Updated on August 5, 2015
14. ‘The Jump Artist’ by Austin Ratner
Ratner describes his book as “an artistic tribute” to the real Philippe Halsman “like a portrait or a sculpture”. I thought the novel was well-constructed and worked as a psychological character study of a fascinating man. Of course, how much is true is up for debate, but as Ratner clearly states, that is not the point. He is not stringing together interesting facts, but rather aiming to capture the essence of Halsman and the times.
Set between the two world wars, ‘The Jump Artist’ follows Philippe Halsman, who is wrongly accused of murdering his father. He is found guilty, imprisoned, and at his second trial is given a pardon. The blurb for the book is a little misleading, as it implies that it will be more heavily focussed on courtroom drama than it is. For me this was a pleasant surprise – Ratner handled the trial in such a way that it does not descend into drudgery.
Even after he is released Halsman is consumed by guilt. One of the other characters sums it up nicely, when he proposes writing a play about “a man who’s publicly branded with false guilt, and though he’s exonerated, he can’t forgive himself.” I found Halsman an interesting character, although at times I felt I was being kept at arms length. Halsman is described from the start by others as being strange and unfriendly, and it’s hard to escape from that initial impression, especially as he makes little effort to endear himself to others, preferring to complain to himself about how unappealing he seems. Through mixing voices – the narration of the plot intermingles with Halsman’s thoughts – the perspective is undoubtedly intimate, but the tone can be dreamy and the dialogue is unnervingly realistic (the characters talk across each other, ignore each other, speak in fragments of thought), so that you don’t quite get a full grip on the man.
This is almost certainly what Ratner was aiming to do, and it is ironic because Halsman becomes a successful photographer and his success is based upon his ability to draw people out of their shells and capture them on film. I loved the scenes where he photographs people – asking them piercing questions, or toying with them in other ways, to make them let their guard down.
There are plenty of time jumps in the novel. Ratner focusses on details, and often glosses over significant events, mentioning them in throwaway lines at the ends of chapters. This is difficult to pull off but I think he does it well. The reader gets used to reading in snapshots.
‘The Jump Artist’ is definitely worth reading. I was able to put it down, but I did keep wanting to return to it. Now I’m going to take a look at Halsman’s famous portraits, as I feel I have more of an insight into their creation.
“…to catch the organism in a moment of unguarded truth.”
This is the first book I am reviewing as part of Penguin Books UK Proof Group. I found out about the group through Google+ and joined Penguin’s Literary Fiction and Science Fiction/Fantasy circles. They have also sent me ‘A Good American’ by Alex George, which I’ll be reading next.
Receiving books in the post is so much fun, and it’s a great way for me to read things that I wouldn’t normally choose!
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?