The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner
|The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett|
|Summary: A fictionalised story of the remarkable life of photographer, Philippe Halsman. Wrongly imprisoned in Austria for murdering his father, this novel gets to grips with the complex psychology behind the man behind the images. Challenging but powerful.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: July 2012|
|External links: Author's website|
Austin Ratner's debut novel, The Jump Artist, first published in the US in 2009, is a fictionalised account of the extraordinary life of celebrated photographer, Philippe Halsman. Born a Latvian Jew, as a young man in 1928 he was walking in the Austrian mountains when he saw his father fall to his death. This would be traumatic for anyone, but the issues were compounded when he was accused of murder by the Austrian courts in what was probably anti-semitic and certainly xenophobic in explanation. Philippe's second trial, the first failing potentially because his mother had engaged a Jewish lawyer, details the fundamental lack of evidence and shoddy police work behind the accusation.
Halsman went on to become a noted portrait photographer, first of young female nudes and then onto more conventional portraits where he mastered not only light but the ability to photograph beyond the mask of the subject to show their true personalities. Much of this was in bohemian pre-War Paris, and latterly in the US where he developed the idea of getting his subjects, including Marilyn Monroe and Salvador Dali, to jump in the air, presumably on the basis that it's difficult to maintain a mask while you are jumping up and down. Hence the Jump Artist. The great irony of his skill, as skillfully exposed in this book, is that Halsman himself maintained a constant mask to cope with seeing the death of his father and his subsequent imprisonment.
It's a fascinating story, replete with a number of well known names. His subjects included notably politicians such as Kennedy and Churchill, Dali and Einstein to name but a few. Moreover his trial also drew attention from extremely eminent people including Sigmund Freud. The book's great strength is in the psychological motivations of Halsman. It expertly conveys his repressed feelings and struggles to live in a society that had accused him of murdering his father.
The slight downside to this is that it can be difficult to get into the flow of the book. It's far from a straight narrative and the story jumps around with Halsman's own memories as well as jumping from different life stages. There were times when it can feel a little like you are watching a TV series having missed an episode. You quickly catch up and the overall effect is strong, but it can make for a disconcerting read at times.
Ratner at times introduces characters who then disappear without at trace. Given the subject matter, a more helpful analogy might be that it can feel like looking at a series of photographs that tell a part of the story. There is absolutely no doubt that Ratner's research is exhaustive but I was left with the feeling that at times he knew more than the reader about certain events and relationships and these are not always spelled out clearly. Of course, this is better than the alternative whereby the author underestimates the reader's intelligence, but the subject matter is so interesting that I yearned for a slightly more straightforward narrative at times, despite the fact that the focus on the psychological is engrossing in itself.
It's a shame that some of Halsman's images cannot be included in the book, but a quick Internet search will reveal some of his wonderful images. It's a mark of the quality of the story that the book will undoubtedly encourage most readers to check these out. It may not be the most straightforward read, but it's a fascinating book and sheds light on a remarkable story and an equally remarkable man.
Our thanks to the kind people at Viking for sending us this book.
For more photographically themed fiction, you might also enjoy A Division of the Light by Christopher Burns.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Jump Artist by Austin Ratner at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.