Some books are like orchestral symphonies, big and showy with soaring crescendos. The Jump Artist is more like a piece of chamber music, less ostentatious, more subtle, but none the less impressive and memorable for that.
This novel is based on the life of Philippe Halsman, a Latvian Jew who in his early twenties was falsely accused and convicted of murdering his father while on a hiking holiday in the Austrian Alps. While the accusation of patricide was in itself bad enough, the case was made all the worse by the nasty taste of anti-semitism which pervaded the proceedings, with the whole investigation and trial apparently tainted with and undermined by prejudice. These events and the outcry that the case provoked, constitute the first half of the book. Part two starts after Halsman's release from prison and his attempts to pick up the threads of his life following his wrongful imprisonment and against the background of a Europe that was increasingly hostile to Jews in the 1930s. We follow him through his banishment from Austria, his flight to Paris and ultimately his escape to the USA where Halsman went on to become one of the most iconic photographers of the mid 20th century.
In tracing the pivotal years of Halsman's life, Ratner sticks closely to the biographical and historical facts, but uses his imagination to fill in the gaps - Halsman's thoughts and feelings about his conviction, his feelings towards his father, his sense of inertia and directionless on being released from prison. Against the backdrop of a dark period in European history, he creates a subtle psychological study of a man whose treatment at the hands of anti-semitic Austrians can be seen as symbolic of the treatment of so many other Jews across the continent in the 1930s. However, the book's greatest strength is in the way Ratner conveys Halsman's personal interior landscape, from the complexity of his relationship with his sometimes overbearing father to the deadening emptiness and narrowness of his existence in prison. This is a wholly convincing and nuanced portrait of a man facing almost the worst that life can throw at him, and of a man who somehow finds the resilience to survive and break free of his past.
Occasionally I felt the novel was slightly disjointed. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and the reader needs to pay close attention. There is a particularly big hiatus between the two halves of the novel - at the end of part one Halsman is still in prison, but by the start of part two has been freed , with no explanation of how and, crucially, no mention of the testimony of luminaries such as Freud, Mann and Einstein which helped overturn his conviction as is mentioned prominently on the back cover. Something else I much regretted the lack of in the book was Halsman's photographs. Before reading this novel I didn't know the name Philippe Halsman, and by halfway through part two when Halsman was starting to photograph the great and the good I had to run to Google to look him up. To my huge surprise I realised I knew many of these pictures - iconic black and white portraits of Dali, Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, Elizabeth Taylor and many others. I even knew many of the photos from his Jump collection from which the novel takes its name (that being a collection of 1950s "celebrities", including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, caught mid jump). Suddenly the novel took on a whole new dimension for me, the photographs illustrating the more playful side of Halsman's nature, although there is often something haunting too about many of these photographs, just as those early events surrounding the death of his father must have haunted Philippe Halsman throughout his life.
All in all this is a book that rewards careful and attentive reading, to appreciate the careful way in which Ratner builds up his psychological portrait of Halsman and the way in which he uses moments of light relief to point up the darker aspects of his story, much as Halsman himself used light and shade to such great effect in his photographic portraits. I would just urge any prospective reader not already familiar with Halsman's work to spend time browsing through some of his many iconic pictures on the internet to be able to appreciate both the man's life and Ratner's novel to the full.