A Literary Conversation

Leonard Schiller is an example of one of my literary friends, although he is surely long gone by now. Schiller is the central character in Starting Out in the Evening, a novel by Brian Morton that amused me greatly when I read it a few years ago. (The novel was recently made into a film with the same title that featured Frank Langella as Leonard Schiller. I found Langella nothing like the Schiller depicted in the novel and the film so disappointed me that I will say nothing more about it here other than repeat my dismay over yet another casting debacle.)

Leonard Schiller is an aging writer. His early novels had a profound influence on a woman, Heather Wolfe, a graduate student in literature. She arranges to meet him in order to gather materials for her thesis on his work. The novel describes the course of their relationship. While that naturally charmed me, I was even more intrigued by the character of the old writer.

He was 71, fat, fastidious and very slow afoot. He is not well, suffers from various ailments, although he hasn’t lost his wit entirely. It was his age that got to me. I am not far removed from 71 and was ill at the time I read the book. I dread being the way he was depicted in the tale--his slow shuffle, his ugly body, and lack of productivity. And I dreaded my illness that continued day after day while I was reading about his.

Of course, all this contrasted with the youth, the spirit, and gumption of the young woman. This difference made the book for me. Not the witty, attractive Heather or the aging, infirm Schiller. Not the numerous philosophical insights scattered densely throughout the novel. But the striking contrast between youth and old age. Between a vigorous and talented young person and an old and weary man. For a moment, a very brief one, she made him feel young again. For a moment, she made me feel young again too.

Starting Out in the Evening was also chock-full of the sort of truths and philosophical insights that characterize serious fiction at its best. If literature can become a conversation between the reader and the character on the page, this book, at least in my case, was an exemplar par excellence.

Morton: Maybe the best thing for your health would be to have a fascinating young woman in your life.

Katzev: No doubt about it. I’ll feel alive again. It will be exhilarating. Still, it can only last awhile. Eventually it will become as tedious as anything else and the consequences will surely be devastating. Of course, none of this will deter me in the least.

M: If life had taught her anything—if she had a philosophy of life—it probably boiled down to that: Go with the skid.

K: Perhaps so. At times I wish I had been able to able to go with the skid. Things might have been a bit different. But then it wouldn’t have been me.

M: Maybe you reach an age where you have to compromise. Isn’t that the essence of maturity?

K: I know this view is rather fashionable and always thought to be productive. But what good is a compromise if your principles fall by the wayside?

M: Life made more sense in the Middle Ages, when no one lasted past forty.

K: Often now I think how much truth there is to this idea. What is the purpose of going on day after day without anything to show for it other than a co-payment receipt from the doctor?

M: …brain-dead aura of the suburbs.

K: Love that phrase. It captures my experience in the suburbs exactly. It is all encompassing and associated with great wave of sleepiness.

M: The primary human need, he decided—stronger than the need for food or sex or love—is the need for recognition, the need to make a mark in the world.

K: It isn’t primarily the recognition although that can be enjoyed for a moment. It’s the “making of a mark” that is the stronger of the two. It motivates just about everything I do, even though I am nothing but an amateur.

M: She had given him an astonishing gift, the gift of her interest…[she] had accomplished the impossible: she had made him feel young.

K: A gift most fervently desired. Where does one find such “interest” these days? It isn’t much to ask, after all.

Starting Out in the Evening
was a sad tale of an aging and infirm author, whose writing life was over but who could still be moved by another person. As I read the book, I saw all too much of myself in Schiller. But I also enjoyed being surprised by his insights and chatting with him about them. We don't have an easy time knowing ourselves. Sometimes a good book makes our task a little easier, to say nothing of the pleasure it gives to talk things over with someone else.