In the late 1960s, I was a graduate student in English at Hunter College, a division of the City University of New York. I read literary critics like Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling, and breathed in the air of the New York intellectual scene.
After graduating Yeshiva University, Torah studies were my main interest; but I wanted to get credentials in another field in case my plans to be a rabbi did not work out. I remember having a conversation with my Medieval Literature professor in which she told me how critical her English studies were in terms of giving her direction in life.
Religion gave me direction in life, and it was unusual for me to hear that English literature was that important to someone. Indeed, it did give her life meaning just as faith gave my life meaning.
I was reintroduced to that cerebral world in Starting Out in the Evening, the story of New Yorker Leonard Schiller, an aging professor and novelist who is writing his last novel after not writing for a long time. His first four novels were extraordinary successes, but he has not been able to replicate that achievement for many years.
Heather Wolfe, a young and attractive graduate student, approaches Leonard, hoping to interview him for her master’s thesis focusing on his early novels. After initially rejecting her offer, which he claims will take valuable time away from his current writing, Leonard relents and consents to her overtures.
Over the course of her interviews, he becomes at ease with her, prompting Heather to ask Leonard about his marriage and personal life, about which he is very uncomfortable speaking. Tension between them rises and falls as they navigate intellectual terrain together. It is a jousting match that is not without its moments of emotional pain and discovery.
Simultaneously as we watch the relationship between Heather and Leonard wax and wane, there is another drama transpiring. Leonard has a 40-year-old daughter, Ariel, whom he wants to see married and with child. Ariel wants the same, but Casey, the person she loves, does not want children. Her father urges her to break the relationship, but it is complicated in view of her strong passion for Casey.
Tension between Leonard with both Heather and Ariel creates pressure on him, eventually taking a toll on Leonard’s health. What transpires between Leonard and Ariel, on the one hand, and Heather and Leonard, on the other, makes for a complex and powerful denouement in which family and professional issues are not resolved but reach the kind of tentative ending that is true to real life.
Starting Out in the Evening is, indeed, two stories. It is the story of a writer who has written his magnum opus and cannot summon the intellectual energy and creativity to begin anew. It is also the story of a father who wants to leave a legacy, a written legacy of great books, and, more important, a human legacy of children. He desperately wants his daughter to have a child and not be stuck in a relationship without even the possibility of having children. When illness strikes, it is his daughter who stands beside him. His written work is only a memory, without the power to sustain him during a time of crisis.
Jewish tradition is very clear on what constitutes a legacy not just for Jews, but for all mankind. The first commandment in the Bible is to be fruitful and multiply, and it is addressed to all men. Children are our physical and spiritual heirs. When we have children, in a sense we overcome mortality by producing children who continue our lives beyond the time in which we live. No intellectual achievement matches that. Once Leonard Schiller understands that, he frees himself to write again in the evening of this life.