Rembrandt painting Aristotle contemplating the bttst of l lomer was himselfcontemplating the bust of Homer where it stood on the red cloth covering the square table in the left foreground and wondering how much money it might fetch at the public auction of his belongings that he was already contemplating was sooner or later going to be tnore or less inevitable.
Aristotle could have told him it would not fetch much. The bust of Homer was a copy.
It was an authentic Hellenistic imitation of a l lellenic reproduction ofa statue for which there had never been an authenticoriginal subject.
There is record that Shakespeare lived but insufficient proof he could have written his plays. We have the Iliad and the ()dyssey but no proof that the composer of these epics was real.
()n this point scholars agree: It is out of the question that both works could have been written entirely by one person. unless. of course. it was
It is exactly ten o‘clock on a cold and rainy morning in East Hampton, the bijou town on Long Island where Joseph Heller lives and writes, and doubtless eats, drinks, sleeps, jogs, swims and scratches a sage‘s headful of silvery hair when he worries about the way the world is going. The author of Catch 22 is now sixty-five but he does not look or sound as if he is counting the hours till meals-on-wheels drop by. He is an affable, garrulous, recently remarried man, a mordant humorist with a reputation as a bull‘s-eye political prophet tolling bells for those who despatch others to die as cattle or to do their dirty work. Writing fiction on black-edged paper has made him wealthy: the Jewish boy who grew up in a nickel neighbourhood in Brooklyn has landed on his feet, in a posh backwater where the bucks stop and stay.
That boy, who once admitted that the book which made the greatest impression on him was a prose version of the Iliad, has chiselled out an oeuvre as distinctive as any in modern American letters and ,— after four novels, a play here and there, and a factual account of his fight against Gulllain-Barré syndrome — he has gone
Joseph Heller‘s new novel. Picture This. is published this month. The List offers a special pre-publication extract. and Alan Taylor talks to the author.
a person with the genius of Homer. Aristotle remembered that such busts of l lomer were common in 'I'hessaly. Thrace. Macedonia. Attica. and [juboea in his lifetime. Except for the eye sockets and the tnouth open in song. the faces differed. All were called Homer. Aristotle could not have said why a blind man would want to sing. About the tnoney to be paid for the painting there could be no doubt. The terms had been set beforehand in correspondence between the Sicilian nobleman ordering the work and Dutch agents in Amsterdam. one ofwhotn. probably. should be credited with proposing Rembrandt for the commission and bringing together these two figures significant in the art world of the seventeenth century who would never meet. whose association as patron and
performer spanned more than eleven years. and between whom there would pass at least one acrimonious exchange of messages in which the purchaser complained he was cheated and the artist responded he was not.
The Sicilian nobleman was Don Antonio Ruffo. and it is possible that this avid and discriminating collector of art had not laid eyes on anything but prints of Rembrandt’s before ordering from him the Dutch painting of a philosopher he wanted for the art collection he was amassing in his castle in Messina. Not for years did Ruffo find out that the man in the painting was Aristotle. He never found out that the bust ofthe man in the painting upon whose head Aristotle rested his hand was Homer. Today we accept that the face on the medallion suspended
back to the ancient Greeks.
In a manner of speaking. At least they’re there in the first sentence of Picture This, his latest book, and as Hellerites know that‘s the sentence that sets off the whole shebang. First sentences can, do, take Joseph Heller years, decades even, to perfect. Remember, ‘It was love at first sight.’ from Catch 22? Remember, ‘I get the willies when I see closed doors.‘ from Something Happened? So what are we to make of the start of Picture This? “Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer thought of Socrates while Rembrandt dressed him with paint in a white Renaissance surplice and a medieval black robe and encased him in shadows.’
‘I think’, says Heller contemplating Heller contemplating a sucker, ‘the first sentence precedes the others.’ At this the straight man bends, chuckles and offers a rebate. ‘It was that first sentence that inspired my imagination. I saw the first sentence as a statement about the tone of the book.’
Picture This, he acknowledges, is different from his other books, but then he likes to think all his books are different. Which they are. Butthis one is different still. For a startthe tone is unlike anything he has essayed
previously; consciously functional, the prose pared down to bare essentials and stripped of ‘creative writing.‘ ‘The creativity’, says Heller, ‘went into the arrangement and selection of information. It is almost like in a newspaper; it’s almost pedantic, the kind of writing you get on the obituary pageﬁ
It is a book (to call it simply a novel is inadequate) replete with information and philosophical insights. About Rembrandt and the insane art auction world. AboutAristotle bemused by the value the world accords art and not life. About Socrates sanguine in the face of death. About city states, then and now,
from the heavy gold chain presented to the philosopher by the impecunious artist was intended to be Alexander‘s but might. through slipshod intelligence. have been a likeness of the goddess Athena. whose face. ofcourse. had never been drawn by anyone who had seen her.
No one doing a painting or statue of Athena. not even the sculptor Phidias. whose great figure ofthe goddess was one of the eye-catching astonishments of the Acropolis. had any idea what she looked like.
The price of the painting was five hundred guilders.
Five hundred guilders was a good piece of money in the Netherlands back in 1653. even in Amsterdam. where the cost of living tended to be higher than elsewhere in the province of Holland and in the six other provinces making up the newly recognized and rather loosely organized federation of the United Netherlands. or the Dutch Republic.
Five hundred guilders was eight
war and peace, imperialism, the hypocrisy of democracy, truth, capitalism, money, anti-semitism and forgery. Name it and it's in there somewhere, not to mention, reports Heller gleefully, ‘four or five pages on the curing of herring.‘
Getting to the hub of Heller‘s fiction has never been easy and critics can count on a ticklish time with Picture This. If rejoices in irony, in the felicitous juxtaposition of unrelated facts, in the absurdities of history, and, like all that is best in Heller, it is sustained by his sizzling wit and acid commentary. It is, he reckons, his strongest book and his most cynical. ‘What I seem to be saying,’ he hazards, ‘is this is the way it is whetherwe like it or not, and this is the way it has to be. Sometimes it’s better, but not much better. And it can‘t get much worse.“
But he is, he owns up, the last person to ask what his books mean. Even Catch 22 catches him out. ‘I know what it‘s about‘, he says, offering a ray of hope, ‘but I cannot put it into words as IucidIy and as descriptiver as someone else can. If I have to describe Catch 22f can‘t do it. I do know that none of the descriptions l‘ve seen—and I‘ve been reading them for 28 years— seem to me to be accurate or comprehensive.‘
The List 14 — 27 October 1988 53