Back There cover Back There
by Howard Walden

reviewed by David Gardiner

ISBN: 1-904492-88-6
~ 452 pages ~
BeWrite Books, 2002
Printed: 9.80 E-Book: 1.00

Available from Amazon and The Book Depository

This is a highly idiosyncratic book that can't be summed up in a few slick words. Essentially it's the story of a love affair between an odd-ball American and an upper middle class French woman in the period immediately following the Second World War. The action is framed in an extended flashback. We meet the storyteller Harry Grossman first as an older man, evidently settled and at ease with himself, a gentleman farmer on a small estate somewhere close to Paris, looking back at his younger self in the manner of Christopher Isherwood introducing his Berlin stories. This older version of the novel's protagonist speculates about where different life choices might have taken him, while teasing us with snippets from the material that he is, at this point in his life, struggling to commit to paper. We are drawn to him at once, we want to hear the story that he is preparing to tell us, and we are not disappointed.
        The opening section of the novel (there are no chapters) is radically different in style and mood to the later sections set in Paris and its outskirts. We are introduced to Harry the would-be artist with a messed-up life and a failed marriage, trying to scrape together enough money to survive in New York, fearing for his sanity while he fends off uncontrollable jealousy, thoughts of suicide and insipient depression. But this dark material plays as a wacky comedy, told with the ascorbic wit and sustained irony of a Woody Allen or a Kurt Vonnegut. Swept along on a wave of surreal comedy, we wonder at first whether to accept the literal truth of much of what we are being told. Did Harry's spiritually inclined friend Roger really charm the Central Park pigeons and pet a hungry tiger at the Zoo? Did Roger's girlfriend really telephone for men in white coats to come and remove him from their apartment? How much springs from the poetic license that the older Harry has granted himself as narrator?
        Part of me would have liked the story to continue in this vein for the full 450 pages, but this does not happen, for it is also a tale of two cities, and as the action shifts from New York to Paris the mood of the narrative changes abruptly. Harry remains to a large extent a loser but this fact about him no longer seems funny. An undercurrent of deep melancholy begins to emerge, threads of antisemitism and Holocaust denial enter the plot, and a number of characters are introduced, including his French lover Pascale, about whom we feel very ambivalent. Narrator Harry tells us the story of the one-sided and in most respects unsuccessful and unsatisfying relationship which has nevertheless formed his life in a major way. Most of us, like Harry, are serial monogamists who have had one or more all-consuming love affairs in our past any one of which might have been the one, but, for whatever reason, wasn't. This is the territory the book explores. There is a sense of hopelessness about the way Harry and Pascale relate, characterised by poor communication at every level as well as cultural and personal incompatibilities. To give a trivial example, when Pascale tells Harry that she and her sister talked about him shortly after all three had met he responds with the English phrase "You discussed me?" which Pascale hears as "You disgust me". More significantly, after they have known one another for some time, Pascale, in a flash of the savage irony of the New York section, refers to Harry's former artistic ambitions thus:

She said that, if he still agreed, they'd keep on looking for an apartment in Paris, something reasonable, so a little run down. But he could fix it up. Hadn't he said that he'd once been a painter?

Pascale's motives and inner mental life largely evade both Harry and the reader. We feel that a major reason for writing the novel is an attempt to make sense of this period in his life and the character of this woman, both of which he presents with tenderness and nostalgia and enormous honesty and skill, but little insight. Pascale seems oddly distant and dispassionate throughout the relationship, rationing their time together, frequently cutting short their meetings, excluding him from large sections of her life, unimpressed by the photography which has now become his medium of artistic expression, attempting to change him but unwilling to make compromises herself. When she believes (wrongly) that he has left her she seems unruffled. Although they have a sex life it seems strained and lacking in Gallic passion, and ordinary companionship seems almost missing from the relationship.
        This particular segment of immediate post-war French society to which Pascale and her family belong is depicted with enormous conviction and detail. Wounded in their pride by the recent occupation and the collaboration of many of their class, grudgingly grateful to the Americans for their D Day rescue, distrustful of socialism and the unconventional, still haunted by doubts about the Jews and unable to distinguish clearly between fact and subliminally-absorbed propaganda, they present us with the social aftermath of Nazi-ism, the counterpoint to Christopher Isherwood's work which Waldman's so frequently calls to mind.
        The structure of the novel can only be described as "unique". Throughout the action of the book the young Harry is compiling notes from which the story that we are reading will eventually be constructed. Old Harry has his input too: towards the end he makes a reappearance and teases us a little more by offering us a series of alternative endings, some happy, some "realistic". Throughout the story the motif is repeated of the narrator/protagonist seeing his own reflection in a mirror and treating it as an additional character, and towards the end there is an unsettling instance in which the identity of a fictional character melts into the identity of the actual person depicted. This is a confusing format in which everything seems self-referential and recursive, a literary evocation of the paradox of the liar ("the statement that I am now making is false"). Repeatedly we are snapped out of our complacent acceptance of the universe of the novel and forced to think about the relationship between reality and art, and indeed that characteristically French existentialist idea of the open-endedness of the choices by which each of us creates ourselves.
        There is an enormous amount to take in and to think about here. This is a multi-layered literary meditation, rich in symbolism, metaphor, superb use of language, fierce irony and sparkling wit. It's the kind of book you return to time after time, finding much that you overlooked on each successive visit. I don't think the reader is intended to understand it fully, or at least that's my excuse. It seems to me a work to be appreciated more for the questions it raises than the answers it offers. Whatever you manage to take away from it I can guarantee at least that you aren't going to forget it.