Reviews - What do customers think about Back There?
A linguistic delight Nov 3, 2005
Five decades ago I fell in love with a brick wall. Next to a bus stop I had ample opportunity to admire its colours, finger feel the rough texture, track the scurrying insects and over the years be astonished at how the mosses, lichens and miniature trees would burrow their roots in the desert-like substrate. Three decades ago I had my first article published. Yes, it was on walls: Detective work on the physical geography of sandstone walls. Thank you, Howard Waldman, for obliging these memories to flood back by having Harry Grossman be equally obsessed - in his case, photographing Parisian walls.
There is no understating the plot. Waldman is a master of the ennui. His deep knowledge of mid-century France, both in the capital and in the sticks, oozes from the pages admirably. The American Harry, rudely bludgeoned by the police, discovers he has fallen in lust with a French beauty when his bleeding being recovers in her home. Does hapless Harry clutch his angel? One of Waldman's writerly skills I am addicted to is his use of the conceptual double negatives in this book. Harry is after one goal but scores in another, then another. Linguistically too, he employs opposites brilliantly. For example `Addition is subtractive in the strange emotional mathematics of her language.' Je t'aime is weakened to I like you when you add bien. Stop trying so hard, Harry. His girl knows this: It was always something else for you. This wonderful play with words permeate the whole novel in such delectable morsels.
Speaking of treats. Harry worms his way to the family's rural farm. His New York life is poor preparation as illustrated with this gem: Where he comes from strawberries, once thawed, were in season all year round.
I will not spoil the ending, but it is both a crucial key and a little confusing, as is the beginning. I collect recursive stories, and this novel is one. A self-referential essay extraordinaire. I recommend the reader to skip the prologue until the last chapter is read, twice. In fact I am reminded of that joke where a local is asked directions: If I were you, sir, I wouldn't start from here. The smoothest flowing prose is in the middle, and the beginning is a mosaic of confusion, much not really needed.
This is a beautiful book, so close to being perfect. As it stands it should be recommended reading for all lovers of English, with French dressing. I have no hesitation giving it a 5 star rating.
Back There by Howard Waldman Oct 24, 2005
Howard Waldman's Back There reverberates long after it's been devoured and put back on the bookshelf. A novel too unashamedly individualistic and underivative to be easily squished into a genre pigeonhole, it offers a litfest of walking-talking-breathing-emoting characters set in the fuggy café ambience of mid-century Paris and country dacha retreat.
The protagonist, Harry, l'étranger from New York, is a memorable character. Howard subtly insinuates the reader into Harry's convoluted thoughts and ambivalent heart. Arriving in la gaie Paris by a bizarre twist of fate, Harry engrosses himself in photography and at times his vision, or weltangshauung, is so warped that it seems as if he's viewing life through a distorted lens. Ineffectual in the art of basic survival, Harry is - until self-made disaster strikes - an Engish tutor. There is much understated irony in his escapades, such as a pedantic grammar lesson serving as the springboard for steamy erotic foreplay.
Harry falls in lust, which he typically interprets as love, with a coldhearted but très belle mademoiselle. He eventually infiltrates himself into the belle's home and we are given an almost voyeuristic insight into the private folds of a French mid-century family. The mother, the kindest woman and the worse cook in France, lavishes samples of her goodness and cuisine on Harry. The father sings opera arias at the dinner table and anoints his body with malodorous cod liver oil to achieve immortality. And not to forget the little grey sister who, with the passing of time, proves herself to be Harry's eternal love. While this is a transatlantic love story, there is no suggestion of mawkish violins or hand in hand swoonishness.
Harry's philosophical meanderings wend their way in and out of the narrative. This is done so sensitively that his quite profound and alarming thought patterns enhance the storyline rather than detract from it. Harry, while he is undoubtedly his own very idiosyncratic person, at times echoes and shadows Albert Camus' unforgettable existential hero Mersault.
Back There is, without question, a literary tour de force which deserves a wide readership in English-speaking countries and, also, it would be a compelling and enlightening read for French bibliophiles.