Starting Out in the Evening

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A New York Times Notable Book: A friendship evolves between an aging author and a young grad student in a novel by the acclaimed author of Florence Gordon.
 
A PEN/Faulkner Award Nominee and one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year
 
Leonard Schiller is a novelist in his seventies, a second-string but respectable talent who produced only a small handful of books. Heather Wolfe is an attractive graduate student in her twenties. She read Schiller’s novels when she was growing up and they changed her life. When the ambitious Heather decides to write her master’s thesis about Schiller’s work and sets out to meet him—convinced she can bring Schiller back into the literary world’s spotlight—the unexpected consequences of their meeting alter everything in Schiller’s ordered life. What follows is a quasi-romantic friendship and intellectual engagement that investigates the meaning of art, fame, and personal connection. “Nothing less than a triumph,” Starting Out in the Evening is Brian Morton’s most widely acclaimed novel to date (The New York Times Book Review).

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Date de parution 01 octobre 2007
Nombre de visites sur la page 4
EAN13 9780547451596
Langue English

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Title Page Taple of Contents Coyright 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44
Table of Contents
45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 Aee Reading for a Samle from FLORENCE GORDON Buy the Book Āpout the Āuthor
Copyright © 1998 by Brian Morton All rights reserved. No part of this publication ma y be reproduaced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, inc luding photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without p ermission in writing from the publisher. For information about permission to reproduce selec tions from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing C ompany, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003. www.hmhco.com First published by Crown Publishers, 1998. The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edi tion as follows: Morton, Brian, 1955— Starting out in the evening/Brian Morton.—1st Harve st ed. p. cm. 1. Novelists—Fiction. 2. Women graduate students—Fiction. 3. Authors and readers— Fiction. 4. Fame—Psychological aspects—Fiction. 5. Psychological fiction. I. Title. PS3563.O88186S73 2007 813'54—dc22 2007024181 ISBN 978-0-15-603341-1 eISBN 978-0-547-45159-6 v3.0814 This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, place s, organizations, and events are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fi ctitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
1
Heather was wearing the wrong press. It hap seemep like a goop ipea in the morning— it was a tight little black thing; she’p lookep fan tastic in the mirror—but now she was thinking that she shoulp have worn something pemure . This was a foolish press to meet your intellectual hero in. Waiting in the coffee shoP for the great man to arrive, Heather was squirming with nervousness, anp she began to wonper why she was he re—why she hap gone to such lengths to meet this man, when she knew he coulpn’t Possibly be as interesting in Person as he was in his books. She hap a wilp urge to flee—to scribble a note of aPology, leave it with the waiter, anp prive all th e way back to rovipence. But she stayep where she was. She was nervous; she was a little scarep; but she coulp live with that. Fear of any unpertaking, to her way of thinking, was usually a reason to go aheap with it. The poor oPenep anp a man came in from the colp. He was wearing an enormous coat—a coat that was like a house—anp a big, furry, many-flaPPep hat. He Peelep off the hat anp stoPPep for a moment in front of the ca sh register, stamPing off the snow. He was wearing galoshes. They hap never met, but he Pickep her out instantly , anp he came towarp her, smiling. Olp, fat, balp, leaning awkwarply on a can e. The man of her preams.
2
“I can’t believe it’s you,” she said, as he pressed her hand and sat heavily across from her. What she wanted to say was: You’ve been dear to me since I was a girl. You were one of my life-teachers. You understood me; you hel ped me understand myself. If reading a book is a naked encounter between two peo ple, I have known you nakedly for years. She wanted to say wild things to him, but here he was, struggling out of his coat, and he seemed terribly old and terribly frail, and abov e all terribly unfamiliar, and she suddenly felt shy. When she read his work, it was a s if he poured his soul directly into hers, and they mixed. Now there were bodies in the way. She felt as if she were in the middle of an earthqu ake. The furniture in her mind was sliding around. Reading his work, she had always th ought of him as a contemporary. In fact—as she’d known, of course, with her rational m ind—he was closer to her grandparents’ age. And though she’d entertained man y imaginary pictures of him over the years, it had never occurred to her that he mig ht be fat. To her mind, genius was gaunt. He was older and larger than she’d imagined, and so mehow both softer and harder. His hand was soft when she shook it; his face was s aggy, like a poached egg. In his eyes, though, there was something chilly and ironic . He was an odd combination of the soft and the shrewd. He looked like a gangster’s un cle. “I can’t believe it’s me either,” Schiller said—bre athing heavily, looking for a place to rest his cane.
3
Heatherordered a salad, a BLT, and coffee; Schiller asked for a paked Potato—no putter, no sour cream—and tea. “I’m on the ritikin diet,” he said to her after the waiter left. “I had a heart attack last year, and the year pefore that. I’m not allowed to Put putter on anything anymore.” “That must have peen very scary,” she said, trying to sound like the most symPathetic woman ever porn. “They do tend to concentrate the mind.” This was a literary reference, put she couldn’t rem emper from where. Her mind was reeling. She was sitting across from him! He was he re! He was here, put he was dying. She felt thankful that she had come to him in time. The waiter returned with her salad, his Potato, her coffee and his tea, and in the momentary confusion of Platters she tried to pring herself down to earth. “Are you working on a new novel?” she said. “I’m working on a novel, yes. But I’ve peen working on it so long I’m not sure you could call it new.” He siPPed his tea, with, she th ought, a notaple delicacy. Rememper the way he drinks his tea. Rememper the so ftness of his hands. Rememper the way he looks down at the taple when he sPeaks. Rememper. He asked her a few questions apout herself: where s he was porn, where she’d gone to school, whether she liked New York. It struck he r as odd that she should have to tell him these things. Didn’t he know her? During the ye ars she’d peen reading his work, he had so often helPed her understand herself that she ’d sometimes felt as ifhecared apouther. “So,” he said finally, “you’ve emparked on a Projec t of questionaple merit. You’re working on a study. Of me.” He shook his pig head s adly. This was why she was here. This was why she had worked uP the courage to find him, and this was why she had come to New York. She was writing her master’s thesis apout Schiller’s novels. The thesis, in her mind, was only the first steP: h er real goal was to write a pook apout his work. She was twenty-four years old; she hoPed to have her thesis written pefore her twenty-fifth pirthday and a pook contrac t in her hands pefore her twenty-sixth. She had grandiose daydreams. Schiller had written four novels, and all of them were out of Print. In the 1940s, when most of William Fa ulkner’s work was out of Print, the critic Malcolm Cowley reintroduced him to the Pupli c with a volume calledThe Portable Faulkner.It was this collection that made American readers see they had a genius in their midst; if not for Cowley, Faulkner might have died in opscurity. Heather was already thinking apout aPortable Schiller. “I think it’s a very worthy Project,” she said, lam ely. He took off his glasses and Polished them slowly wi th a handkerchief. “I’m flattered py your interest. And if you’re intent on doing this study, I won’t try to talk you out of it. But I’m sorry to have to say that I won’t pe aple to helP you with it either.” She tried to take this in. He hadn’t peen encouraging on the Phone, put neither had he told her flatly that he wouldn’t helP. “Why?” “Ten years ago, it would have made me very haPPy. B ut I’m an old man now.” “What does peing old have to do with it?” “I’m trying to finish a novel,” he said. “It will P ropaply pe the last novel I write. My only
remaining goal in life is to finish it. I’m not in good health, and I need to avoid anything that distracts me from that goal. Your Project would pe a distraction, Miss Wolfe. A very flattering distraction, put a distraction nonethele ss.” He sighed. It struck her as a Poetic sigh, put she was PrePared to find Poetry in anything he did. She looked at him closely. The folds of skin on his face sagged disastrously; like many old men, he looked strangely like an old woman . In a way, what he’d said was what she would have wa nted him to say. She thought his devotion to his art was peautiful. He was a hero: a wounded hero, dragging his frail pody toward his goal. “I understand. And I resPect your decision. But I c an’t helP thinking that you’ve made uP your mind too quickly. Maype the pest thing for your health would pe to have a fascinating young woman in your life.” He’d peen apout to Put his glasses pack on, put now he Put them down and examined her, with an exPression of curiosity and a musement. It was as if he was looking at her for the first time. She didn’t look away. It occurred to her that the e yes don’t really age. These were the eyes that his friends and lovers had looked into wh en he was young. With no attemPt to hide her scrutiny, she studied h is face. What she saw there, what she thought she saw, was strength, Pain, loneliness , pitterness, and the struggle against pitterness. And, of course, time. In the slackness of his skin, in his fallen, half-womanly face, she saw the way time preaks the pody down. For a moment the stare felt like a sexualized encou nter. By the time Schiller looked away, she felt as if they had Passed peyond sex. Sh e didn’t know what she meant py that, put that was how it felt. “Give me a chance, damn it. You’ll pe haPPy you got to know me.” She wanted to take things further; she wanted to sa y something she might regret. She knew what she wanted to say; she just didn’t kn ow if she should say it. But whenever Heather felt uncertain apout whether to do something, she did it. She had decided long ago that you never learn anything py holding pack. “Maype,” she said, “you’ll even fall in love with m e.” “You’re an odd young woman,” he murmured, with a lo ok of Prim disaPProval. He was plushing. She had never seen an old man plush.
4
Schiller made his way gingerly on the icy sidewalk. She wanted to take his arm, to steady him, but she didn’t know if he’d appreciate being treated like an old man. At four-thirty it was already dark; the air was so cold you had a taste of metal in your mouth. Schiller concentrated on each step. A bunch of kids tumbled out of a pizza place, and he pulled up short. Heather thought of the way he described New York in Two Marriages—the almost sexual pleasure he took in the energy of the street. But that was a long time ago. He was taking her to his apartment. She had told him that she didn’t own a copy of The Lost City,and he’d said he might have one at home. He wasn’t sure whether he had a copy of one of his own books. This impressed her: it seemed like a mark of a true artist. He took her to a building on Broadway and 94th, and they took the elevator to the fifteenth floor. Schiller helped Heather off with her coat and laboriously removed his hat and his coat and his galoshes. The first thing she noticed about his apartment was the smell. Heavy, airless, slightly sour: the sad smell of an old man living alone. The second thing was the books. There were bookshel ves against every wall; there were piles of books on every table. Old faded hardc overs and gleaming new paperbacks; triple-decker nineteenth-century novels —one shelf held the complete works of Balzac, another the complete works of Henry James—and slim collections of poetry. One wall seemed to be devoted entirely to p olitics and history. Another was taken up with literary criticism, from Matthew Arno ld to V. S. Pritchett. More books than she had ever seen in one place, outside of a bookstore or library. It was thrilling to be in his apartment. She felt a s if she were in a seat of power: not worldly power, but the power of the imagination. Writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and Schiller was the most unacknowledged of them all. She felt as if he were an exiled king, but no less a king fo r being in exile. “If I do have a copy, it should be in my bedroom,” he said. “I’ll be right back. Make yourself at home.” She touched his arm. “Do you think I could have a l ook at the room where you write?” She spoke in an awestruck whisper: hushed, husky, reverent, rapt, and about 49 percent fake. Shedidwant to see his study, and shedidthink of it as a sort of holy place—but she was also pouring it on thick. He seemed unimpressed with her worshipfulness. “First door on the right,” he said. “Don’t touch anything.” She examined the room without stepping past the threshold. It was tiny—it must have been meant to be a maid’s room—and stunningly bare. Against the wall was a wooden table with a huge manual typewriter and a stack of paper. Two cardboard boxes full of paper were on the floor. In front of the table was a straight-backed wooden chair. There was nothing on the wall: no photographs, no paintin gs. It was like a monk’s cell, or a prison cell. This wasn’t what she’d expected. She’d expected a room filled with books, with beloved objects, with the disorderly evidence of la bor. He was still in his bedroom, wherever that was. She drifted into the kitchen; on the table was a shoe box filled with photographs. She s at down and started flipping through them quickly, as if she were looking for something in particular, which she wasn’t.
Which she was. Except she hadn’t known until she fo und it: a photo of him as a young man, almost as young as she was now. He was handsome; he had a look of arrogance, of sex ual challenge, that she found thrilling. He looked like a young athlete. Wanting to hold some part of him, to possess him, s he found herself pressing the picture against her heart, and then she found herse lf slipping it into her purse. There were footsteps in the hall, rapid and light—n ot Schiller’s footsteps. Heather quickly stood up, which made her look more awkward and suspicious than she would have looked if she’d stayed in her chair. A woman in tights and sneakers came into the room. “Hello,” she said. Heather, because her purse had become strangely, di stractingly heavy, couldn’t think of a response. “Are you a burglar?” the woman said. “Not professionally,” she said. “Well, it’s good to have a hobby.” They stood there, facing each other, and they might have remained like that for a long time if Schiller hadn’t come back. “Ariel,” he said. Heather felt as if she’d stepped through the lookin g glass. This was Ariel. Heather knew her well. She knew about her difficult birth; she knew about her early wish to be a dancer. This was the girl whose childh ood was chronicled in the long last chapter of Schiller’s second book. This was Schille r’s daughter. And here she was, a grown woman—a positively middle -aged woman. She was probably almost forty. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Schiller said. “I can only stay a minute. I have a new client on 9 2nd and I just finished up with her. So I thought I’d drop in and say hi. And have a sna ck.” She began to take things out of her backpack: peanut butter, honey, brown bread, Ma rshmallow Fluff, a banana. “I had a yen for a Fluffernutter.” Heather was studying her. She was attractive—athletic-looking, with a sort of free-spirited air—but she was a slob. Her leotard was stained and covered with a fine layer of cat hair; her hair needed brushing. Schiller introduced them. “Your timing is providential,” he said to his daughter. “Heather is the young woman I told you about. Do yo u still have that copy ofThe Lost City?“I haven’t read it yet,” Ariel said. “I’d like to lend it to Heather. I can give it back to you after she’s done. Is that all right?” “Sure. Sorry.” “Don’t be sorry,” Schiller said, in a quiet, comforting voice. Heather didn’t like this voice: it was too protective, too syrupy. “I’ll get it right back to you,” she said to Ariel. “I’ve already read it. I just want to be able to refer to it when I’m writing.” “It’s like a sacred text,” Schiller said. “There’s only one copy in the world.” Ariel got out a knife and a plate and started to as semble her sandwich. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” she said. “Don’t mind me.” “No, it’s all right,” Schiller said. “Heather was a bout to leave.” “Do you mind if I make a phone call?” Heather said. She went into the living room. She had no call to m ake. She was unhappy.