Wednesday, November 07, 2012

200. Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller's Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man (Scribner, 2000; 233) has been described as a semi-autobiographical story of the author. In this story, Eugene Pota an author in the twilight of his career and of his life, is struggling to write a story that will make him popular and be better than his first book. He is struggling with subjects to write about and the writing style to adopt as almost every theme or subject has already been covered by another writer or by the writer himself. But Eugene is not willing to give up; after all, writing is the only thing he knows how to do. He discusses his works with his agents who are all his age-groups and therefore are in the same 'dying-out' boat as he is. One of the working titles of Pota was The Sexual Biography of My Wife.

The parallelism between Eugene Pota and the author, Joseph Heller, is vivid. Just like Joseph Heller, Eugene had had success with his book Catch-22 and no other work of his - Heller's - enjoyed such acclaim as this book. Again, like Heller himself, Pota is in the twilight of his career. If this is the semi-autobiographical as it's been said to be, then Heller had a laugh at us, the reading and criticising public who always demand from an author the impossibility. We who refuse to acknowledge that each book has its own life and that each is a creation on its own and therefore should be treated in isolation and not in relation to other books by the author. Eugene, a man struggling to do what he knows, poked at himself, laughed and wrote this book. Heller showed how much a burden on the author it is not to be recognised for any other work but one that happened to be a debut novel.

This is a book about an author writing a book that was never written. However, for further fun, the author writes in the end
Oh, shit, sighed the elderly author, and chuckled to himself once more. He was not surprised, and he began to think seriously of writing the book you've just read. [233]
Pota began writing about a book about an author struggling about writing a book and that's what Heller did. The title of the story itself - Portraits of the Artist (POTA) - makes the author's surname. Also t 'Portraits of the Artist as a ...' is the title of several novels including James Joyce's 'Portraits of the Artist as a Young Man.' 

This book was completed just before the author's death and published posthumously. It was the author's final work. Funny enough it was my search for Catch-22 that led me to this book. This book is recommended to all. It's fun to read, it's intelligently written and it unaplogetically dissects the problem most writers at the end of their careers face.


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