Sue Wilson talks to US author Frank Conroy about his first novel, a pleasingly old-fashioned rags-to- riches tale of a musical prodigy.
Fed up with the thinness. self-consciousness and gloominess of much contemporary fiction? Fancy a
fat. engrossing yam to sink your teeth into? You . ..... could do far worse than Frank Conroy's Body and ,/’
Soul. the story of a poor. illegitimate. neglected New York boy. Claude Rawlings. growing up in the 40s. who discovers his possession ofextraordinary musical talents as he plays around on an old nightclub piano in his basement apartment and who. beneath the wing of the local Jewish-emigre music- store owner. plays his way to the top of the musical world. Conroy. author of the celebrated 1967 memoir ; Stop-Time and (after a long drink-drugs-divorce- 3 recovery interlude) the short-story collection Midoir. is now Director of the renowned University of Iowa Writers‘ Workshop. His first novel is a big. strongly plotted. fully-fleshed. meticulously written story. peopled with minutely observed characters: the type of book you want when you feel like curling up in an armchair and losing yourself for the afternoon.
These qualities have much to do with Conroy's avowed debt to 19th century fiction. self-reared as he I ; was on a literary diet of Dickens. Tolstoy. Stendhal
Frank Conroy: fulfilling an avowed debt to 19th century fiction
and Dostoyevsky; he has described Body and Soul as . ‘an attempt to make a modern response to those kind of novels.’ The foundation-stone of his contemporary realism is his skill (acquired by reading dozens of books on musical theory and practise) at using specialist musical language to convey both the intricate technical vastness and the supra-rational magic of great music. while rendering detailed passages on harmonics. tonality. dominant sevenths and suchlike accessible. even exciting. ‘1 had to try and write about music without using ﬂowery. hyperbolic. triple-metaphorical language. and don't know if you could do that without the technical detail.‘ he says. ‘l know some ofit will be a little bit hard. but it‘s like Patrick O’Brian’s wonderful sea novels — he uses lots of technical details about sailing i Body and Soul is published by Hamish Hamilton at : ships. and even if you don't know exactly what he's
talking about, you get the general idea.‘
The ﬁrm, comfortable embrace the novel offers is also to do with the fact that Claude's story is essentially a happy one: armed with his extraordinary gift and a capacity for hard. devoted work, he is blessed by a string of lucky breaks. which more than outweigh his few setbacks. and ends the book well on the way to material success and artistic fulfilment. ‘I know you‘re not supposed to write happy endings nowadays.’ Conroy says. ‘but to‘ see the book as a fairy-tale would be superﬁcial; for one thing. the musical world in the 40s and 50s was very small — l was there; I was a kid. but I knew musical people. There was a wave of Jewish intellectuals and artists escaping Fascism who came to New York. and if someone discovered a prodigy. there were four or five people to call - you made the calls and everything fell into place. in a sense Claude represents raw American energy and Weisfeld [the music-store owner] represents European tradition and discipline. and that was a meeting that was going on during the post-war period, with Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, and thousands of others who weren't as famous — it was a tremendous inﬂux that was very healthy for the US, and particularly for New York.’
Although he was there, and although there are apparent similarities between Claude's and Conroy‘s story (Conroy plays piano. his childhood home was in the same neighbourhood as Claude’s, his father, hospitalized for mental illness, was largely absent). Body and Soul is not. says its author, a covert second autobiography. ‘Claude is more like a brother than an alter ego.‘ Conroy explains. ‘l feel very close to him, but he's made up — i get rather impatient with some of these autobiographical first novels — why fuck around? if you‘re going to write an autobiography, write it straight; if you're going to write a novel. make things up.’
; _ Mute force
A young woman who refuses to speak, communicating solely through.writing notes; a middle-aged man forced to confront the limitations of his outlook; a small child - key elements of Italian writer Cristina Comencini’s debut novel suggest a striking resemblance to Jane Campion’s The Piano. British readers of the newly translated The Missing Pages will also find other, less specific, contemporary resonances: the novel presents an exploration of family life as cogent as anything our media has thrown at us in recent weeks.
Comencini’s silent protagonist, Federica, is a nineteen-year-oid philosophy student who expresses her contempt for her family, her high- minded ‘quest for the meaning of it all’, and her confusion, in a diary, brilliantly realised by Comencini. With its earnestness, its arrogance and its naivety, it is enough to make anyone who remembers their own teenage
But it is Guido Forte, Federica’s wealthy, business-boss father, who is most impressively drawn. Federica’s mysterious ‘illness’ brings him face to face with his own effective silence towards his wife and growing daughters, which has left them dissatisfied with themselves, craving his approval, and him isolated and unhappy. If he sounds stereotypical, this is only because, the novel
persuades us, our social structures
have produced many such men. There is certainly nothing hackneyed about
i the extraordinary tenderness towards his daughter expressed in his interior
’ dialogues. The superficial reason for Federica’s
silence is a traumatic incident
, involving Marco, her somewhat shady
l lover, but this is far from the whole story. ‘i think it is clear that Federica got involved with Marco because of her illness,’ explains Comencini. ‘iie was this anonymous person that she could feel close to without all the “contaminating” clutter of language that she felt stood as a barrier to real communication with the rest of her family.’ Federica targets her letters and notes at her father, whom she suspects is at the root of it all. ‘Basically, she is trying to reconcile two worlds, one of which could be called a man’s world, the other, a woman’s. The need for harmony between intelligence and emotion, if you like, is an important issue for my work.’
Federica eventually achieves this
harmony through a ‘traditional’ choice: by the end, the former angry
; young woman is writing besottedly
a about rediscovering the world through
the eyes of her baby son: “Bear
5 Papa,” she concludes, “you’ll make
fun of me and think I’ve become like every other mother; well, it’s the truth and I’m not ashamed of it.” ’
It seems alarming that the only way of expressing the ‘fernale’ alternative to the hard world of work is to have a child, and disappointing that The Missing Pages appears simply to sublimate the struggles it depicts so effectively into the next generation. ‘I don’t think the idea that children are the answer to women’s problems is the meaning of the book at all,’ argues Comencini. ‘Federica needed some strength, someone to be close to, in order to start her lite again. She knows, because of what she has been through, the value of spending time with her child - it gives a new strength and understanding of the world. . .thisisreallypartofrny biography also! I had my first child when I was nineteen. You notice how Federica mentions that she has begun toreadalot?lthinkyougettheldea that now she will do a lot of things with her life.’ She may even write a The Missing Pages is published by Chatto & Hindus at £9.99.
The List 28 January-l0 February I994 75