the sense that what you're reading is one of the great novels, but it is clever and enjoyable, gentle, funny and accepting old age with dignity and wry sadness. It is probably Heller's most original novel, with (as always) the exception of his first.

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