Retinas oxidized in the ether

the jump artistThe Jump Artist
by Austin Ratner

Although I knew that this novel was based on a true story, it was only in the last few pages that I realised I knew a little of its subject, Philippe Halsman, and his famous photographs. Which was perhaps for the best, because it meant that the story was new to me. But I don’t think it would matter if you already knew the story, because the writing is by far good enough to keep you enraptured.

The story begins with Philippe and his father on a walking holiday in the Austrian Alps in 1928. By the end of the day Philippe has been accused of murder and his subsequent trial and retrial reverberate throughout the world’s press. Halsman was a Latvian Jew, an intense, brooding, depressive man in a bewildering world of anti-Semites. Great thinkers of the day, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud spoke up on his behalf and he later became a celebrity photographer, but the murder and the imprisonment could never be struck from Halsman’s memory.

Ratner has done an excellent job of combining extensive research, with extracts from diaries, newspapers and other first-hand sources throughout the text, and yet he has still created a living breathing character in Halsman. He is not even a sympathetic character, at least not at first, though considering the seemingly hopeless situation you can forgive him for the flights of crazy. He self-harms, invents methods of self-punishment including starvation, and disappears into his own dark dark world of death and guilt and shame. Extracts from Halsman’s letters from prison reveal his slightly scary intensity and Ratner captures this in his own prose:

“When he’d seen Winged Victory on the Daru staircase at the Louvre, Papa and Mama and Liouba had had to leave him behind to go see the Persian friezes. He’d soaked up the pleasure of it in his eyes for more than an hour, and when he looked at his face in the mirror at the hotel, his eyes were wrecked with burst vessels.”

Despite this dark central character, and indeed the dark times covered, from 1920s Austria to 1930s Paris and the great exodus of 1940, this book didn’t depress me. In fact, the one time I cried it was at a beautiful moment of humanity. I was so engrossed that I powered straight through in just a couple of sittings, and then wished that I had lingered over it, savoured the often exquisite language:

“They’d been up at 5:30 that very morning and vaulted up the Schönbichlerhorn into its frigid airless winds, had their retinas oxidized in the ether, and their hands seared on the snow and the flint rocks, hot as sunburned metal. They had broken themselves on the mountain and been baptized there above the timber line at the top of the world, where the river of air meets the river of fire.”

In later chapters, I loved the descriptions of Halsman taking photographs and could often picture the finished result from Ratner’s description. From tentative beginnings, Halsman finally finds confidence and artistry in photography and Ratner evokes a believably troubled but brilliant man.

I am not sure why, after this was published to great acclaim in the US in 2009, it took three years to find a UK publisher, but I am really glad that it now has.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

First published in the USA in 2009 by Bellevue Literary Press.
Winner of the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
Published in Great Britain in 2012 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Bigger issues than story

David Golder
by Irène Némirovsky
translated from the French by Sandra Smith

This was another book club pick, in fact this one was my choice, so I was pretty nervous before the meeting. I’d chosen it based on Némirovsky’s brilliant final work Suite Française but this was a much earlier novel of her’s, with no guarantee of the same brilliance. What if everyone hated it? Or was bored by it? What if it failed to generate any discussion?

I needn’t have worried. While this is a slim volume and not as good as Suite Française, in my opinion, it did have plenty for us to talk about.

David Golder is a Russian Jew who works endlessly on obscure international financial deals to maintain the fabulously wealthy lifestyle to which his wife and daughter are accustomed. However, while he lives in a Paris apartment, they live in a multimillion franc estate in Biarritz, accompanied by an endless stream of hangers-on.

Golder isn’t the most likeable character, but we meet him near the end of his life and the impression is given that it was a difficult life and that he worked incredibly hard for himself and his family. His wife and daughter seem to only care about money, only showing Golder affection immediately before asking for a handout and getting very aggressive when he honestly tells them that business is rough and he can’t afford it right now. Add to that his failing health and you have a very sad, lonely picture of a man.

Némirovsky toys with the reader a little regarding characters’ true selves. At first Golder’s daughter seems much nicer than her mother because that’s what Golder sees. Only later is her selfishness fully exposed. And with Golder it’s the reverse – at first all you see is obsessiveness about money and his scheming seems horrible but it becomes clear, as we discover more about him and especially when we learn about his past, that he has his reasons, that his family and business associates encourage him, maybe even force him, to be this person.

I was glad to discover I wasn’t the only one at book club weirded out by the way the narrative labels everyone as a Jew, in an insulting sounding way, even though the author herself was Jewish and indeed died because of it. It could be part of the characterisation of Golder, that he has an odd skewed view of Jewishness. Or it could just be the vernacular of the time.

There was a general feeling that the book is very bleak, there is no ray of hope, no good person to contrast everything else against. But despite that Némirovsky has an easy, fluid writing style that keeps you reading even though there’s no-one to like and a fairly uneventful story.

I can’t recommend this as highly as I had hoped but I will still be interested to read Némirovsky’s other novels if they continue to be translated into English.

First published in France in 1929 by Editions Bernard Grsset
This translation published 2007 by Vintage