Body and Soul (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Frank Conroy’s first novel, published in his fifty- seventh year, harks back to a distinguished tradition in fiction: the “life” novel, the story of passage, the experience of a spiritual education. Body and Soul is an expansive novel that reconnects serious fiction to the Victorian chronicler of the painful but ultimately rewarding growing-up of David Copperfield, to the later breaking out of soul’s prison of Philip Carey in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915) and Paul Morel in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), down to the struggles to find a self that allows growth in the autobiographical American heroes of Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps even more than his English-language forebears, Conroy’s Claude Rawlings is fictional offspring of Jean Christophe, the composer genius of French novelist Romain Rolland’s early twentieth century novel cycle of that name.
Unlike Jean Christophe (1904-1912), which was published just before France and Germany went to war in 1914 and reflects the author’s high-minded notions about “heroes,” there is nothing lofty about Claude Rawlings’ rise to become a famous pianist. Except for his obsession to develop into virtuosity a talent whose origins are graphically traced, Claude is portrayed as persistently naive, almost ordinary. The workings of ego and narcissism, usually standard traits of the artist- hero, are nowhere...
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In Body and Soul, Frank Conroy, born in 1936, tells the story of Claude Rawlings, a boy who enters grade school during World War II. The novel progresses for twenty years until the mid-1960s. Thus, the author and his character grow up and enter adulthood in the same time period. Postwar America, full of confidence after victory, entered a time of enormous prosperity when anything seemed possible. The veterans of the war wanted to forget everything ugly they had just experienced and concentrate on building the family and country for which they had fought.
But the terms of the Allied agreement allowed Russia to build the Soviet Union through its occupation and subsequent rule of Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. The Iron Curtain came down and the Cold War began. Communism spread around the world into China, Africa, and Central and South America. The fear of communism resulted in American participation in the Korean War and in the maniacal hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Senator Joe McCarthy wielded great power as he searched for “a Commie under every bush” and ruined the careers of many in the arts and entertainment world who were suspected of being communist sympathizers. Conroy brings this element of the times into the novel through the involvement of Claude’s mother in Communist Party meetings and her participation in the effort to get a wellknown agent out of the country. Emma almost has a...
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As several critics have noted, Body and Soul is a bildungsroman, a novel of formation. According to M. H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms, the subject of a bildungsroman “is the development of the protagonist’s mind and character as he passes from childhood through varied experiences—and usually through a spiritual crisis—into maturity and the recognition of his identity and role in the world. . . . An important subtype of the bildungsroman is the Künstlerroman (“artist-novel”), which represents the development of a novelist or other artist into the stage of maturity in which he recognizes his artistic destiny and achieves mastery of his artistic craft.”
The subject of Body and Soul is the formation of Claude Rawlings as he passes from a six-yearold child through twenty years of varied experiences, including the crisis of the death of his teacher and father-figure, Aaron Weisfeld. Revived from his crippling grief by the strength of Weisfeld’s love, Claude emerges with a new direction. Although Weisfeld could not find the heart to return to his life as a composer after all his work was lost in his flight from Nazi Poland, Claude begins anew and wins the London Symphony competition. Through Claude, Weisfeld passed on his dreams, and Claude fulfills them by becoming a masterful composer. In the process, Claude realizes that his destiny lies solely in...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: This is the Big Band Era and swing music is all the rage.
1950s: The mellow sound of the crooners gives way to the rise of rock ’n’ roll with Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.
1960s: Pop and rock rule the music scene. Folk songs played at “hootenannies,” psychedelic rock, and the Motown sound have a phenomenal impact.
Today: Swing music makes a big comeback while America’s broadened, eclectic tastes make room for rap, country, rhythm and blues, jazz, and classical music all at the same time. Many stars of the 1950s and 1960s still perform in “classic” tours.
1940s: Segregation is practiced in most of the country. Except for the Tuskegee Airmen, blacks may work only in menial jobs in the armed services.
1950s: Desegregation begins in the schools, but any attempt at mixing the races is met with violent rejection.
1960s: The Civil Rights Bill passes in 1964, but racial intermarriage is still banned in nineteen states until a 1967 Supreme Court ruling declares miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
Today: All races have equal rights under the law, but only four percent of marriages are interracial.
1940s: Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union forces Stalin to join the Allies during WWII, which leads to the postwar takeover of Eastern Europe.
1950s: The Cold War ensues and...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the composer Schonberg and his twelve-tone system of composition. Discuss his impact on the history of music and future styles of composing.
Research the Nazi concentration camps of World War II and their impact on European Jews. Discuss the aftermath of the Holocaust on those who survived—where they went afterwards, how they rebuilt their lives, and how they coped with the tragedy.
Research the history of jazz and discuss its impact on American music. Who have been the most influential jazz musicians of the twentieth century? Who are the best jazz musicians playing today?
Investigate the McCarthy era of the 1950s and the House Un-American Activities Committee. What were the committee’s fears and goals? What was the impact on American society as a whole? How did it change our view of government and the political system?
Research the psychological impact of the relationship between mother and child. What happens to the child’s development when the mother is neglectful? How does it affect the child’s future behavior and ability to interact normally in social situations?
Research the Greek myth of Apollo, the god of music, then write and perform your own short play based on Apollo’s life and adventures.
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What Do I Read Next?
Frank Conroy has written only three books. Midair (1985) is a collection of eight short stories dealing with the same themes of growing up and appearances that Stop-Time and Body and Soul explore.
Claude Rawlings bears a striking resemblance to Pip in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860–61). Both rise from abject, lonely beginnings to positions of prominence. The objects of their desire, Estella and Catherine, are both aloof, almost cruel, patricians.
The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald, portrays an outsider who pursues and achieves great wealth to insinuate himself into society and get close to his obsession, Daisy Buchanan. This cautionary tale about the price of success is a good portrait of the 1920s Jazz Age.
Billy Bathgate (1989), by E. L. Doctorow, made into a feature film, tells of another New York City boy’s passage into manhood, but his mentor is a notorious mobster who teaches Billy about crime, love, life, and death in a 1930s decadent world that Billy comes to question.
Amadeus (1981), the play that became a musical and an Academy Award-winning movie, is Peter Shaffer’s interpretation of the life of a musical genius.
Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward (1867) is a story about a kind and helpful New York City boy who lived on the streets until he followed his dreams to success. This is the first of the many...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 3d ed., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, pp. 112–13.
Kauffmann, Stanley, Review of Body and Soul, in The New Republic, Vol. 209, No. 16, October 18, 1993, p. 47.
Olshan, Joseph, Review, in Harper’s Bazaar, October 1993, p. 130.
Review, Publisher’s Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 25, June 21, 1993, p. 82.
Steinberg, Sybil, Interview in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 34, August 23, 1993, p. 44.
For Further Study
Conroy, Frank, Stop-Time, Viking Press, 1967. The critics have noted that this stellar autobiography about Conroy’s youth and the storyline in Body and Soul are very similar.
Decker, Jeffrey Louis, Made in America: Self-Styled Success from Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey, University of Minnesota Press, 1997. The achievements of a number of entrepreneurs from a variety of fields are examined in terms of how race, gender, and ethnicity fit into the American Dream.
Kenneson, Claude, and Van Cliburn, Musical Prodigies: Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives, Amadeus Press, 1999. The journeys from early youth to fame of forty-four musical prodigies from the eighteenth century to the present are chronicled in this book by a noted cello teacher and one of the world’s most famous pianists.
Schoenberg, Arnold, ed., Fundamentals...
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