Body and Soul

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

BODY & SOUL marked a rare return in 1993 to the “life” novel which chronicles the growth from painful beginnings to fulfillment of an artist-hero. In the tradition of GREAT EXPECTATIONS and OF HUMAN BONDAGE, Frank Conroy tells the story of Claude Rawlings’ passage from the age of six, when he discovers an old console piano in the rear room of the Manhattan tenement he occupies with his 6-foot, 300-pound taxi-driving mother, to fulfillment as a piano virtuoso. This long novel opens in 1945, with the end of World War II, and concludes at some indeterminate point in the 1970’s, with Claude about to perform his first piano concerto in London.

Part 1 carries Claude into his sixteenth year and establishes the two most vital relationships of his adolescence. The earliest, with his mother Emma, is always mysterious. She functions as a minimal caretaker who lives a shadowy underground life. The out-of-wedlock mother’s desperate life allows her little awareness of the prodigy-in-the-making. That pleasure is deservedly reserved for Aaron Weisfeld, owner of a music store, who recognizes Claude’s promise. He becomes Claude’s first teacher, caring mentor, and father substitute.

Conroy parallels Claude’s professional growth with his spiritual. His absorption in music deadens the shock of personal crises—his first girlfriend, at fifteen, who jilts him; the discovery that he and his wife cannot have children; a painful divorce; his activist mother’s prosecution by Red-baiting vigilantes; the death of Weisfeld, who at the end reveals the fading of his own promise in the Holocaust.

BODY & SOUL is a genuinely happy novel, always upbeat, in which virtue and fidelity are rewarded. At the end, Claude is reunited with his first love, and the reader is given the clues to his birth.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. September 26, 1993, XIV, p.1.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 14, 1993, p.13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 19, 1993, p.3.

The Nation. CCLVII, October 25, 1993, p.471.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, October 3, 1993, p.7.

Newsweek. CXXII, September 27, 1993, p.74.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, June 21, 1993, p.82.

Time. CXLII, September 27, 1993, p.91.

The Wall Street Journal. October 6, 1993, p. A14.

The Washington Post. October 5, 1993, p. Dl.