Dispatches | June 12, 2008

In the film adaptation of Brian Morton’s novel Starting Out in the Evening,retired professor Leonard Schiller’s (Frank Langella) monastic life is interrupted when Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), an ambitious graduate student from Brown, wants to write her senior thesis about him and his out-of-print novels. He’s flattered but politely declines. He’s recently survived a heart attack. Time is precious and the writing is coming slowly. His fifth novel refuses to take shape. The characters, he says, don’t seem to want to do anything interesting.

I was so intrigued by this movie and its depiction of a mid-list writer in the twilight of his career that I showed it to my creative writing students, thinking that they might identify with, or at least admire, Heather’s boldness and tenaciousness as she efficiently bates and nets her prey. Not only does Leonard let her into his home, he also submits to her fierce personal questioning, an affront to his high decorum and his belief in New Formalism.

After an hour, I released the students who had “real” finals to study for and dorm rooms to pack, but I kept the movie playing for the four who stayed.

As Leonard and Heather’s relationship develops into a quirky, fragile May-December romance, one young woman I know to be squeamish about sex started fidgeting in her seat.

She erupted into a loud, barbaric “yuck” when Heather dips her fingers into a jar of honey and touches them to Leonard’s lips.

An argument about the appropriateness of the relationship was ignited. Two of the students were all for it. “It’s mostly just brain sex,” one said.

But all of them felt that Leonard was being manipulated. Though Heather has only published a brief essay on Stanley Elkin in a small literary journal, youth has conferred her with power. The old, too-long-ignored writer is putty in her hands. When he gives her a key to his apartment, my students groaned “oh no,” as if he’d signed his own death warrant.

Heather’s youthful arrogance angered me, too. Over tea, she accuses Leonard of using age as an excuse for not getting on with his work. She also wants to know whether sacrificing his personal life for his art has been worth it; after all, who is reading his books?

I’ve heard that during World War I when military men were given a few days furlough, they found the business-as-usual bustle of the Parisian streets befuddling. To them the city seemed untouched by war and they found few who could relate to their experiences on the battlefield. Writers feel a similar lack of empathy for what goes in their own private artistic trenches.

Writers are hard on each other. Even worse, they are hard on themselves and seldom feel the pride they deserve for confronting the blank page.

Few people worry themselves with the struggles of the imagination. I was reminded of this when I read Roddy Doyle’s story “The Bullfighter” recently published in The New Yorker. The protagonist is perfectly content with his life of nine-to-five work, wife and children, and weekly drinking buddies. Or perhaps this is simply a writer’s idealized depiction of the easy joy of a life more spectacularly ordinary than his own.

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