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 apparent. Except for his devotion to music, Claude goes through life like a Pip without many great expectations.
At the age of six, Claude discovers in the back room of the Manhattan tenement where he lives in poverty with Emma, his six- foot, three-hundred-pound taxi-driver mother, “up against the back wall, half buried under piles of books and sheet music, a small, white console piano with sixty-six keys and a mirror over the keyboard.” From that moment, Claude is absorbed by music. Not even the shocks of various personal crises—his first girlfriend, at fifteen, who jilts him, the discovery that he and his wife cannot have children, a painful divorce—produce any extended introspection. In so unabashedly romantic a novel as Body and Soul, the hero may age, but from the moment he renews the constancy of the piano keys, he remains fixated on the same ecstatic mood of his first recital (at fifteen): “launched… into a trance, like an infant at his mother’s breast or a true believer before the moment of communion.”
This is, as Will Blythe puts it in his capsule Esquire review, “a genuinely happy novel, in which virtue and fidelity are rewarded and joy made as plausible as divorce or nuclear meltdown… a book that in its form and aspiration owns a kind of Dickensian grandeur.”
Part 1—thirteen chapters, 246 pages—carries Claude into his sixteenth year and establishes the two most vital relationships of his life. The earliest, with his mother, is always mysterious, with Emma functioning as his minimal caretaker who lives a shadowy underground life from which he is excluded. While their two-room basement apartment, with its dual sound conductors—a tiny radio and, above all, the piano—fills the imaginative center of Claude’s life, it is for Emma only a place to cat-nap between taxi runs. Conroy, who in a brief afterword calls Body and Soul “to some extent a historical novel,” uses Emma less as Claude’s only blood family than as a reference for the era: 1945-1954, a time of suppressions of left-wing politics by government vigilante groups and of blacks just before civil rights were legislated. Emma Rawlings’ taxi is barely a cover for clandestine political activities (she is eventually arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and forced to inform on her Communist friends). She will become the lover of her son’s friend Al, a black maintenance man. The reader will not learn the identity of Claude’s father until near the end of the novel.
The out-of-wedlock mother’s desperate life cannot include more than an unknowing glimpse of the prodigy-in-the- making. That pleasure is deservedly reserved for Aaron Weisfeld, owner of a music store on Third Avenue. Claude finds in the piano bench a piece of sheet music for “Honeysuckle Rose.” Never shy about things that fuel him, he takes it to Weisfeld, who gives him a minirecital. “I have to learn how to do that, with the music,” Claude exclaims. Recognizing the youngster’s gift, Weisfeld agrees to teach him the basics. From then on, with Weisfeld’s help, Claude rises, though with none of the agonizing setbacks that are the usual lot of fictional artist- heroes, to the heady world of Aldo Frescobaldi (violin virtuoso) and other patrons on two continents.
Part 2, three chapters, seventy-five pages, moves Claude nearly five...
(The entire section is 1983 words.)