I discovered this book through A.O. Scott's review of the movie in The New York Times, in which he describes the novel as near perfect. It is about an aging novelist, Leonard Schiller; his books, though once well-regarded, are now out of print and almost entirely forgotten. He still maintains his routine, continues to work on a last novel that has occupied him for over a decade, and spends most of the day in his tiny apartment reading and writing except for occasional outings with old friends - many of whom are sick and dying - and visits from his now middle-aged daughter.
There was one line from Scott's review that stuck with me for days. He compares the novelist to the main character in The Leopard (Visconti's film, not the novel) - and writes that "both movies concern an old man who has outlived the social order in which his life made sense." Schiller's social order is much smaller than Lampedusa's - as far as I can tell, it is the literary culture that existed for a few decades among a select group of intellectuals in Manhattan. They were a group of very serious men (there were probably a few women in the mix too) who believed that a perfectly adventurous life could be lived around words and ideas, that to read and write carefully was a valiant act that had real consequences for the world. They were willing to forgo certain types of intensity so they could have the stability that they needed to do their work and hopefully create something useful and beautiful for society. (Henry James comes up a lot in this book, as you might imagine.) I'm not sure they would have described this as a sacrifice - after all, they were all doing exactly what they wanted to do - but I think they did subscribe to a certain ascetic notion of the artist as a person who had to give up certain conventional satisfactions to perform his service to the world.
Were they right? Did their sacrifice result in the beauty that they hoped for, or did they rob their own work of the vitality it might have had by celebrating a vision of the writer's life that was too monkish and withdrawn? The latter position (and one that I came into this book supporting) is represented by Heather, a young Master's student who discovered Schiller's first two novels as an adolescent. She sees them as stories encouraging people to break out of conventional bonds and embrace freedom and passionate experience. She is an admirer of D.H. Lawrence (so am I) and loves Schiller's books for celebrating the same intensity that she sees in Lawrence. Heather wants to write her thesis about Schiller and then hopefully complete a book that will revive his reputation.
Unsurprisingly, she is shocked to find this fat, quiet old man living in his tiny apartment - he is not much of a representative for the sort of passion that she found in his books. She also is less than impressed with Schiller's last two novels and can't help but think that the rut that Schiller has fallen into - this quiet plodding away at reading and writing - is an escape from life that has drained his novels of their energy. Part of the reason this might have happened is that Schiller lost the wife to whom he was passionately devoted after those first two books. (The description of their early married life and desire for each other are some of the most beautiful sections in the book.) It is an open question whether Schiller is still writing with his entire spirit, or whether his routine is less devotion than weakness at this point - just something to keep him sane and going from day to day.
As Heather conducts her interviews and does her research, a strange romance develops between the two of them. It is less a physical relationship and more of a conversation between visions of life. Schiller's middle-aged daughter, Ariel, is another partner in this conversation. She was once a dancer and is now, not too unhappily, an aerobics instructor. Morton does a lovely job describing the physical immediacy with which she experiences the world, and sets it next to the other characters, who are all trying to get a fix on the world through words.
I hope I haven't made the book seem too schematic, with each character standing in for a certain idea, because they are also large enough to contain multiple positions. All of them can see the value in how other people approach the world for their own life. Here is one of my favorite passages in the novel, with Schiller thinking about his life in light of Heather's (he is sick and has almost collapsed walking up some museum steps): "He didn't want to make a scene. The thought crossed his mind that if greatness had eluded him as a writer, perhaps this was why: because he'd never wanted to make a scene. Subtlety and indirection are important tools, but you can't scale the highest peaks with these tools alone."
The last major character - and for me the most unsatisfactory - is Casey, Ariel's old boyfriend who re-enters her life. She is nearing 40 and wants a child (yes, that old plot) and he does not. Casey is black and Morton pulls out the usual bits of sociological research on what it is like to be a black man: people cross the street to avoid you, police stop you for no particular reason. Etc. There is nothing that is less than well-written but I felt a real drop in the novel's creative energy whenever Casey stepped into the book. Plus him and Ariel have various conversations that just rehash the novel's other themes; they go see 35-Up and talk about how it seems like the middle-aged people in that documentary have given up on their dreams, lost their energy and zest as they get older. Again, etc.
More interesting, I think, are the minor characters who are part of the modern New York literary scene that Heather steps into. They are all leading much more externally interesting lives than Schiller, traveling and going to concerts and parties; they are interested in art and writing but only as long as it's fun for them. They write for magazines and papers with no illusions that the work will last. The writing is meant to serve to create an interesting lifestyle - to meet interesting people and go to new places - and no one thinks it makes any sense to sacrifice any part of the life for the art. And Heather, while basically agreeing with them, can't help seeing a little more nobility in Schiller's life than in theirs.
But what does this nobility really add up to? Schiller's books are not much more likely to last than all of those articles. But who has had a better life, who is worthier of serving as a model? Obviously these questions are not answerable (and are therefore fine material for a novel). I'm not sure this book is near-perfect - I felt my interest dropping off a little near the end - but it is deeply enjoyable (and surprisingly funny, by the way) and asks certain questions in just the right way. Anyone who thinks these questions are important - I'm sure there are a few such people left! - should definitely pick it up.