by Frank Conroy
"Musique, nourriture et femmes. Tels sont les grands plaisirs de la vie. Les plaisirs durables. Vous apprendrez cela, jeune moine.
- J'ajouterais les livres, fit Claude, quelque peu embarassé. Vous savez, de bons livres. - Bien entendu! Vous êtes un amateur de livres! C'est parfait. - Ils ne vous laissent pas tomber." * — Frank Conroy
This was Frank Conroy's debut novel, although he was already well-known for his brilliant memoir Stop-Time, Body and Soul is the exploration of the life of a child prodigy, raised in poverty and neglect but achieving fame and fortune through his incredible musical gift. The saga chronicles his struggles with himself, his environment, his family, his ambition, and ultimately with the talent that has given him everything. In part it is a bildungsroman and reminded me of favorites like Great Expectations and Of Human Bondage. It is, as Conroy himself put it, “a real old-fashioned novel—a big fat book with a lot of people and a lot of plot.” Body and Soul encompasses not only the hopes and dreams of its protagonist, but of readers who are Frank Conroy fans as well.
It tells the story of Claude Rawlings’ passage in life 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. Claude Rawlings, at six, is a voracious reader. He lives in the less nice part of the Upper East Side, and strikes up a friendship with Mr. Weisfeld, the owner of a music store on Third Avenue. Claude wants to learn how to play the piano. Mr. Weisfeld hands him a book of lessons for beginners. “Can you read?” Weisfeld asks. “Words, I mean.” “I can read. I read all the time,” Claude answers. “The newspaper. Sometimes she [his mother] brings home Life magazine or Reader’s Digest. I read books, too… . I could read when I was four.”
He introduces Claude to “the maestro,” a mysterious and rich man in a big apartment on Park Avenue, who allows Claude to practice on his fancy piano. Claude is spoken of as “the wunderkind.” After the maestro dies, leaving Claude his piano and enough money to cover lessons with the most brilliant piano teachers in the metropolitan area, Claude’s powers increase. He gains entry into an exclusive East Side prep school, where he gets to be pals with another genius, a British boy with a photographic memory.
Conroy parallels Claude’s professional growth with his spiritual growth. Claude uses his absorption in music to deaden the shock of personal crises. 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. It is a beautiful symphony of a novel that had me under its spell.
*"Music, food and women. These are the great pleasures of life. The lasting pleasures. You will learn this young monk.
- I would say the books, said Claude, somewhat puzzled. You know, good books.
- Of course! You are a book lover! That's perfect.
- They do not let you down. "
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