While it’s often mooted that an author’s first novel serves as an autobiographical catharsis for the author, there is little if any consensus about the relationship between an author and their last novel. With this quandary steadfast in his thoughts, Eugene Pota, a world-renown author and aging cassanova, tries to unravel this enigmatic relationship while producing a novel that lives up to the past glories of his literary career, and in particular his first book – which rightly earned him a place in the history of literature.
Tracing the inner workings of the writing process, from the intimate embarrassment of writers block, through to the mystifying otherworldliness of success and the dizzying and perpetual fear of rejection, the issues deftly rendered in Heller’s last, posthumously published novel, transcends the barrier between fiction and autobiography and depicts the mesmerizing struggle between an author and a novel.
As Pota plants an array of weak, desperate plots and follows the subsequently questionable prose that grows uncontrollably weed-like, the heart rending sense of failure looms ever closer and ever larger, as Pota heroically tries to avoid coming to terms with the closing chapter of his career. With every turn of page in a literary race for time, and as the growing failing of Pota’s writing skills becomes apparent, the question that constantly assails the reader is whether Pota can overcome the overwhelming self-doubt and loneliness of writing and arrive at an idea from which to grow his final novel. Dragging the reader through meetings with his past muses, his literary agent and various facets of his life, through until the heady conclusion of the culminating chapter, a foreboding sense looms over the reader that not only Eugene Pota’s career rests on the success of his last book, but also the sanctified career of the Heller himself.
While the simplicity and measured pace of Portrait of the Artist suitably counters the complexity and mayhem of Catch-22, the high quality crafting of the writing, leaves the book as a laudable reminder and farewell from a master of humour. Ably pulling itself out from the shadow of Catch-22 and standing as a provocative example of how artful a final novel can be, it would not only make Eugene Pota proud, but also serves as a deserved slight to GK Chesteron’s ridiculous assertion that: “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” This is not only a great novel, but it’s also one that tells us the truth about its hero, the truth about its author and the truth of writing process. A definitive read for anyone even vaguely interested in the creative as well as the receptive side of literature.